Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Peter, Prince of the Apostles

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Saint Peter, the most glorious prince of the apostles, and the most ardent lover of his divine Master, before his vocation to the apostleship was called Simon. He was son of Jonas, and brother of Saint Andrew. Saint Epiphanius says, that though he was the younger brother, he was made by Christ the chief of all the apostles. Saint Chrysostom, on the contrary, takes him to have been the elder brother, and the oldest man in the apostolic college. If writers of the fifth age were divided upon this point, succeeding ages have not been able to decide it. Saint Peter originally resided at Bethsaida, a town much enlarged and beautified by Herod the tetrarch, situated in the tribe of Nepthali, in Upper Galilee, on the banks of the lake or sea of Genesareth. This town was honoured with the presence of our Lord, who, in the course of his ministry, preached and wrought miracles in it. Its inhabitants, however, were for the most part a stupid and obstinate set of men, and their abuse of the grace that was offered them, deserved the dreadful woe which Christ denounced against them. Saint Peter and Saint Andrew were religious, docile, and humble in the midst of a perverse and worldly-minded people. They were educated in the laborious trade of fishing, which was probably their father’s calling. From Bethsaida Saint Peter removed to Capharnaum, probably on account of his marriage, for his wife’s mother dwelt there. This place was equally commodious for fishing, being seated on the bank of the same lake, near the mouth of the river Jordan, on the confines of the tribes of Zabulon and Nepthali. Andrew accompanied his brother thither, and they still followed their trade as before. With their worldly employment they retained a due sense of religion, and did not suffer the thoughts of temporal concerns or gain to devour their more necessary attention to spiritual things, and the care of their souls. They lived in the earnest expectation of the Messiah. Saint Andrew became a disciple of Saint John the Baptist; and most are of opinion that Saint Peter was so too. The former having heard Saint John call Christ the Lamb of God, repaired to our Lord, and continued with him the remainder of that day, and, according to Saint Austin, the following night. By the conversation of Jesus, he was abundantly convinced that he was the Christ, the world’s Redeemer; and, coming from him, he went and sought out his brother Simon, and told him, in a transport of holy joy, that he had found the Messiah. Simon believed in Christ before he saw him; and being impatient to behold him with his eyes, and to hear the words of eternal life from his divine mouth, he without delay went with his brother to Jesus, who, looking upon him, in order to give him a proof of his omniscience, told him not only his own, but also his father’s name. He on that occasion gave him the new name of Cephas, which in the Syro-Chaldaic tongue, then used in Judæa, signifies a rock, and is by us changed into Peter, from the Greek word of the same import. Saint Peter and Saint Andrew, after having passed some time in the company of our divine Redeemer, returned to their fishing trade; yet often resorted to him to hear his holy instructions. Towards the end of the same year, which was the first of Christ’s preaching, Jesus saw Simon Peter and Andrew washing their nets on the banks of the lake; and going into Simon’s boat to shun the pressure, he preached to the people who stood on the shore. After his discourse, as an earnest of his blessing to his entertainer, he bade Peter cast his nets into the sea. Our apostle had toiled all the foregoing night to no purpose, and had drawn his boat into the harbour, despairing of any success at present. However, in obedience to Christ, he again launched out into deep water, and let down his net. He had scarcely done this, when such a shoal of fishes was caught by the first draught, as filled not only their own boat, but also that of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were fishing near them, and were forced to come and help them to drag in the net, which was ready to break with the load; yet the boats were not sunk. At the sight of this miracle, Peter, struck with amazement, fell on his knees, and cried out, “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man.” The apostle, by this humility, whilst he sincerely professed himself unworthy to appear in the presence of his Lord, or to be in his company, deserved to receive the greatest graces. By this miracle Christ gave the apostles a type of their wonderful success in the new employment to which he called them, when he made them fishers of men. Upon this occasion, he bade Peter and Andrew follow him. This invitation they instantly obeyed, and with such perfect dispositions of heart, that Saint Peter could afterwards say to Christ with confidence: Behold, O Lord, we have left all things, and have followed thee. They were possessed of little, having only a boat and nets to leave; but they renounced all future hopes and prospects in the world with so perfect a disengagement of heart, that they forsook with joy the whole world, in spirit and affection; and what went far beyond all this, they also renounced themselves and their own will. In requital, Christ promised them, besides never-ending happiness in the world to come, even in this life, an hundred-fold of true joys and spiritual blessings, in an uninterrupted peace of the soul, which surpasseth all understanding, in the overflowing sweetness of divine love, and in the abundant consolations of the Holy Ghost. From this time, Saint Peter and Saint Andrew became constant attendants upon their divine Master. Jesus soon after this returned and made some stay at Capharnaum, cured Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever, and after that miracle tarried some time in Galilee, healing many sick, casting out devils, and preaching in the synagogues on the Sabbath days with a dignity which bespoke his doctrine divine.

