- Summary: a Christian feast day commemorating the martyrdom of St Peter and St Paul
- 2020 Date: 29th June
- Celebrated by: Christians (especially Roman Catholics), the City of Rome
- Linked Holidays: Feast days of the Twelve Apostles
Background and Theological Significance
The Feast of SS Peter and Paul is an annual celebration in the Christian calendar of the lives and deaths of the two great saints: Peter and Paul. Commemorating the lives of important Christian saints and martyrs, and especially one of the Twelve Apostles or somebody who knew Jesus personally, has been an important aspect of Christian life ever since the first century CE. The joint feast day of SS Peter and Paul is of particular importance because of the enormous influence that these two men had on the development of the early Church.
St Peter, originally called Simon or Simeon, is often viewed as the leader of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ. According to the Gospels, Simon and his brother Andrew were fishermen on the Sea of Galilee before being called by Jesus to be his disciples. Jesus gave Simon the name ‘Cephas’ meaning ‘rock’, which in Greek is ‘Πέτρος’ or ‘Petrus’, hence the English name ‘Peter’. As one of the Twelve Apostles, Peter witnessed many of Jesus’ teachings and actions. He is portrayed in the New Testament as a bold but flawed follower, who, despite promising never to betray Jesus, denies him three times before the crucifixion. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, Peter journeyed far and wide to spread the news of the Gospel and appears to have been considered the leader of the Church. He founded the Church in Rome but was later put to death by the order of the Emperor Nero in about the year 65 CE. According to tradition, he was crucified upside-down because he did not feel worthy to die in the same manner as Christ. In Roman Catholic tradition, Peter is perceived as the first Pope, due to his primacy amongst the other apostles; and his founding of the Church in Rome established it as the centre of the worldwide Church.
St Paul, originally known as Saul, had a very different background to St Peter. Saul was a devout Jew and Pharisee from the city of Tarsus who was a great persecutor of Christians in the first years of the Church. However, he received a dramatic conversion experience on the road to Damascus and was subsequently baptised as a Christian. Saul, thereafter usually known by his Greek name Paul, travelled across the known world preaching to Jews and Gentiles alike about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. His influence on the early Church was incredible, and a significant proportion of the New Testament is composed of his writings (or writings attributed to him). According to tradition, Paul was executed in Rome during the reign of the Emperor Nero, probably in the year 68 CE. As a Roman citizen, he was executed by beheading rather than the more brutal method of crucifixion. Although he never met Jesus Christ physically, Paul’s influence on the evolution of Christianity cannot be overstated.
The Feast Day of SS Peter and Paul commemorates these two giants of the early Church, who shared much of their ministry together in Rome. The reason for the annual date of 29th June is unclear and may refer either to one or both of their martyrdoms, or the translation of their relics. In a sermon by St Augustine of Hippo in the fourth-century CE he states, “both apostles share the same feast day, for these two were one; and even though they suffered on different days, they were as one. Peter went first, and Paul followed. And so, we celebrate this day made holy for us by the apostles’ blood.”
The two figures of Peter and Paul are amongst the most important in the history of the Christian faith. Paul’s influence is primarily through scripture, as his epistles form the bulk of the later parts of the New Testament. Peter’s influence is of a more ecclesiastical nature. In the New Testament, Jesus is recorded as telling Peter, “you are Peter, and, on this Rock, I will build my Church” (Matthew 16:18), which is interpreted as a sign that Peter is the leader of the Christian Church, with primacy over the other apostles. For Roman Catholics, this is the scriptural backing for the belief that the Pope, who as Bishop of Rome is the direct successor of Peter, is the head of the worldwide Church. Christians from other traditions disagree with this interpretation, but many still recognise the Church in Rome to be the successor of the Church founded by Peter, and as such worthy of respect due to its ancient lineage.
The Feast Days of St Peter and St Paul have been celebrated on the same day since the time of the early Church and is now usually referred to as the Feast Day of SS Peter and Paul. As these two figures are central to the establishment of the Church in Rome, their feast day is of especial importance to the Roman Catholic Church, which considered the festival to be one of its most important celebrations.
The Roman Catholic Church considers the Feast of SS Peter and Paul to be a solemnity and a holy day of obligation (meaning that the faithful must attend Mass on that day). It is observed as a public holiday in Rome due to SS Peter and Paul being patron saints of the city. On the 29th June every year, a statue of St Peter in St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican is ritually adorned with vestments and a papal tiara to celebrate the Apostle as the ‘Rock’ of the Church.
Eastern Orthodox Christians often celebrate the Feast on 12th July in the Gregorian calendar, which is the 29th June according to the old Julian calendar. It marks the end of the Apostles’ Fast and is a day when the faithful are recommended (although not required) to attend the Divine Liturgy.
The Feast of SS Peter and Paul celebrates two of the most important apostles in the Christian Church. It is a time for Christians to consider the history of their theological tradition and to celebrate figures who, despite their flaws, committed themselves to the search for truth and faith.
‘Sts Peter and Paul‘ by El Greco is in the Public Domain