Dear Friends in Christ,
The city of Rome is famous for its seven hills, all of which are on the east side of the Tiber River. Not counted among those seven hills are two more that are on the west side of the Tiber: the Vatican Hill and the Janiculum Hill. The Pontifical North American College, my alma mater, is the Roman seminary of the Catholic bishops of the United States, and it sits near the top of the Janiculum Hill, providing a spectacular view both of St. Peter’s Basilica and of the ancient heart of the Eternal City. At their highest point above the City, the walls of the North American College are engraved with words painted red which tell of the place of Rome among Christians everywhere. In Latin, the inscription reads: O Roma felix quae duorum principum es consecrata glorioso sanguine, and in English these words mean: O happy Rome, you have been consecrated by the glorious blood of the two princes (of the Apostles). The princes in question, of course, are Saint Peter and Saint Paul.
Since the early third century, the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul has been kept in Rome each year on 29 June, and the holy lives and faith-filled deaths of both Apostles are celebrated in this single liturgical commemoration of their martyrdom. That is why today the Church’s altars and ministers are clothed in red as a sign of “the glorious blood of the two princes.” This solemnity is not the only remembrance of Peter and Paul in the liturgy; on 25 January we keep the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, and on 22 February we celebrate the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter. But on this day we remember them together as disciples of the Lord Jesus who gave their lives in witness to him and as Apostles who remained faithful to their vocations to teach, sanctify and govern the Church.
The fisherman from Galilee and the rabbi from Tarsus could not have been more unalike in their backgrounds, personalities and education. Simon was a rough and simple man who supported himself and his family by hard labor, and Saul was an intellectual given to deep study from his earliest years and who never married. But both of these men were called by the Lord Jesus to be his chosen instruments for the conversion of the world and the founding of his Church, and in their love for and faith in Christ, both men were changed and strengthened to spend their lives to the last drop of blood that others would know the truth of the Gospel and the beauty of the life of grace.
The Entrance Antiphon for this great feast sings of their courage, in the hope that we will follow their example: “These are the ones who, living in the flesh, planted the Church with their blood; they drank the chalice of the Lord and became the friends of God.”