After the feast of the passover in the year 31, Christ chose his twelve apostles, in which sacred college the chief place was from the beginning assigned to Saint Peter. Mr. Laurence Clarke takes notice, that “in the enumeration of the twelve, all the evangelists constantly place Peter in the front. Our Lord usually directs his discourse to him, and he replies as the mouth of his fellows. Christ appeared to him after his resurrection before the rest of the apostles. He gave him a special command to feed his sheep. He was the first whom God chose to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. From these and other passages of the holy scripture, it is evident that Saint Peter acted as chief of the college of the apostles; and so he is constantly described by the primitive writers of the church, who call him the head, the president, the prolocutor, the chief, the foreman of the apostles, with several other titles of distinction.” Christ, who had always distinguished Saint Peter above the rest of the apostles, promised to commit his whole church to his care, above a year before his sacred death, and confirmed to him that charge after his resurrection, having exacted of him a testimony of his strong faith, on the first occasion, and on the second, a proof of his ardent love of God, and zeal for souls. These two virtues are especially requisite in a pastor of souls; and the prince of the apostles was possessed of them in the most heroic and eminent degree. Enlightened by God, and passing over all visible and created things, he made the most glorious confession of his faith in Christ, as truly God and Son of the living God. When certain weak disciples deserted Christ, being offended at his doctrine concerning the wonderful mystery of the blessed eucharist, our Saviour asked the twelve, Will you also go away? Saint Peter answered resolutely, Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. As upon the testimony of his divine word, he readily assented to the most sublime mysteries; so by the most sweet and tender love, he was desirous to keep continually in his holy company, and thought it was to perish, ever to be separated from him. In a transport of this same love, he cried out when he beheld the transfiguration of our Saviour, Lord it is good for us always to be here: ever to be with thee, and to have our eyes fixed on the adorable object of thy glory. But this happiness was first to be purchased by labours and great sufferings. When he heard Christ foretel his barbarous death, this love moved him to persuade his Master to preserve himself from those sufferings he told them he was to undergo; for he did not then understand the advantages of the cross, nor the mystery of our redemption by it. For this he was called by Christ Satan, or adversary; and that reprimand opened his eyes, and was his cure. Out of love, he twice cast himself into the sea to meet Jesus; for his heart melted at his sight, and he had not patience to wait till the boat came up to the shore. This happened once after his resurrection, as we shall see in the sequel, but first long before, when the apostles were crossing the lake, and Jesus came from the shore, walking on the waves to meet them. Saint Peter begged and obtained his leave to come on the waters to his divine Master. When he had stept upon the waves, a sudden fear something abated his confidence, and he began to sink; but Jesus held him up by the hand. By his confidence in God, we learn what we can do by the divine assistance; and by his fear, what we are of ourselves; also, that, no one receives from God the strength he stands in need of, but he who feels that of himself he is entirely without strength, according to the reflection of Saint Austin. Saint Peter, influenced by this same strong love, offered himself to all sorts of difficulties and dangers, and to undergo death itself for his good Lord. Yet this zealous apostle, in punishment of a secret presumption, was permitted to fall, that we might learn with him more clearly to discover our own weakness, and fear the danger of pride. Saint Peter had before given proofs of an exemplary humility. After the miraculous draught of fishes, he cast himself at our Lord’s feet, begging he would depart from him, because he was a sinful man; and when our blessed Saviour offered to wash his feet at the last supper, he cried out in surprise and humility: Lord, dost thou wash my feet? Thou shalt not wash my feet for ever. But being terrified by his threat, that otherwise he should have no part with him, he with fervour offered also his hands and his head to be washed, if needful. In answer to which, Christ signified to him, that he who was clean from grievous sins, stood in need only of wiping away smaller stains and imperfections, an emblem of which was this washing of the feet.

Who is not moved to tremble for himself, and to walk always in holy fear, and in the most profound and sincere humility, when he sees so great an apostle, endowed with such eminent virtues, grace, and spiritual gifts, fall at last by surprise into secret presumption, and by it into the grievous crime of denying his divine Master? His protestation, that he was ready to die with him, was accompanied with some degree of confidence in his own courage and in the strength of his resolution; whereas an entire and perfect distrust in ourselves is an essential part of true humility. Instead of praying in the humble sentiment of his own weakness and frailty, he relied on his courage as if it was proof against all dangers. To curb this rising presumption, Christ foretold him, that before the crowing of the cock and break of day, he would thrice deny him. Jesus still ranked Saint Peter among his favourite apostles; and as he had made him, Saint James, and Saint John, witnesses of his transfiguration, and of other extraordinary mysteries; so in the garden of Gethsemani he took these three with him when he retired from the rest, and at a distance of a stone’s throw from these three disciples fell into his agony and bloody sweat. Notwithstanding the courage of our fervent apostle, Christ was obliged to reproach him, with his two companions, that he was not able to watch with him one hour; when he ought to have been arming and strengthening himself by humble prayer against the assaults of the enemy. When Judas led the Jews to apprehend Christ, Saint Peter’s zeal for his master made him draw his sword against his unjust persecutors, and smite Malchus, one of the busiest among them. But Christ taught him that the arms of his disciples are patience and humility. Saint Peter, by his presumption, and by having neglected to watch and pray, deserved to fall from his fervour into a state of lukewarmness. He followed Jesus still when he was in the hands of his enemies, but at a distance, as Saint Luke takes notice. He who just before thought of dying for his Master, and drew his sword to defend him, thus became afraid of sharing in his disgrace. “Oh!” cries out Saint Chrysostom, “by what means was the vehement fervour of Peter so much cooled?” Nor did he stop here. He who does not always advance, loses ground; and a soul which falls from fervour into a state of tepidity is guilty of an abuse of divine grace, and is in danger of perishing in the first snare. Accordingly, bad company soon completed the misfortune of this apostle. He mingled with the servants of the high-priest, and other enemies of Christ, in the lower hall of Caiphas’s palace. Here, at the reproach of the portress that had let him in, and soon after a second time, at that of another maid, he renounced all knowledge of him. The cock then crowed; yet Peter took no notice. About an hour after, another of the assistants said he was one of the disciples of Jesus; which others confirmed, because his accent betrayed him to be a Galilæan; and a cousin of Malchus, whose ear had been cut off, assured that he had seen him in the garden. Hereupon Peter protested a third time, with oaths and curses, that he knew not the man. Thus one sin, if it be not blotted out by speedy repentance, draws a soul, as it were by its own weight, into greater precipices.

