Next Thursday’s feast of Saints Peter and Paul takes us back to the earliest days of the Church. The roles of Peter and Paul point to a polarity inherent in the Church. That is why these saints are linked together on their feast day. We know that Peter and Paul of did not always see eye to eye. St. Paul tells us that he rebuked St. Peter to his face because of Peter’s insistence on the keeping of Jewish ritual practices. This disagreement may seem disconcerting. Surely Paul should not be rebuking the first Pope, appointed by Christ during his ministry on Earth? In fact, it is in the very nature of the Catholic Church that it contains a polarity. It has both an “institutional” and a “charismatic” pole.
The institution is shown in hierarchy and authority: the papacy, the bishops, priests and deacons, the Vatican officials, the dioceses, etc. This is embodied in St. Peter.
The charismatic pole, exemplified by St. Paul, is shown in figures like St. Benedict, St. Francis of Assisi, Mother Theresa, and indeed, all the special spiritual qualities -“charisms” - of the orders of monks, nuns, friars etc., as well as societies like that of St. Vincent de Paul, and the new movements. These both complement the work of the hierarchy and also sometimes challenge them, especially when the charism is embodied in a new order or movement. Pope Francis has made it quite clear that we must respond Christ’s love with a free spirit.
Inevitably, because we are human, there is often a tension between these two aspects. Sometimes the institutional side seems humdrum and mediocre and may appear to stifle the work of the Holy Spirit. Yet without the structure of the hierarchy the work of “free spirits” like St Benedict or St. Francis of Assisi would not be able to find permanent expression in the Church.
Sometimes Catholics ask why we need the diocesan and parish bureaucracy, not to say all those highly-qualified people, so may of them bishops and priests, working at the Vatican. On the other hand others ask why we need the new movements or itinerant speakers stirring things up. Why not leave it to the Pope, bishops and priests?
We need both - Peter and Paul.
Yours in Christ,