Celebrating Peter and Paul


I imagine that many people will be surprised to arrive for Mass on Sunday and discover that the green vestments and hangings of Ordinary Time that have been in place for the last four weeks have been replaced by red.

That is because this Sunday is the 29th June and on that date the Church celebrates the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. As a solemnity, it 'outranks' a Sunday of Ordinary Time and so replaces the 13th Sunday of Ordinary Time that would normally be celebrated on this day. Because Peter and Paul are martyrs, the liturgical colour for their feast is red.

The solemnity of Peter and Paul is really the feast of the founding Fathers of the Church. Because it has such a long history, it is one of the few feasts that are celebrated on the same date in the Eastern and Western calendars. It is one of the ten holy days of obligation in the universal calendar from which local days of obligation are selected.

History shows that the feast was probably first celebrated in Rome in 258 and spread rapidly throughout the west, including Africa, as Augustine mentions it in several of his sermons. Many churches were built in honour of Peter and Paul in Italy, Spain, and Gaul, and later in Canterbury, England.

The high esteem given to this feast in Rome is shown by the fact that the Leonine Sacramentary from the 5th and 6th centuries contains no less than 28 formularies for the Mass. The pope celebrated twice: first in St Peter's Basilica and then at St Paul outside the walls. Both saints were honoured each time.

In the seventh century, the feast was divided over two days, June 29 for Peter and June 30 for Paul, but the revision of the calendar after the Second Vatican Council returned to the ancient tradition of one feast on 29 June.

Both Peter and Paul have secondary feasts in the liturgical calendar: the Conversion of St. Paul on January 25 and the Chair of Peter on February 22 (both have the rank of feast). The focus of the solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul is not on the individuals Peter and Paul but on the mission of Christ to the world.

Separate Mass texts and readings are provided for use at the vigil and on the day of the feast, but those of the day may be, and usually are, used at Saturday evening Mass.

The first reading from Acts tells the story of Peter’s escape from prison when an angel appears, unbinds him and leads him to safety. This theme is picked up in the responsorial psalm: “The angel of the Lord is encamped around those who revere him, to rescue them”.

The second reading is from Paul’s letter to Timothy, written while he too was in prison in Rome. Like Peter, Paul retains absolute faith in God in the face of persecution and suffering: “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom”.

Peter and Paul endured all things – even martyrdom – to proclaim Christ’s kingdom to all peoples:
Each in his chosen way gathered into unity
the one family of Christ.
Both shared a martyr's death
and are praised throughout the world.
(Preface of Peter and Paul, apostles)


Elizabeth Harrington