ADDRESS AT CONFERRAL OF PAPAL AWARDS
Chapter Hall, Sydney, 18 November 2022
In the liturgical calendar, today is the memorial of the dedication of two churches: the Basilicas of St Peter in the Vatican and of St Paul also outside the Aurelian walls. Why, we might wonder, do we have another feast of Peter and Paul in a calendar already overloaded with the feasts of the Conversion of St Paul on 25 January, the Chair of St Peter on 22 February, and St Peter and Paul on 29 June? It is understandable that Peter and Paul are celebrated both separately and together: as St Augustine observed “these two were as one” in professing the same faith and being willing to die for it (Sermon 295, 1-2) or, as St Leo the Great put it, they were “twin lights of the eyes in Christ’s Body” the Church (Sermon 82, 8). But given the importance of the mid-year feast, which marks the traditional date of their martyrdoms, why another lesser celebration toward year’s end?
Well, if the feasts of the Chair of Peter and Conversion of Paul celebrate the crucial apostolates of the hierarchy and the missionaries; if their June solemnity acknowledges their joint witness to the apostolic tradition even unto death; then today’s feast focusses our attention on their particular connection to Rome. Pope Benedict once suggested that the incarnation took place when and where it did precisely because it was at the intersection of ancient Greek philosophy, ancient Jewish spirituality, and ancient Roman communications, and all three were required if Christianity was to be understood and spread. Roman communications depended, of course, on an extraordinary network of roads, all of which were said to lead to Rome. So it was to the heart of the empire that Peter went to preach and lead the first Christians and Paul went to plead his case in the Roman courts. There they were ultimately executed, the one by upside-down crucifixion, the other by beheading. If the brothers Romulus and Remus were the official founders of pagan Rome, the apostles Peter and Paul were its official refounders as a Christian city; the lives of the first sparked the greatest empire the world had yet seen; the deaths of the second a new spiritual movement that would end up the most global and populous ever known.
Mad emperor Nero and his cronies had seen to the deaths of Peter and Paul. But after several more waves of persecution the Church spread all over the empire and the first Christian emperor, Constantine, ordered the first St Peter’s (c.318) built over the tomb of Peter and the first St Paul’s (c.324) built over the tomb of Paul. For centuries the two were connected by a kilometres-long roofed colonnade weaving through the city streets to allow pilgrims to go from one basilica to the other. Old St Peter’s was also for 1200 years the place for popes and emperors to be crowned and for barbarians, Saracens and others to sack. But it fell into ruin when the papacy decamped to Avignon and once the popes returned the new Renaissance aesthetic demanded something new. Meanwhile Old St Paul’s stumbled along for 1435 years until a workman repairing the copper roof gutters started a fire that led to its near-total destruction in 1823.
New St Peter’s (1506-1626) and new St Paul’s both took more than a century to complete. The former is today the most recognisable church in the world. Whether it was the old basilicas or the new, their sheer scale and beauty mesmerised millions of pilgrims down the centuries, and their connection with the princes of the apostles and their successors made them especially important spiritually. When it became customary for the bishops of each nation to make a five-yearly pilgrimage to Rome to meet the Pope—known as their Ad Limina apostolorum—they were expected to offer Mass at both St Peter’s and St Paul’s.
Which is all very interesting, but what’s it got to do with those we honour this morning? Well, for all its glory, a papal basilica is the fruit of millions of individual pieces of design, material and labour, placed by dedicated individuals in honour of something greater than themselves, and maintained, added to and beautified by subsequent generations with their own inspiration, gifts and materials. If that is true of the physical church of Rome it is all the more so of the spiritual Church that is God’s kingdom. It is the conscious efforts of those living out the Gospel in daily lives of faith, hope and love, that build up Christ’s mystical body, the Church. It’s often as anonymous as much of the work on the basilicas; it’s often the result not just of individual inspiration but of a team effort with many others; and it is done not for gain or fame but simply out of love for God and neighbour. But what makes these buildings papal basilicas, and these spiritual projects truly Catholic ones, is their connection to Sts Peter and Paul—the apostolic tradition and the Vicar of Christ.
Today, we’ve heard tell of selfless acts of service that ten of our relatives, friends and colleagues—all of them spiritual architects or designers, craftsmen or builders’ labourers—have carried out in building up God’s kingdom. Their diverse talents have been generously applied to education, philanthropy, finance, health, governance, evangelisation, catechesis, formation or charitable works. And as a delightful testament to the graces of matrimony, we have three married couples amongst them. Each believes they were only doing what good servants of God and humanity would do; and that there are many others as much or more deserving. Yet in honouring them the Holy Father and the Church of Sydney signals its praise for the work done and invites others to do likewise: it is, you might say, as much for the sake of others and what they might yet do, as it is for these ten and what they have already done.
As mesmerising as the papal basilicas are, this morning we take delight in the beauty of the Church built up by ten spiritual Michelangelos here in Sydney. I commend the recipients of this morning’s awards, their families, and friends and join the Holy Father, who has issued these honours from the heart of the Basilicas of St Peter and St Paul, in offering my heartfelt congratulations and gratitude for your service. Thank you! Thanks be to God!