FRIDAY was a holy day of obligation – that is, a day when the Church asks you to go to Mass – the feast of Ss Peter and Paul. For Catholics it’s important not only because Peter and Paul were the most important apostles, the founders after Christ in many ways of the Church itself, but because in the final years of their ministry and their martyrdom under the Emperor Nero they are indelibly linked to the city of Rome; and we see the pope as Bishop of Rome as the successor of St Peter. Therefore many churches, including our own, have a replica of Michelangelo’s massive statue of St Peter in the basilica in Rome which bears his name.
Catholics distinctively have certain beliefs about St Peter. On Friday you would have heard the gospel reading from Matthew 16 where Jesus tells the fisherman Simon whom he has nick-named Peter (‘rock’) that he will build his Church on this rock (that is, him); he also gives him ‘the keys of the kingdom of heaven’, the authority of binding and loosing members of the Church. We believe that this special authority isn’t something simply personal to Peter – it is passed on to his successors as bishops of Rome. So every pope since St Peter (for all of the faults of some of them) has this special gift to lead the Church, and the ‘power of the keys’ in relation to how the Church is governed. It is a celebration of the reality of Catholic unity throughout the world – in Rome itself it is marked usually by the pope creating new cardinals, as he has just done this year.
It’s an opportunity for all of us to associate ourselves in loyalty with the Holy Father’s universal ministry, to rejoice in identity as Roman Catholics. I know some of you who are not converts don’t like this term being used, aware that adding the word ‘Roman’ is often derogatory, but I think on or around the feast of Ss Peter and Paul it is fitting as a reminder of our identification with the man sometimes called in a derogatory tone (e.g. in Northern Ireland), ‘the pope of Rome.’ This is important because in the later stages of penal times (late 18th and early 19th centuries) many leading Catholics, particularly from the aristocracy were keen to minimise the pope’s role in the life of the small and fragile Catholic Church in this country (agreeing to deny in an oath his role in ‘temporal’ affairs, that is, politics) in order to be accepted and be allowed to play a full part in political life (at that time they couldn’t without denying in an oath Catholic teaching about the Mass). People, particularly those who thought they were entitled to help run the country, saw the pope as rather expendable; sometimes you wonder whether some Catholics still feel the same way, though they might not admit it.
On the Sunday nearest to the feast of Ss Peter and Paul the Church asks you to put your money where your mouth is. There is a worldwide special collection this weekend and this goes to support the international ministry of the Holy See, in particular its charitable and philanthropic work – special aid is given in the Holy Father’s name to dioceses and religious communities in particularly poor and needy parts of the world. In recent years Pope Francis has given special attention to helping refugees in different parts of the world – and the Church is the largest provider of support for refugees in the world after the UN. He has particularly challenged the nations of Europe and the rest of the world to show love and compassion, a call disregarded by the appalling people now running Hungary, Austria, Italy, the US and Poland: so when we give in the second collection this weekend we are associating ourselves in a small way with the pope’s prophetic ministry.
This collection has a special name in England, going back to when it was started in Anglo-Saxon England – Peter’s Pence. Yes, the idea of a special levy or collection to support the pope’s ministry started here in the 11th century, and it is now worldwide. By the late Middle Ages Peter’s Pence was not basically a second collection but a tax: and therefore when Henry VIII broke with the Church it was abolished by Parliament. In this country in particular the second collection is not simply a way of raising money but a sign of our Catholic identity, rooted in the history of this country and reminding us of the historically strong loyalty of Christians in England to the pope and his ministry.
The world needs Pope Francis’ teaching and prophetic ministry, his message of love for the poorest, more than ever in these dark times, when in so many places evil seems to be in the ascendant. So please give generously to Peter’s Pence to support his work.