How grievous soever this sin of Saint Peter was, he never lost his faith in Christ, as appears from Christ’s words to him, and as the fathers observe. For, “though he had a lie in his mouth, his heart was faithful,” as Saint Austin says; his sin, nevertheless, was most heinous; but his repentance was speedy, perfect, and constant; and it bore a proportion to the heinousness of his crime. At the time of his third denial, the cock crowed the second time; yet this exterior sign did not suffice alone to make the sinner enter into himself; but Jesus, turning, looked on him, not so much with his corporeal eyes, as visiting his soul with his interior grace, says Saint Austin; and this it was that wrought in him the wonderful change, by which in a moment he became a perfect penitent. “Look on us, O Lord Jesus, that we may bewail our sins, and wash away our guilt,” cries out Saint Ambrose. Our blessed Redeemer has cast this gracious eye of his mercy on all the sinners whom he ever drew to repentance: his goodness disdains none. We therefore ought to cast ourselves at his feet, and though most undeserving of such a favour, most earnestly to beg that he afford us this gracious look, upon which our eternal salvation depends. Saint Peter by it was pierced with grief, and the most sincere repentance; and instantly quitted the fatal company and occasions, and going forth gave full vent to a flood of tears, which flowed from a heart broken with contrition. “For Peter, when he had denied Christ, did not weep for fear of punishment; but this was the most bitter to him, and worse than any punishment, that he had denied him whom he loved,” as Saint Chrysostom observes. He thought not of any excuses from the circumstances of surprise, frailty, or compulsion: nor did he say anything to extenuate his guilt. A true penitent sees the enormity of his sins with all their exaggerating circumstances; and is his own most severe accuser. This apostle set no bounds to his sorrow; and his cheeks are said to have been always furrowed with the streams of tears which he often shed to the end of his life. And as he fell by presumption, he ever after made the most profound humility the favourite and distinguishing part of his virtue, as Saint Chrysostom remarks. From his example we must be apprized, that if we confide in our own strength, we are vanquished without fighting. This great model of pastors learned by his fall to treat sinners with tenderness and compassion; and Christ, by the graces and dignity to which he exalted him after his fall, shows his boundless mercy, and how perfectly true repentance blots out sin.

After the resurrection of our Divine Saviour, Mary Magdalen and the other devout women that went early on the Sunday morning to the sepulchre, were ordered by an angel to go and inform Peter and the rest that Christ was risen. Our apostle no sooner heard this, but he ran in haste with Saint John to the sepulchre. Love gave wings to both these disciples; but Saint John, running faster, arrived first at the place, though he waited there, doubtless out of respect; and Saint Peter first entered the sepulchre, and saw the place where the sacred body had been laid. After their departure, Christ appeared to Mary Magdalen; and afterwards, on the same day, to Saint Peter, the first among the apostles. This favour was an effect of his tender mercy, in which he would not defer to satisfy this apostle’s extreme desire of seeing him, and to afford him comfort in the grief of his bitter compunction, by this pledge of his grace, and this assurance of his pardon. The angel that appeared to Saint Mary Magdalen, had ordered that the apostles should go from Jerusalem into Galilee, where they should see their divine Master, as he had foretold them before his sacred death. Accordingly, some days after, Saint Peter, whilst he was fishing in the lake of Tiberias, saw Christ on the shore; and not being able to contain himself, in the transport of his love and joy, he threw himself into the water, and swam to land, the sooner to meet his Lord. Saint John and the rest followed him in the boat, dragging the net loaded with one hundred and fifty-three great fishes, which they had taken by casting on the right side of the boat, by Christ’s direction. When they were landed, they saw upon shore some live coals, and a fish broiling upon them, with bread lying near it. This repast Jesus had prepared for them. After it was over, he thrice asked Saint Peter, whether he loved him more than the rest of his disciples: Saint Peter told him, that He knew his love to be most sincere; and he was troubled in mind at the repetition of his question, fearing lest Christ discerned in his heart some secret imperfection or defect in his love. How different are now his modesty, fear, and humility from his former presumption? He dares not answer that he loved his master more than the others did, because he presumes not to judge of their hearts, and is mistrustful of the sincerity of his own, having now learned the whole extent of true humility. The vehemence of his love goes much beyond what any words could ever express. Yet he says only with trembling, that he loved; this he speaks as one most earnestly imploring the divine aid, that he might be enabled to love his master with his whole strength. “Do not you see,” says Saint Chrysostom, “that the better he is grown, the more modest and timorous he is become? He does not speak arrogantly, or contradict; he is not self-confident; therefore is he disturbed.” By this triple public testimony of his love, he was to repair the scandal of his former denial. “Let him confess by love who had thrice denied through fear,” says Saint Austin. By the ardour of his zeal and love was he to be qualified for the commission which he received hereupon to feed Christ’s sheep and lambs, that is, his whole flock; for he who enters the sanctuary under the least partial influence of any other motive than that of love, is a base hireling, and a slave of avarice and vain glory; not a pastor of souls, or minister of Christ. Saint Peter’s greater love for Christ, and zeal for the interest of his glory raised him to the high charge with which he was intrusted by his divine Master. Upon this passage, Saint Chrysostom writes as followeth: “Why does Christ, passing by the rest, now speak to Peter alone? He was eminent above the rest, the mouth of the disciples, and the head of that college. Therefore Paul came to see him above the rest. Christ says to him: If thou lovest me, take upon thee the government or charge of thy brethren. And now give the proof of that fervent love which thou hast always professed, and in which thou didst exult. Give for my sheep that life which thou professedst thyself ready to lay down for me.” Jesus after this, foretold Saint Peter his martyrdom by the cross; and this apostle was well pleased to drink the bitter cup, and to make his confession as public as his denial had been, that he might make some reparation for his former sin. His singular affection for Saint John prompted him to ask what would become of him, and whether he should not bear him company; but his Master checked his inquisitive curiosity.

