Monday, June 29th, is the Solemnity of the Apostles Peter and Paul, the patronal feast of St. Peter’s Parish. The Church celebrates these two great Saints together on one day to signify their deep communion, despite their differences in personality and ministry. Paul, the Jewish scholar, was the Apostle to the Gentiles (non-Jews). Peter, the fisherman, was the leader of the community of disciples appointed by Jesus. Peter knew Jesus first-hand during his public ministry. Paul only encountered the Risen Jesus in a vision on the road to Damascus. As recorded in the Acts of the Apostles Peter and Paul were embroiled in the controversy over the acceptance of Gentile converts into the Church. Yet, according to tradition, both men were martyred in Rome for their faith in Christ.
That the Church honors Peter and Paul together signifies an important principle of the Catholic Faith: unity in diversity. Some have the mistaken impression that the Catholic Church is a monolithic institution when, in reality, there is great diversity within the Church. For instance, you and I belong to the “Roman” or “Latin” Rite – one of seven rites: Byzantine, Alexandrian, Syriac, Armenian, Maronite, and Chaldean. Each has its own particular liturgical and ecclesiastical expression, yet all are united under the Bishop of Rome. Their origins go back to the earliest days of the Church in places like Syria and Egypt.
Even among these seven “families” of the Catholic Church there are further variations. For example, within our own Latin Rite there exists the Ambrosian (Milan, Italy) and the Mozarabic (Spain) rites among others. In recent years we have seen the expansion of what is called the “Extraordinary Form” of the Mass, celebrated according to the rites prior to Vatican II, coexisting with the “Ordinary Form” celebrated in most parishes. Even the Ordinary Form of the Mass, as it has come to be known, allows for a degree of diversity according to local customs and pastoral need. Clearly, unity does not mean “uniformity.”
Perhaps a better way of understanding the mystery of the Catholic Church is to think of harmony in music. In a great symphony or large choir you have many different instruments/voices, sounding different notes, yet producing a marvelous harmonic sound. Take something away and the music suffers. What would an orchestra be without the strings? What would a choir without sopranos sound like? Similarly, all the various rites of the Church contribute to the “sound” the Faith makes in the world. Each has its own unique contribution to make so that the Church can fulfill its mission. As Vatican II declared, “The church, in Christ, is a sacrament – a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of the entire human race – … for the benefit of the faithful and of the entire world.” (Lumen Gentium, #1)
The Solemnity of Peter and Paul is an opportunity for us to celebrate the “unity in diversity” of the Church, represented by these two Apostles. It is a moment to celebrate the uniqueness of our parish family, but also to humbly realize we are but one instrument among many in the great symphony of the Church. Let us pray that each of us – like Peter and Paul – may contribute to the harmony of the Catholic Faith today and so be that “sign and instrument” of unity in our very divided world.