Thursday, June 26, 2014

Continuity and Reform

Solemnity of Ss Peter and Paul

I have often wondered why these two saints, Peter and Paul, were celebrated together. Were not each deserving of a special day of celebration, each in his own right? Both had certainly earned it. Who could say enough about these great preachers of our faith? Yet, the Church, in its wisdom, had deigned to celebrate the feast of their martyrdom on a single date. In a sermon in the year 395, St. Augustine of Hippo said of Sts. Peter and Paul: “There is one day for the passion of two apostles. But these two also were as one; although they suffered on different days, they were as one. Peter went first, Paul followed. We are celebrating a feast day, consecrated for us by the blood of the apostles. Let us love their faith, their lives, their labours, their sufferings, their confession of faith, their preaching.”

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who had a knack of drawing catechesis out of stone, had this to say about the juxtaposition of these two figures, standing as guardians at the Plaza of St Peter’s Basillica. “Christian tradition has always considered Saint Peter and Saint Paul to be inseparable: indeed, together, they represent the whole Gospel of Christ. In Rome, their bond as brothers in the faith came to acquire a particular significance. Indeed, the Christian community of this City considered them a kind of counterbalance to the mythical Romulus and Remus, the two brothers held to be the founders of Rome. A further parallel comes to mind, still on the theme of brothers: whereas the first biblical pair of brothers demonstrate the effects of sin, as Cain kills Abel, yet Peter and Paul, much as they differ from one another in human terms and notwithstanding the conflicts that arose in their relationship, illustrate a new way of being brothers, lived according to the Gospel, an authentic way made possible by the grace of Christ’s Gospel working within them. Only by following Jesus does one arrive at this new brotherhood ...”

The common feast day of the “twin” apostles, so to speak, brings a long biblical pattern to its final expression. Throughout the bible, one tradition seemed responsible for stability and continuity, the other for enrichment and expansion. The first conscientiously cared for flock and protected it from external threats; the second looked beyond the safe confines of the paddock. The first secured survival, the second made the survival worthwhile. The first pointed out the way to the final destination; the second enriched the stages along the way. Of course, Peter symbolises the first, Paul the second.

As we celebrate the martyrdom of these two apostolic princes, we can wrestle with what often appears to be factionalism and polarisation within the Church, between those who stand as guardians of Tradition and orthodoxy and those others who advocate for greater reform and progress. A clear example of this split can be seen in the manner of interpreting the significance of the Second Vatican Council and its implementation. The fifty years following the Council has been racked by differing theological opinions about the significance of this Council, but basically, whether this ecumenical Council had taken the path of St Paul to move beyond traditional confines symbolised by St Peter, or was the Council merely another stage in a continuous stream of renewal and reform over the centuries, articulating the eternal gospel in new ways without changing its content? Our last three pontiffs, Popes St John Paul II, Benedict XVI and recently Francis, teach that we must read the documents of the Second Vatican Council in the light a hermeneutics of continuity or renewal rather than one of rupture, in other words, that the teachings of Vatican II form a link and are in continuity with the teachings prior to the Council, rather than the latter having replaced and overridden the former. Pope Benedict XVI reminds us, “The Church both before and after the council is the same one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church journeying through time.”

The lessons of history, however, show us that the Church, always firmly rooted in Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, is reformed and always reforming. “Semper ecclesia reformanda” (“The Church is always reforming”), as Pope St. Gregory I the Great taught. Continuity and reform provide the correct map for the study and implementation of Vatican II.  Pope St John XXIII, who convened the Second Vatican Council, saw in the work of the Council a synthesis of faithfulness and dynamism in the spirit of Sts. Peter and Paul.

The essential complementariness of these two different apostolic personalities mirrors the two great Popes of our times, Pope Emeritus Benedict and Pope Francis. For the first time in a long time, there are two living Popes. Unfortunately, the secular media and certain quarters who advocate a hermeneutics of rupture often attempt to pit the style and focus of Pope Francis against his predecessor, Pope Benedict. Often, in heaping praises on the new pope, one tends to cast odium on his predecessors – Pope Francis, portrayed as a modern St Paul, is often depicted as undoing and correcting the regime of Pope Benedict, the more conservative St Peter. Ironically, most people who enjoy juxtaposing the popes fail to recognise that comparisons of their dress style or anything else for that matter is tripe & even unfair. What Francis does not intend, we may be sure, is that his actions and teachings are to be seen as contradicting his predecessors and their legacy. Francis himself has publicly paid tribute to the vast contributions of Pope Benedict and has also affirmed his support for the hermeneutics of continuity rather than discontinuity.

As we reflect on these issues, we can find a model in St Peter and St Paul for dealing with issues of continuity and renewal. Yes, Peter and Paul, two pillars of the Church, were different in personalities and had different vocations, yet they were united in one testimony: they gave their lives for the love of Jesus and the gospel. While Peter represents stability and continuity in the Christian community, Paul represents the missionary outlook of the Church. The Church at large, human society and each individual are a mixture of these two lines: one that cautiously seeks to be rooted, the other that acts excitedly across many barriers and/or boundaries; one that must ultimately take responsibility for all actions, the other that is always dreaming new visions. Rather than to see one in conflict the other, the examples of our two apostolic princes demonstrate that these paradigms can be and indeed are complementary. Thus reminding us that the Church is both universal and particular, ever ancient and ever new, unvaryingly pastoral and always missionary. Yes, the Church breathes not with a single lung but with two, one Peter, the other, Paul.

The appearance to us this day of both these luminaries together brightens the Church, for their meeting produces a wealth of light, not an eclipse. It is not the case that one has a higher orbit and is placed above, while the other is lower down and passes under his shadow: Nor does one rule the day, the other the night, such that one would overshadow the other if they appeared opposite each other. Rather, both share equally in Christ, the everlasting source of eternal light, and have attained to the same height, glory and radiance.

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