peter and paul

Peter and Paul, the pillars of the Christian faith

Giacomo Pizzi1 July 2022

Peter and Paul, two pillars of Christian tradition and faith, are today venerated together by the Catholic Church. It is a choice full of meaning: the two men knew each other and tried together to start the then nascent Church on its first, uncertain steps. And, as is often the case in so many deep relationships, Peter and Paul seem to be very different from each other.

Peter and Paul: different charisms

Peter, contrasted and indecisive, even appears weak, from time to time: Antioch, threatened by the arrival of some Christians sent by Giacomo Minore, who thought differently from him, hides so as not to face them openly. Paul, on the other hand, is a fiery heart: after a stormy conversion he travels far and wide the Mediterranean Sea founding communities, opening up new perspectives for the Churches that were being formed, facing openly the authorities and public power.

Two profoundly different men, yet intimately united by the common effort to spread the faith among all peoples. The memory that the Acts of the Apostles leave us of what is commonly called the Council of Jerusalem is famous. In the presence of believers in Jesus, many of them of strict Jewish observance, Peter and Paul, together, speak passionately to convince everyone to preach the Gospel to the whole world, regardless of the nation and language to which they belong.

Peter of Capernaum

And yes, Peter certainly did not seem to be heading for a particularly eventful life. He was, like so many others, a simple fisherman from Galilee, who resided on the shores of Lake Tiberias, the largest basin in the area, probably in Capernaum.

It is here, within this small village as if huddled on the stony shores of Lake Galileo, that you can still admire the remains of a sanctuary known as ‘Peter’s house‘. Capernaum is today an open-air archaeological excavation, which beautifully preserves the foundations of the Roman age. At the center of this excavation, under the imposing bulk of a twentieth-century basilica (dedicated to St. Peter), some remains inform us about the history of a site that was the birthplace of the first pastor of the Church.

Peter’s House

An octagonal structure testifies to the fact that, since the Byzantine age, there was an intense cult activity on the site. And it must have been a particularly revered place, given the richness of the friezes that adorned it – still partially preserved – and the great value of the materials used for the construction. The church stood on the site of an ancient house, from the Roman era, which already by the fourth century housed graffiti that praised the “Lord” and “Christ“.

This fact is of extraordinary importance: a humble fishermen’s house became a significant center of worship within a few years of Jesus’ death. Why did this happen, if not for the fact that this site is precisely the one where Peter, the first guide of the Church, was born?

It was here, in Capernaum, which according to the Gospel of Luke Jesus called for the first time Peter to himself, making him become “fisher of men” (Lk 5:10); here in Capernaum Jesus lived beside his disciple for many years; and here, on the Lake Tiberias, a short distance from the village, the Risen again to call peter to love, who had locked himself in the bitterness of his betrayal.

Paul of Tarsus

As for Paul, we know that his birth was far from Roman Judea. Paul, or rather Saul, was a native of Tarsus, in Cilicia, a southern region of present-day Turkey. A young Jew, a promise of his community, he was sent to study in Jerusalem, at the school of Gamaliel, an influential rabbi of the Holy City. Paul, of fiery and combative temperament, soon began to distinguish himself for his skills as a fighter, and persecuted Christians in the Middle East with ferocity. From Jerusalem to the Syrian land, Paul was meditating on “threats and massacres” (Acts 9:1) against Jesus’ disciples, certainly achieving with ferocity his own goals of destruction.

Paul in Damascus

It was precisely on his way to Damascus, in the midst of a march against the Christians who resided there, that a “light from heaven” appeared to Saul (Acts 9:3), who, prostrating him on the ground, revealed to him that he was Jesus himself. Saul, who would become Paul, then began the arduous journey of a long and lasting conversion, which led him to cross lands and seas to spread the name of the Lord at every corner of the Earth, “that in the name of Jesus every knee may bend in heaven, on earth and under the earth” (Phil 1:10), as he himself will write to the community he founded near Philippi.

Today, in Damascus, the capital of Syria today, a shrine commemorates the event of this conversion of Paul. Above the altar, like an immense stone frame, a stretch of Roman pavement recalls the exact place where Paul would have been prostrated on the ground by the revelation of the Lord.

Two different stories, two different temperaments and, in part, two different sensibilities: this is what we read, in filigree, in the story of Peter and Paul. Yet, even in their distance, a single love united the two men to the Church that began to look, amazed, at the world around her. A single affection for that Jesus who, by different paths, had come to transform them, both, into ‘fishers of men‘ and ‘apostles of the nations‘.