Christ appeared to the apostles, assembled together on a certain mountain in Galilee, where he had appointed to meet them, and gave them a commission to preach the gospel throughout all nations, promising to remain with his church all days to the end of the world. He manifested himself also to five hundred disciples at once. When the apostles had spent some time in Galilee, they returned to Jerusalem, where, ten days before the feast of Pentecost, Christ favoured them with his last appearance, and commanded them to preach baptism and penance, and to confirm their doctrine by miracles. Faith being essentially dark, mysterious, and supernatural; and the dispensations of providence, and of the divine grace and mercy being above the reach of human reason, the great and necessary knowledge of these most important saving truths can only be conveyed to men by the divine revelation. This in the new law of the gospel, was immediately communicated to the apostles, with a charge that they should promulge and propagate it in all nations of the earth. Poor illiterate men, destitute of every human succour, were made the instruments of this great work; and at their head was placed an ignorant fisherman, whose knowledge, when he was called to the apostleship, did not reach beyond his nets and boat. Yet this little troop triumphed over the wisdom of philosophers, the eloquence of orators, the authority of the greatest princes, the force of customs, policy, interest, superstition, and all the passions of men; over the artifices and persecutions of the whole world confederated against them. So powerful was the Spirit of God which enlightened their understandings, and spoke by their mouths; such was the evidence of their testimony, confirmed by innumerable incontestable miracles, and by the heavenly temper and sanctity which their words and actions breathed; and lastly, sealed by their blood. So bright and illustrious in this holy religion were the indications of its divine original, that he who takes an impartial review of them, will be obliged to cry out with Hugh of Saint Victor, and Picus of Mirandula: “If I could be deceived in thy faith, thou alone, O Lord, must have been the author of my error, so evident are the marks of thy authority which it bears.” To all who sincerely seek after truth, this revelation is a pillar of light; though to the perverse, God often turns it into a cloud of darkness. Their pride and passions are haunts to which the beams of this sun, though most bright and piercing, are impervious.

The extraordinary gifts and graces by which the apostles were qualified for this great function, were the fruit of the descent of the Holy Ghost, who shed his beams upon them on Whitsunday. After the ascension of Christ, they waited the coming of that Divine Spirit in retirement and prayer. In the mean time, Saint Peter proposed to the assembly the election of a new apostle, whereupon Saint Matthias was chosen. The prince of the apostles, having received the Holy Ghost, made a sermon to the Jews, who were assembled about the disciples upon the fame of this prodigy, and he converted three thousand by the mildness and powerful unction of his words. “We should have a share of this courage; and the ardour of the Holy Ghost would make every thing easy to us, if we were worthy to receive it, and if we drew this grace down upon us as the apostles did by assiduity in prayer, and by our charity towards our brethren,” says Saint Chrysostom. We have great reason to admire the change which the grace of the Holy Ghost wrought in Saint Peter, both in the intrepidity and courage which he showed, and still more in his humility, patience, and meekness. He appeared always so ready to yield to every one, and to humble himself before all the world, that he seemed to forget the rank which he held in the Church, only when God’s honour called upon him to exert his authority; and the natural warmth and vehemence of his temper was no more to be discerned in his actions, only in the fervour and constancy with which he underwent all manner of labours and dangers for the cause of God and his Church. The new converts received with the faith a share of the same Spirit. They persevered in the participation of the holy mysteries and in prayer, and selling all their possessions, gave the price to the apostles to be distributed among the poor brethren. Their humility, simplicity of heart, meekness, patience, and joy in suffering were such, that they seemed on a sudden to be transformed into angels, to use the expression of Saint Chrysostom, so perfectly were they disengaged from the earth. The abundant effusion of the Holy Ghost, the advantage of persecutions, and the inflamed words and example of the apostles effected this change in their hearts, by the power of the right hand of the Most High.

The preaching of the apostles received a sanction from a wonderful miracle, by which Saint Peter and Saint John raised the admiration of the people. These two apostles going to the temple at three o’clock in the afternoon, which was one of the hours for public prayer among the Jews, they saw a man who was lame from his birth, and was begging alms at the gate of the temple, which was called The Beautiful; and being moved with compassion, Saint Peter commanded him in the name of Jesus Christ, to arise and walk. These words were no sooner spoken, but the cripple found himself perfectly whole, and Saint Peter lifting him up, he entered into the temple walking, leaping, and praising God. After this miracle, Saint Peter made a second sermon to the people, the effect of which was the conversion of five thousand persons. Upon this, the priests and Sadducees, moved with envy and jealousy, prevailed upon the captain of the guard of the temple to come up with a troop of soldiers under his command, and seize the two apostles, and put them into prison, upon pretence of a sedition. Next morning they were summoned before the great court of the Sanhedrim, in which Annas, Caiphas, John, and Alexander appeared busiest in carrying on the prosecution against them. The point of the sedition was waved, because groundless; and Saint Peter boldly declared, that it was in the name of Jesus, in which all men must be saved, that the cripple had been made sound. The judges not being able to contest or stifle the evidence of the miracle, contented themselves with giving the apostles a severe charge not to preach any more the name of Jesus. But to their threats Saint Peter resolutely replied: “Whether it be just to obey you rather than God, be you yourselves judges.” The two apostles being discharged, returned to the other disciples, and after they had prayed together, the house was shaken, for a miraculous sign of the divine protection; and the whole company found themselves replenished with a new spirit of courage. The converts learned from the example of their teachers, so perfect a spirit of disinterestedness, contempt of the world, and thirst after eternal goods, that they lived in common; and the rich, selling their estates, laid the price at the feet of the apostles, that it might be equally distributed to such as had need. But neither miracles, nor the company and example of the saints could extinguish the passion of avarice in the hearts of Ananias and his wife Sapphira. Being rich, they pretended to vie with the most charitable, and sold their estate; but whilst they hypocritically pretended to resign the whole price to the public use, they secretly retained a part to themselves. Saint Peter to whom God had revealed their hypocrisy, reproached them singly, that they had put a cheat upon their own souls, by telling a lie to the Holy Ghost in the person of his ministers. At his severe reprimand, first the husband, and afterwards the wife, fell down dead at his feet.

