Homily — Ss. Peter and Paul June 29, 2008

Homily — Ss. Peter and Paul                 June 29, 2008

Since ancient times, the Church has celebrated the Martyrdom of the Apostles Peter and Paul together on this date.  This year however, St. Peter will be taking somewhat of a back seat as the Church begins a Holy Year in honor of the 2000th anniversary of the Birth of St. Paul.

And many people this year will be taking pilgrimages to the tomb of St. Paul just outside of Rome.   But probably with the price of gas being what it is, and with the dollar pretty weak against the Euro, perhaps most of us here today won’t be able to make such a pilgrimage, as much as we would want to.

Let us, then, on this Solemn Opening Day of the Pauline Year, make a pilgrimage in Spirit to the tomb of St. Paul, and pay homage to the Holy Relics of this great Apostle.   St. Paul is buried in the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, which was originally built by the emperor Constantine in the early 300’s.  The emperor built the Basilica over a small chapel which dates back at least to the year 200, located several miles outside the walls of Rome alongside the ancient highway connecting Rome with the city of Ostia.  Archaeologists are very certain that this really is the place where St. Paul was buried;  I’ll tell you why a little later.
I’ve had the good fortune to have visited the Basilica five years ago.  And what I remember was that over the main entrance to it was carved into the stone in big letters the inscription “Ave Spes Unica” a verse from a very famous Latin Hymn:  “Hail Cross, Our Only Hope”

I remember thinking, how fitting to have that over the front entrance to the burial place of the man who said in Galatians 6:14 God forbid that I should boast except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.   And in 1 Cor 1:21 The Jews demand signs and the Greeks wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and absurdity to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jew and Greek alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.   And in 1 Cor 2:2 said I resolved to know nothing except Christ and Him Crucified.  May this Pauline Year help us to embrace and even glory in the Cross as St. Paul did.

From the main entrance, one walks into the outdoor Courtyard.  Unlike the overwhelmingly imposing St. Peter’s Square in Rome, the square in front of St. Paul’s is intimate and prayerful, decked with palm trees, and lots of grass, almost like a little park.  In the middle of the courtyard is a statue of St. Paul with a hood over his head and a sword in his hand;  The sword not only a reminder of Paul’s martyrdom by beheading, but also of the Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God, sharper than any two edged sword, which Paul says is our greatest weapon in the good fight of faith, a fight not against human beings but against the principalities and powers of darkness.

As we enter the enormous Church, our eyes must take a minute or so to adjust to the very dim natural lighting.  This is because all the windows in St. Paul’s Basilica aren’t made of glass, but rather are thinly cut sheets of brownish colored alabaster donated by the King of Egypt about 100 years ago.  One is reminded of St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians 13:12:  We see now (on earth as) through a glass in a dark manner, but then (in Heaven) we shall see God face to face; and 2 Cor. 5:7: We walk by faith, not by sight.

Once our eyes have adjusted, the first thing that stands out is the Paschal Candle.  Our paschal candle over here is about 5 feet high.  At St. Paul’s Basilica, the paschal candle stand alone is over 16 feet high!   (I’d like to see the size of the Deacon who has to raise the candle and says “Christ our Light!” on Easter Vigil!)

Certainly this giant Easter Candle is fitting for the Church of the man who in 1 Cor. 15 said If Christ is not raised, empty is our preaching, empty is your faith, (and) . . . .we Christians are the most pitiable people of all.  But Christ has been raised from the dead, the  firstfruits of all who have fallen asleep.   And in Eph. 2:5, when we were dead in sin, God brought us to life and raised us up with Him . . . .that He might show (us) . . . .the immeasurable riches of His grace . . . .in Christ Jesus.

In our touring of the various side chapels in the Basilica, we come across the chapel where St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis Xavier and the other first members of the Society of Jesus took their first vows, giving birth to the Jesuit order.   One is reminded not only of the great Jesuit missionaries to India and the Americas, but of the greatest of missionaries, Paul himself, who became all things to all men that He might save some, and who said the Love of Christ urges me on;  Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!

And finally, we make our way to the high altar, underneath which, the mortal remains of St. Paul of Tarsus have lain for over 1900 centuries.  In 2006, archaeologists were permitted to excavate under the high altar, and they found what tradition told them they would find:  a sarcophogous dating from the 4th century, with the words “To Paul, Apostle and Martyr” written on the top of it, and a hole in the marble that was mortared up, which was used to lower cloths into it to touch the bones.  (The archaeologists haven’t got permission from the Vatican yet to open the coffin, maybe they will during this Year of St. Paul!)

Kneeling before the tomb of the man who under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit wrote over 1/3 of the New Testament, before this man who gladly spent himself so fully for Christ, who in the years immediately following Our Lord’s Resurrection was shipwrecked three times, scourged five times, stoned to the point of death, beaten with rods three times, imprisoned countless times, and finally killed all so that people like you and me might come to know the Gospel, we can’t but be reminded how wonderfully real our faith is, how it is not some myth or legend, but the most powerful life changing thing on earth.

May this Year of St. Paul be one of coming to know more and more the life and writings of this great Apostle, so that in turn we may come to a deeper knowledge and experience of the saving power of Jesus Christ in our lives.

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