A little over 1500 years ago, Pope Leo the Great suggested in a sermon that the founding of the Roman Empire was a significant part of God's plan for mankind. He reasoned that "many kingdoms ... [were] confederated under one empire, so that the preaching of the Gospel would proceed quickly through the nations bound together by the rule of one City."1 Pope Leo mentioned that Rome had gotten off to a seemingly bad start with Romulous killing Remus; the one founding brother killing the other -- but, as we know, God can always draw good, even out of the most evil situations.
The existence of the Roman Empire brought about the connection of the farms and hamlets and cities of the ancient world in a way that had never been known before. The power of the Empire secured trade and communication all about the Mediterranean basin and beyond. It was into this Empire that Jesus Christ chose to be born, so that the message which originated in a stable in Bethlehem could be transmitted throughout the know world.
And it was to Rome, the center of this Empire, that God drew the Apostles Peter and Paul. Both were from the obscure culture of the Jews; both bore the message that to these chosen people of God, there had been sent the Savior of all mankind; that somehow, a religion from the backwaters of Palestine was to redeem the lands of the mighty Empire and beyond.
Peter was, by far, the more rustic. He began his career as a fisherman from Bethsaida in Galilee, at Capharnaum on the Sea that the Romans had named after Tiberias. His education could not have been very great, although it is reasonable to assume that he was able to read and write, for the Jews placed great emphasis on the ability of their men to read from the Hebrew scrolls of the Torah, the Law of Moses. He was the son of John (or Jona), who had probably been a fisherman before him. Together with his brother Andrew, and with James and John, the sons of Zebedee, he worked long hours on the Sea which flowed into the Jordan River.
Simon was his given name, really, with the name "Cephas," or "Rock" being given to him by our Lord at the beginning of his apostolate, and confirmed after some time as a disciple -- learning from Jesus, and being enlightened by His father in heaven, that He was "the Christ, the Son of the Living God," as we hear in today's Gospel.2 Peter in English comes from the same Greek root as our word "petrified" -- Peter would be the Rock upon which Jesus Christ would organize His Church, in order to continue His work after His Ascension into heaven. Even though Peter would deny Jesus in the courtyard of the High Priest -- and legend has it that he would try tto flee Rome at the height of the persecution -- God would give him the grace of final perseverance in preaching the Gospel. He would take the initiative in selecting a new Apostle to replace Judas.3 After the descent of the Holy Ghost on the feast of Pentecost, he would delivers the first public sermon and convert some 3,000 people to Christianity.4 He was the first of the Apostles to work a public miracle, when with John he went up into the temple and cured the lame man at the gate of the Temple.
Peter would preach the Gospel first at Jerusalem and Antioch, and would be accounted as the first bishop of the latter city. He would be the first of the Apostles to preach to Gentiles; the first to really understand that salvation was not just for the Jews, but to for the Greeks, and the Romans, and the Barbarians as well. He journeyed to Rome and had significant success in establishing the Church there. Historical details are a bit vague -- his arrival at Rome may have been as early as 40 AD -- we know that he consecrated several bishops in Rome, with Saint Linus (67-76 AD) generally being counted the first in the long line of Peter's successors as Popes and Bishops of Rome.
The generally accepted date of Peter's Martyrdom (together with Saint Paul who was beheaded on this same day) is on this date, June 29, AD 67. Peter spent his final days in the Mamertine Prison, a rock pit out of which no one emerged unless dead or to face a death sentence. He was condemned to die by crucifixion, and it is said that he was granted the request that he be crucified upside down, so as not to be confused with our Lord. The historian, Eusebius, quotes Clement of Alexandria to tell us that Peter's wife was martyred on the very same day in the persecutions with him -- they may have left a daughter, the young martyr known to us only as Saint Petronilla.5
I haven't said much about Saint Paul this morning, and to do him justice, I hope to do so next Sunday. For the moment, suffice it to say, that Paul is esteemed along with Peter as the great Apostle to the Gentiles, and a co-founder of the Church at Rome. He was beheaded on this day -- as a Roman citizen he was entitled to the much more merciful death by the sword instead of crucifixion.
If this has seemed more like a history lesson than a sermon, I would ask that you consider one thing about Saint Peter. He is perhaps one of the saints whom we can most profitably imitate in his holy behavior. Peter was a normal man, just as we are normal people -- the men and the women among us -- He did not come from an aristocratic or wealthy family, he couldn't have had much education, he had no special talents that we know of. He was a simple, hardworking man. The thing that made Peter great was that he cooperated with the graces given him by God. We may never play quite the role that Peter played in history, but certainly we would do well indeed to follow his example, allowing ourselves to be molded by God's grace for God's purposes.