The apostles confirmed their doctrine by many miracles, curing the sick, and casting out devils. The people laid their sick on beds and couches in the streets, “That when Peter came, his shadow at the least might overshadow any of them and they might be delivered from their infirmities.” The high priest Caiphas, and the other heads of the Sanhedrim were much incensed to see their prohibition slighted, and the gospel daily gain ground; and having apprehended the apostles, they put them into the common prison; but God sent his angel in the night, who, opening the doors of the prison, set them at liberty; and early the next morning they appeared again preaching publicly in the temple. The judges of the Sanhedrim again took them up, and examined them. The apostles made no other defence but that they ought rather to obey God than men. The high priest and his faction deliberated by what means they might put them to death; but their sanguinary intentions were overruled by the mild counsel of Gamaliel, a famous doctor of the law, who advised them to wait the issue, and to consider whether this doctrine, confirmed by miracles, came not from God, against whom their power would be vain. However they condemned the servants of God to be scourged. The apostles after this torment went away full of joy, that they had been judged worthy to bear a part in the ignominy and sufferings of the cross, the true glory and advantages of which they had now learned. This their spirit, says Saint Chrysostom, was the greatest of their miracles. Many Jewish priests embraced the faith of Christ; but the daily triumphs of the word of God, raised a persecution in Jerusalem, which crowned Saint Stephen with martyrdom, and dispersed the faithful, who fled some to Damascus, others to Antioch, and many into Phœnicia, Cyprus, and other places. The apostles themselves remained still at Jerusalem to encourage the converts. The disciples preached the faith in all places whither they came; so that this dispersion, instead of extinguishing the holy fire, spread it the more on all sides. On this occasion Saint Philip the deacon converted many Samaritans, who were esteemed, though schismatics, to belong rather to the Jewish nation than to the Gentiles, and Christ himself had preached among them. Saint Peter and Saint John went from Jerusalem to Samaria to confirm the Samaritan converts, and Saint Peter had there his first conflict with Simon Magus. In the mean time, the persecution had ceased at Jerusalem after the conversion of Saint Paul. The favourable dispositions of the emperor Tiberius might contribute to restore this calm. That prince was one of the worst of men, and so cruel a tyrant, that Theodorus Gadareus, his preceptor, sometimes called him a lump of flesh, steeped in blood. Yet from the account sent him by Pilate concerning the miracles and sanctity of Christ, he had entertained a high opinion of him, had some thoughts of enrolling him among the gods, and testified his inclinations in favour of the Christians, threatening even with death those who should accuse or molest them, as we are assured by Tertullian, Saint Justin, and others.

Saint Peter who had staid at Jerusalem during the heat of the persecution, after the storm had blown over, made a progress through the adjacent country, to visit the faithful, as a general makes his round, says Saint Chrysostom, to see if all things are every where in good order. At Lydda, in the tribe of Ephraim, he cured a man named Æneas, who had kept his bed eight years, being sick of a palsy; and at Joppe, being moved by the tears of the poor, he raised to life the virtuous and charitable widow Tabitha. The apostle lodged some time in that town, at the house of Simon the Tanner; which he left by the order of an angel to go to baptize Cornelius the centurion, a Gentile. Upon that occasion God manifested to the Prince of the Apostles, both by this order, and by a distinct vision, the great mystery of the vocation of the Gentiles to the faith. It seems to have been after this, that the apostles dispersed themselves into other countries to preach the gospel, beginning in the adjoining provinces. In the partition of nations which they made among themselves, Saint Peter was destined to carry the gospel to the capital city of the Roman empire and of the world, says Saint Leo. But the apostles stopped some time to preach in Syria and other countries near Judæa before they proceeded further; and Saint Peter founded the church of Antioch, which was the metropolis not only of Syria, but of all the East. Saint Jerom, Eusebius, and other ancient writers assure us, that Antioch was his first see. It was fitting, says Saint Chrysostom, that the city which first gave to the faithful the name of Christians, should have for its first pastor the Prince of the Apostles. Origen and Eusebius call Saint Ignatius the second bishop of Antioch from Saint Peter. Saint Chrysostom says Saint Peter resided there a long time; the common opinion is seven years, from the year thirty-three to forty. During this interval he made frequent excursions to carry the faith into other countries. For though several of the apostles chose particular sees for themselves among the churches which they founded, they did not so confine themselves as to forget their universal commission of preaching to all nations. Saint Peter was at Jerusalem in 37, when Saint Paul paid him a visit, and staid with him fifteen days. Our great apostle preached to the Jews dispersed throughout all the East, in Pontus, Galatia, Bithynia, Cappadocia, and the Lesser Asia, before he went to Rome, as Eusebius testifies. The same is confirmed by the inscription of his first epistle. He announced the faith also to the Gentiles, as occasions were offered, throughout these and other countries, as appears by many instances. Saint Peter is the only apostle whom the gospel mentions to have been married before his vocation to the apostleship; though we are assured by ancient fathers and historians that Saint Philip and some others were also married men when they were called by Christ. Saint Clement of Alexandria, Saint Jerom, and Saint Epiphanius expressly affirm, that from the time of their call to the ministry, or the commencement of their apostleship, they all embraced a state of perpetual continency; and Saint Chrysostom proposes Saint Peter as an illustrious model of chastity. So mortified and abstemious was the life of this great apostle, that Saint Gregory Nazianzen relates, that his diet was only one penny-worth a day of an unsavoury and bitter kind of pulse called lupines, and sometimes of herbs; though on certain occasions he ate of what was set before him.

