Gerard O’ConnellJune 29, 2021
Pope Francis walks next to Orthodox Metropolitan Emmanuel of France, left, and Archbishop Polykarpos Stavropoulos of Italy, right, after visiting the statue of St. Peter at the conclusion of Mass on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican June 29, 2021. A delegation from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople was present at the Mass in keeping with a long tradition. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

“Only a free church is a credible church,” Pope Francis declared in his homily on June 29, the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, “two great Apostles of the Gospel and two pillars of the church,” which is a holiday not only in the Vatican but also in the city of Rome, where the two saints are co-patrons.

Focusing on this concept of “freedom” in his homily, the pope emphasized the importance for the church’s credibility that its pastors be free like Peter “from fear, from calculations based solely on worldly concerns” and free like Paul “from slavery to self” and “from formal religious observance and the intransigent defense of tradition.”

“Peter and Paul were free because they were set free,” he said. He emphasized that “at the heart of their story is not their own gifts and abilities but the encounter with Christ that changed their lives. They experienced a love that healed them and set them free. They then became apostles and ministers of freedom for others.”

Pope Francis concelebrated the solemn Mass with 37 cardinals, including Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago who is leading an evaluation of the Vatican dicastery for integral human development, and 34 bishops. All wore red vestments in memory of the two apostles who died as martyrs in Rome.

“Only a free church is a credible church,” Pope Francis declared in his homily on June 29, the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, “two great Apostles of the Gospel and two pillars of the church.”

He recalled that Peter, a fisherman from Galilee, “was set free above all from his sense of inadequacy and his bitter experience of failure, thanks to the unconditional love of Jesus.” Peter had “tasted the bitterness of frustration at having caught nothing and, seeing his empty nets, was tempted to pull up his oars.” Moreover, though he was “strong and impetuous,” Peter “often yielded to fear.” Although he was “a fervent disciple of the Lord, he continued to think by worldly standards and thus failed to understand and accept the meaning of Christ’s cross.”

“Even after saying that he was ready to give his life for Jesus,” the pope said of Peter, “the mere suspicion that he was one of Christ’s disciples led him in fright to deny the Master.”

Francis, the 266th successor of Peter, recalled that “Jesus nonetheless loved Peter and was willing to take a risk on him.” He said Jesus “encouraged Peter not to give up, to lower his nets once more, to walk on water, to find the strength to accept his own frailty, to follow him on the way of the cross, to give his life for his brothers and sisters, to shepherd his flock.”

In this way, he said, “Jesus set Peter free from fear, from calculations based solely on worldly concerns. He gave him the courage to risk everything and the joy of becoming a fisher of men.”

Furthermore, Jesus called Peter “to strengthen his brothers in faith. He gave him—as we heard in the Gospel—the keys to open the doors leading to an encounter with the Lord and the power to bind and loose: to bind his brothers and sisters to Christ and to loosen the knots and chains in their lives.”

Peter was able to do all this because he “had been set free” by Jesus, the pope stated. He recalled that the Acts of the Apostles tells us how the Lord freed Peter from prison. “Here we see a new history of opening, liberation, broken chains, exodus from the house of bondage,” Francis said. “Peter had a Passover experience: The Lord set him free.”

Pope Francis recalled that “the Apostle Paul also experienced the freedom brought by Christ. He was set free from the most oppressive form of slavery, which is slavery to self. From Saul, the name of the first king of Israel, he became Paul, which means ‘small.’”

“Peter and Paul had a Passover experience: The Lord set them free.”

He said Paul “was also set free from the religious fervor that had made him a zealous defender of his ancestral traditions and a cruel persecutor of Christians. And from formal religious observance and the intransigent defense of tradition, which rather than making him open to the love of God and of his brothers and sisters, had hardened him. He was a fundamentalist.”

“God set him free from this,” Francis said, but “he did not spare him the frailties and hardships that rendered his mission of evangelization more fruitful: the strain of the apostolate, physical infirmity, violence and persecution, shipwreck, hunger and thirst and, as he himself tells us, a painful thorn in the flesh.”

He said, “Paul thus came to realize that ‘God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong,’ that we can do all things through him who strengthens us, and that nothing can ever separate us from his love’ (cf. Rom 8:35-39).” For this reason, the pope said, “at the end of his life Paul was able to say: ‘The Lord stood by me,’ and ‘he will rescue me from every evil attack.’ Paul had a Passover experience: The Lord set him free.”

Addressing the cardinals, the bishops, the one thousand faithful in the basilica—all wearing masks and respecting social distance—and a much larger global audience following virtually, Pope Francis said, “the church looks to these two giants of faith and sees two Apostles who set free the power of the Gospel in our world, only because first they themselves had been set free by their encounter with Christ.”

Paul “was also set free from the religious fervor that had made him a zealous defender of his ancestral traditions and a cruel persecutor of Christians.

“Jesus did not judge them or humiliate them,” the pope said. “Instead, he shared their life with affection and closeness. He supported them by his prayer, and even at times reproached them to make them change.” He said Jesus “does the same with us: He assures us of his closeness by praying and interceding for us before the Father and gently reproaching us whenever we go astray, so that we can find the strength to arise and resume the journey.” Thus, “we, too, have been touched by the Lord; we, too, have been set free.”

Francis emphasized however that “we need to be set free time and time again, for only a free church is a credible church.”

In his homily the pope told the pastors of the church, bishops and priests alike: “Like Peter, we are called to be set free from a sense of failure before our occasionally disastrous fishing. To be set free from the fear that paralyzes us, makes us seek refuge in our own securities and robs us of the courage of prophecy.”

Like Paul, he said, “we are called to be set free from hypocritical outward show, free from the temptation to present ourselves with worldly power rather than with the weakness that makes space for God, free from a religiosity that makes us rigid and inflexible; free from dubious associations with power and from the fear of being misunderstood and attacked.”

“It is in giving his life that the shepherd, himself set free, becomes a means of bringing freedom to his brothers and sisters.”

Pope Francis said, “Peter and Paul bequeath to us the image of a church entrusted to our hands, yet a church guided by the Lord with fidelity and tender love. A church that is weak, yet finds strength in the presence of God. A church set free and capable of offering the world the freedom that the world by itself cannot give: freedom from sin and death, from resignation and from the sense of injustice and the loss of hope that dehumanizes the lives of the women and men of our time.”

Aware that freedom is being increasingly restricted in many countries across the globe today, Pope Francis said: “Let us ask: To what extent do our cities, our societies and our world need freedom? How many chains must be shattered and how many doors long shut must be opened!” As a church, he said, “We can help bring this freedom, but only if we first let ourselves be set free by the newness of Jesus and walk in the freedom of the Holy Spirit.”

At the beginning of Mass, he blessed the palliums that will be given to 12 new metropolitan archbishops from seven countries in their home dioceses in the coming months. As he concluded his homily, he explained that the pallium is a “sign of unity with Peter,” which “recalls the mission of the shepherd who gives his life for the flock.”

“It is in giving his life that the shepherd, himself set free, becomes a means of bringing freedom to his brothers and sisters,” the pope said.

Concluding his homily, he greeted the delegation from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, led by Metropolitan Emmanuel Adamakis. He thanked them for their “welcome presence” and said “it is a precious sign of unity on our journey of freedom from the distances that scandalously separate believers in Christ.”

Francis ended his homily with a prayer: “We pray for you, for all pastors, for the church and for all of us that, set free by Christ, we may be apostles of freedom throughout the world.”

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