by Matthew Betts
Pentecost is seen as the birth or beginning of the Church. In the Gospel of Saint Luke, the images of fire and wind sweeping through the place where the disciples gather bring to mind someone cleaning or sweeping out a room! The action of the Spirit is to 'create, to inspire, to bring life, to jolt, to stir up'. The birth of the Church implies a new creative force in the world and a new perspective on reality. Saint Jude was a part of this new creative force, so what happened to the Apostles after Pentecost?
The Apostles went far and wide as messengers for God and the risen Christ. Many of them suffered greatly for their mission. Over the next twelve weeks, let’s see what we can find out…
The New Testament makes it very clear that Peter was preeminent amongst the twelve. When Jesus met Peter, he was given this name (or Cephas) which meant ‘rock’. Jesus later explained the meaning: “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” – Matthew 16:18
One of the final times that we read about Peter in the New Testament is after King Herod Agrippa has killed Peter’s fellow Apostle, James. King Herod Agrippa “saw how much [the death of James] pleased the people, he also arrested Peter.” Before Peter went on trial, he was fastened with two chains and kept between two soldiers, whilst other guards stood outside the prison gate. However: suddenly, there was a bright light in the cell, and an angel of the Lord stood before Peter. The angel struck him on the side to awaken him and said, “Quick! Get up!” and the chains fell off his wrists. Then the angel told him, “Get dressed and put on your sandals.” And he did. “Now put on your coat and follow me,” the angel ordered.
Peter assumed his escape was just a nice vision, but when the angel led him to outside the gates, he realised it was all quite real. He headed immediately to a home where members of the community were praying. At first, no one could quite believe it was him, but eventually they accepted Peter had escaped. A bit later, Herod Agrippa was struck down “with worms and died.” Meanwhile “...the word of God continued to spread, and there were many new believers…”
After this, Peter travelled to Rome to spread the Good News. In many ways, Rome was the place to be – it was the heart of the Roman Empire, and it was the seat of the Emperor Nero. According to Ignatius of Antioch (who Peter is said to have ordained), Peter founded a Christian community here and established the episcopal succession (which the Pope is a successor of). However, the Roman historian Tacitus later describes the persecution of Christians in his Annals: “Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.” It is therefore assumed that this is when Peter (and Paul) were killed.
It is said that Saint Peter and Saint Paul suffered martyrdom on the same day and were led together until they were separated: Peter for Nero’s Circus; Paul for the Salvian Springs. They did not say goodbye, instead Peter said: “Go in peace, Preacher of glad tidings, Guide of the Just in Salvation”; Paul replied: “Peace be with you, Foundation of the Church, Shepherd of the flock of Christ”.
Peter was executed by crucifixion with his head pointed downward.
It was Christian tradition to bury the martyred person near where they had been executed, so it is likely that this is where Peter was buried.
Pope Clement I (d. 99), in his Letter to the Corinthians (Chapter 5), written c. 80–98, speaks of Peter's martyrdom in the following terms: "Let us take the noble examples of our own generation. Through jealousy and envy the greatest and most just pillars of the Church were persecuted and came even unto death…Peter, through unjust envy, endured not one or two but many labours, and at last, having delivered his testimony, departed unto the place of glory due to him."
In 1939, the burial chambers of Peter were uncovered for Pope Pius XI and an archaeological excavation began. In 1942 remains were found by the Administrator of Saint Peter's, but he secretly ordered these remains to be stored elsewhere. It wasn't until his death that these relics were discovered again by chance and Pope Paul VI was informed. On 26 June 1968, Pope Paul VI declared that the relics of Saint Peter had been found because there had been some nearby graffiti of Peter’s name saying that he was buried there. On 24 November 2013, some of these relics were displayed to the public after Pope Francis celebrated the closing of the 'Year of Faith' Mass.
Representations of Peter depict him as an oldish, thick-set man with a short beard, and usually white hair, sometimes balding (but not completely bald like Saint Paul) - as pictured below. His visual emblems are Keys of Heaven, Red Martyr, pallium, papal vestments, rooster, man crucified upside down, vested as an Apostle, holding a book or scroll and a Cross of Saint Peter. He often appears with Paul or the other Twelve Apostles (with Matthias displaced, like at the Shrine of Saint Jude).
His Feast Day is on 29 June alongside Paul.
Let us pray…
O Glorious Saint Peter, because of your vibrant and generous faith, sincere humility and flaming love, our Lord honoured you with singular privileges and especially leadership of the whole Church. Obtain for us the grace of a living faith, a sincere loyalty to the Church, acceptance of all her teachings, and obedience to all her precepts. Let us thus enjoy an undisturbed peace on earth and everlasting happiness in heaven.
Why not find out more about Saint Peter and the other Apostles? I would recommend you read or look at some of these items:
- Tomb of Saint Peter
- Saint Peter - Vatican website
- In the Steps of St. Paul - HV Morton
- A New Hope: God in the Time of COVID-19: Book II
- Saint Peter prayer cards and medals
Read our other reflections on the Apostles:
- The Apostles - what happened after the Pentecost?