Peter planted the faith in many countries near Judæa before the dispersion of the apostles, which happened twelve years after the death of Christ, in the fortieth year of the vulgar Christian æra. In the partition of nations among the apostles, Saint Peter chose Rome for the chief seat of his labours, and having preached through several provinces of the East, by a particular order of divine providence, he at length arrived there, that he might encounter the devil in that city, which was then the chief seat of superstition, and the mistress of error. Divine providence, which had raised the Roman empire for the more easy propagation of the gospel in many countries, was pleased to fix the fortress of faith in that great metropolis, that it might be more easily diffused from the head into all parts of the universe. Saint Peter foresaw, that by triumphing over the devil in the very seat of his tyranny, he opened a way to the conquest of the rest of the world to Christ. It was in appearance a rash enterprise for an ignorant fisherman to undertake the conversion of the capital of the empire, and the seat of all the sciences; to preach the contempt of honours, riches, and pleasures in that city, in which ambition, avarice, and voluptuousness had fixed their throne. The humility of Calvary suited not the pride of the capitol. The ignominy of the cross was very contrary to the splendour of that pomp which dazzled the eyes of the masters of the world. Peter neither knows the humour, nor the genius, nor the policy, nor even the language of the people. Yet he enters alone this enemy’s country, this fortress of impiety and superstition; and he preaches Jesus crucified to this great city. First, he announced this wonderful mystery to the Jews who lived there, whose apostle he was in the first place: then he addressed himself to the Gentiles, and he formed a church composed of both. Eusebius, Saint Jerom, and the old Roman Calendar, published by Bucherius, say that Saint Peter held the see of Rome twenty-five years; though he was often absent upon his apostolic functions in other countries. According to this chronology, many place his first arrival at Rome in the second year of the reign of Claudius, of Christ, 42; but all circumstances prove it to have been in the year 40, the twelfth after the death of Christ, in 39. Lactantius mentions only his last coming to Rome under Nero, a few years before his martyrdom. If he staid at Rome from the year 40 to 42, he returned speedily into the East; for in 44 he was thrown into prison at Jerusalem by king Agrippa; and being miraculously delivered by an angel, he again left that city, and travelling through many countries in the East he established in them bishops, as Saint Agapetus assures us. He was at Rome soon after, but was banished from that city when, on account of the tumults which the Jews there raised against the Christians, as Suetonius relates, the emperor Claudius expelled them both, in the year 49. But they were soon allowed to return. Saint Peter went again into the East, and in 51 was present in the general council held by the apostles at Jerusalem, in which he made a discourse to show that the obligation of the Jewish ceremonies was not to be laid on the Gentile converts. His determination was seconded by Saint James, bishop of Jerusalem, and formed by the council into a decree. The same synod confirmed to Saint Paul, in a special manner, the apostleship of the Gentiles, though he announced the faith also to the Jews when occasion served. Saint Peter, whilst he preached in Judæa, chiefly laboured in converting the Jews. They being tenacious of the legal ceremonies, the use of them was for some time tolerated in the converts, provided they did not regard them as of precept; which being always condemned as an error in faith, was called the Nazarean heresy. After the council at Jerusalem, Saint Peter went to Antioch, where he ate promiscuously with the Gentile converts, without observing the Jewish distinction of unclean meats. But certain Jewish converts from Jerusalem coming in, he, fearing their scandal, withdrew from table, at which action the Gentile Christians took offence. To obviate the scandal of these latter, Saint Paul publicly rebuked his superior, lest his behaviour might seem to condemn those who did not observe the Jewish ceremonial precepts, and lest they might apprehend some disagreement in the doctrine of the two apostles. Saint Peter, whilst he studied to avoid what might give offence to the weak Jewish converts, had not sufficiently attended to the scandal which the Gentile proselytes might take at his action. Nevertheless Saint Austin justly observes, that both these apostles give us on this occasion great lessons of virtue; for we cannot sufficiently admire the just liberty which Saint Paul showed in his rebuke, nor the humble modesty of Saint Peter; “But,” says that father, “Saint Peter sets us an example of a more wonderful and difficult virtue. For it is a much easier task for one to see what to reprehend in another, and to put him in mind of a fault, than for us publicly to acknowledge our own faults, and to correct them. How heroic a virtue is it to be willing to be rebuked by another, by an inferior and in the sight of all the world?” “This example of Peter,” says he in another place, “is the most perfect pattern of virtue he could have set us, because by it he teaches us to preserve charity by humility.” Every one can correct others; but only a saint can receive well public rebuke. This is the true test of perfect humility, and heroic virtue: this is something far more edifying and more glorious than the most convincing apologies. Saint Gregory the Great says of this conduct of Saint Peter: “He forgot his own dignity for fear of losing any degree of humility. He afterwards commended the epistles of Saint Paul as full of wisdom, though we read in them something which seems derogatory from his honour. But this lover of truth rejoiced that all should know that he had been reproved, and should believe the reproof was just.”

Saint Peter wrote two canonical epistles. The first he dates from Babylon, by which, Saint Jerom and Eusebius tell us, he meant Rome, at that time the centre of idolatry and vice. The Jews usually called such cities by that figurative name; as they gave to a city infamous for debaucheries the name of Sodom, to an idolatrous country that of Egypt, to a race accursed by God that of Canaan. Rome is also called Babylon in the Apocalypse. This name might be frequently given it among the Christians of that age. This epistle seems to have been written between the years 45 and 55. It is chiefly addressed to the converted Jews, though the apostle also speaks to the Gentile converts, as Saint Austin observes. His principal view in it was to confirm them in faith under their sufferings and persecutions, and to confute the errors of Simon and of the Nicolaits. Erasmus, Estius, and all other judicious critics, admire in the style a majesty and vigour worthy the prince of the apostles, and a wonderful depth of sense couched in a few words. His second epistle was written from Rome a little before his death, and may be regarded as his spiritual testament. In it he strongly exhorts the faithful to labour earnestly in the great work of their sanctification, and cautions them to stand upon their guard against the snares of heresy. It is a tradition at Rome, that Saint Peter converted the house of Pudens, a Roman senator, into a church, which now bears the name of Saint Peter’s, ad vincula. Many ancient Martyrologies mention a feast of “The dedication of the first church in Rome consecrated by Saint Peter.” The Christians only seem to have built churches at Rome after the persecution of Severus; but had before oratories and chapels in such manner as the persecutions would allow; and the most sacred of these were afterwards converted into churches. Saint Paul mentions a Christian in Rome called Pudens, whom some think to have been this senator. We cannot doubt but Saint Peter preached the gospel over all Italy, as Eusebius, Rufinus, and others assure us; and likewise in other provinces of the West, according to the commission which the apostles received to carry the gospel over the whole earth. Whence they did not confine themselves to single cities, except that Saint James fixed his residence at Jerusalem for the sake of the Jews. Our island among other places lays claim to the happiness of having been visited by Saint Peter, though this is only supported by modern vouchers, as may be seen in Alford, Usher, and Cressy. Lactantius writes, that the two great apostles, Saints Peter and Paul, foretold at Rome, that God should in a little time send a prince against the Jews, who should overcome them, and level their metropolis with the ground: that during the siege of it, they should pine with hunger and thirst, even to the eating of one another: that after it should be taken, they should see their women grievously tormented before their eyes, their virgins deflowered, their young men torn asunder, their babes dashed to pieces, their country wasted with fire and sword; and the whole nation banished out of their own land, because they had exalted themselves above the most gracious and approved Son of God. Saint Athanasius mentions that Saints Peter and Paul had often fled from persecutors in times of danger, till, being assured of their martyrdom by a revelation, they courageously went to meet it. Our Saviour, immediately after his resurrection, had foretold Saint Peter in what manner he should glorify him in his old age, and that he should follow him even to the death of the cross. He afterwards revealed to him the time of his death. Several triumphs over the devil prepared him for that crown. To give a clear view of his last glorious conflict, it is necessary to introduce the history of that remarkable event, by a short account of the last adventure of his celebrated antagonist. Simon Magus, after passing through divers provinces, came to Rome, and there gained a high reputation. Saint Justin Martyr, Saint Irenæus, Tertullian, Eusebius, Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, and Theodoret, assure us, that divine honours were paid him there, and that a statue was erected to him in the isle of Tiber, by the emperor Claudius and the senate, with this inscription: “Simoni Deo Sancto.” If Simon inclined the humour of Messalina that way, she was capable of being carried to all sorts of extravagances, and of persuading Claudius to the same; for that emperor is justly called a child with grey hairs, a greater idiot having never worn the purple. Messalina being slain for her public adulteries and other crimes, in the year 48, Claudius took to wife his niece Agrippina, by an incest till then condemned in the Roman state. Being a greater firebrand than Messalina had ever been, she pushed Claudius on many acts of cruelty; for out of mere stupidity, and without malice, he could sport himself in blood. She prevailed on him to adopt Nero, who was her son by Domitius, her first husband. Claudius left a son of his own by Messalina, called Britannicus. Agrippina afterwards poisoned Claudius, in the year 51; and by a complication of crimes, opened the way to the imperial throne for her son Nero. The young prince soon set aside his mother, but governed five years with great clemency, leaving the direction of all things to his master Seneca, and to Burrhus, the prefect of the prætorian cohorts; except that he poisoned his brother Britannicus, whilst they were supping together, in the year 55. But after he had killed his own mother Agrippina, in 58, he became the greatest monster of cruelty and vice that perhaps ever disgraced the human species. Simon Magus found means to ingratiate himself with this tyrant; for Nero was above all mortals infatuated with the superstitions of the black art to the last degree of folly and extravagance. To excel in this was one of his greatest passions; and for this purpose he spared no expense, and stuck at no crimes. But all his endeavours were fruitless. When Tiridates, a Parthian prince, who was a magician, came to Rome, and was crowned by Nero, king of Armenia, in the forum, the tyrant hoped to learn of him some important secrets of that detestable superstition. The most skilful of the Parthian magicians exhausted all their science to satisfy him; but only gave the world a new proof of the emptiness of that art. Pliny concludes from this want of success in Nero, and Tillemont repeats the same of Julian the Apostate, that seeing the utmost skill of those who have most addicted themselves to this deceitful art, joined with the greatest power and impiety, was never able to effect anything by it, every one must rest convinced, that magic is not less vain and idle, than it is impious and execrable. Simon Magus, by his vain boastings, and illusions, could not fail to please this tyrant. The fathers assure us that this famous magician had promised the emperor and people to fly in the air, carried by his angels, thus pretending to imitate the ascension of Christ. Accordingly he raised himself in the air by his magical power, in presence of the emperor. Saint Peter and Saint Paul, seeing the delusion, betook themselves to their prayers; upon which the impostor fell to the ground, was bruised, broke a leg, and died a few days after in rage and confusion. This wonderful event is related by Saint Justin, Saint Ambrose, Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, Saint Austin, Saint Philastrius, Saint Isidore of Pelusium, Theodoret, and others. Dion Chrysostomus, a heathen, writes that Nero kept a long time in his court a certain magician, who promised to fly. And Suetonius says, 68 that at the public games a man undertook to fly in the presence of Nero, but fell in his first essay, and his blood even stained the balcony in which the emperor stood. This history Baronius, Tillemont, Ceillier, and Orsi, understand of Simon Magus.

The great progress which the faith made in Rome, by the miracles and preaching of the apostles, was the cause of the persecution which Nero raised against the church, as Lactantius mentions. Other fathers say, the resentment of the tyrant against the apostles was much inflamed by the misfortune of Simon Magus; and he was unreasonable enough to make this credible. But he had already begun to persecute the Christians from the time of the conflagration of the city, in 64. Saint Ambrose tells us, that the Christians entreated Saint Peter to withdraw for a while. The apostle, though unwillingly, yielded to their importunity, and made his escape by night; but, going out of the gate of the city, he met Jesus Christ, or what in a vision appeared in his form, and asked him, “Lord, whither art thou going?” Christ answered, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” Saint Peter readily understood this vision to be meant of himself, and taking it for a reproof of his cowardice, and a token that it was the will of God he should suffer, returned into the city, and, being taken, was put into the Mamertine prison with Saint Paul. The two apostles are said to have remained there eight months, during which time they converted SS. Processus and Martinian, the captains of their guards, with forty-seven others. It is generally asserted that when they were condemned, they were both scourged before they were put to death. If Saint Paul might have been exempted on account of his dignity of a Roman citizen, it is certain Saint Peter must have undergone that punishment, which, according to the Roman laws, was always inflicted before crucifixion. It is an ancient tradition in Rome that they were both led together out of the city by the Ostian gate. Saint Prudentius says, that they suffered both together in the same field, near a swampy ground, on the banks of the Tiber. Some say Saint Peter suffered on the same day of the month, but a year before Saint Paul. But Eusebius, Saint Epiphanius, and most others affirm, that they suffered the same year, and on the 29th of June. Saint Peter when he was come to the place of execution, requested of the officers that he might be crucified with his head downwards, alleging that he was not worthy to suffer in the same manner his divine Master had died before him. He had preached the cross of Christ, had bore it in his heart, and its marks in his body, by sufferings and mortification, and he had the happiness to end his life on the cross. His Lord was pleased not only that he should die for his love, but in the same manner himself had died for us, by expiring on the cross, which was the throne of his love. Only the apostle’s humility made a difference, in desiring to be crucified with his head downwards. His master looked towards heaven, which by his death he opened to men; but he judged that a sinner formed from dust, and going to return to dust, ought rather in confusion to look on the earth, as unworthy to raise his eyes to heaven. Saint Ambrose, Saint Austin, and Saint Prudentius ascribe this his petition partly to his humility, and partly to his desire of suffering more for Christ. Seneca mentions, that the Romans sometimes crucified men with their heads downward; and Eusebius testifies that several martyrs were put to that cruel death. Accordingly the executioners easily granted the apostle his extraordinary request. Saint Chrysostom, Saint Austin, and Saint Asterius say he was nailed to the cross; Tertullian mentions that he was tied with cords. He was probably both nailed and bound with ropes. F. Pagi places the martyrdom of these two apostles in the year 65, on the 29th of June.

Saint Gregory writes, that the bodies of the two apostles were buried in the catacombs, two miles out of Rome. The most ancient Roman Calendar, published by Bucherius, marks their festival at the catacombs on the 29th of June. An ancient history read in the Gallican church in the eighth century says, their bodies only remained there eighteen months. From those catacombs where now stands the church of Saint Sebastian, the body of Saint Paul was carried a little further from Rome, on the Ostian road; and that of Saint Peter to the Vatican hill, probably by the Jewish converts who lived in that quarter. At present the heads of the two apostles are kept in silver bustoes in the church of Saint John Lateran. But one half of the body of each apostle is deposited together in a rich vault, in the great church of Saint Paul, on the Ostian road; and the other half of both bodies in a more stately vault in the Vatican church, which sacred place is called from primitive antiquity, “The Confession of Saint Peter, and Limina Apostolorum,” and is resorted to by pilgrims from all parts of Christendom. The great saint Chrysostom never was able to name either of these holy apostles without raptures of admiration and devotion; especially when he mentions the ardent love of Saint Peter for his divine Master. He calls him “the mouth of all the apostles, the leader of that choir, the head of that family, the president of the whole world, the foundation of the Church, the burning lover of Christ.”

Saint Peter left all things to follow Christ, and in return received from him the promise of life everlasting, and in the bargain a hundred fold in this present life. O thrice happy exchange! O magnificent promise! cries out Saint Bernard. O powerful words, which have robbed Egypt, and plundered its richest vessels! which have peopled deserts and monasteries with holy men, who sanctify the earth and are its purest angels, being continually occupied in the contemplation and praises of God, the ever glorious uninterrupted employment of the blessed, which these spotless souls begin on earth to continue for all eternity in heaven. They have chosen with Mary the better part, which will never be taken from them. In this how great is their everlasting reward! How pure their present comfort and joy! and yet how cheap the purchase! For, what have they left? what have they bartered? Only empty vanities; mere nothings; nay, anxieties, dangers, fears, and toils. Goods which by their very possession are a burden; which by their loss or continual disappointments, perplex, fret, disturb and torment; and which, if loved with attachment, defile the soul. Goods which Crates, the heathen philosopher, threw into the sea, to be rid of their troubles, saying: “Go into the deep, ye cursed incentives of the passions. I will drown you, lest I be drowned by you.” I am too weak to bear your burden. To possess you without defiling my heart, to enjoy you without covetousness, pride, or ambition, is a difficult task, and the work of an extraordinary grace, as truth itself hath assured us. Happy are they who follow the Lord without encumbrance or burden; who make their journey to him without the load of superfluous baggage or hindrance! All are entitled to this present and future happiness, who repeat these words of Saint Peter in their hearts and affections, though they are seated on thrones, or engaged by the order of providence in secular affairs. They used the world as if they used it not, living in it so as not to be of it, and possess its goods so as to admit them into their houses not into their hearts. They are solicitous and careful in their temporal stewardship, that they may be able to give an account to their Master, who has entrusted them with it; yet live in their affections as strangers on earth, and citizens of heaven. Those on the other side are of all others most unhappy, who in some measure imitate the hypocrisy of Ananias and Saphira, whilst they repeat the sacred words of the apostle with lying mouths; who renounce the world in body only, and carry in affection its inordinate desires and lusts, its spirit and contagion, into the very sanctuaries which are instituted to shelter souls from its corruption.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint Peter, Prince of the Apostles”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. Saints.SQPN.com. 17 June 2013. Web. 14 July 2014. <>