On the Feast of St Peter and St Paul last year I was in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome to receive the pallium which I wear today. Having been appointed the new Archbishop of Southwark only a couple of weeks earlier, I thought the pallium might be given in the future. But no. The call came from the Apostolic Nunciature, the Pope’s Embassy in London, and, quickly afterwards, the instructions came from the Vatican.
We were thirty-one newly appointed Metropolitan Archbishops from across the world – North and South America, Africa, Asia, Australia, and Europe. As we gathered to prepare for Mass in St Peter’s, I was reassured that so many of them seemed as humbled and bewildered as I was.
I spent six years of seminary formation in Rome. I’d often walked through the middle of St Peter’s Basilica. But that day was different. Over the site of St Peter’s tomb, two thousand years later, here we were. With all the human frailties of Simon called Peter, we thirty-one had heard the call of Christ. Now the Church asked us to serve in places and ways we never expected or imagined. In each of us there was a missionary journey like those of St Paul, although we could only aspire to his courage.
Pope Francis celebrated the Mass with great dignity. The words of his homily remain with me: ‘Brothers and sisters’ he said ‘…let us ask: ‘Do I renew daily my own encounter with Jesus?’…’He is looking for witnesses,’ said Pope Francis, ‘witnesses who say to him each day: ‘Lord, you are my life.’
‘Witnesses who have encountered Jesus and say daily ‘Lord, you are my life.’ Isn’t this really what we celebrate with thanksgiving today? That the Lord Jesus called a fisherman and a tentmaker to follow Him. That their ineptitude and arrogance were transformed by Christ into humble fidelity: not by force, but by love; not by the power of argument, but the winning of hearts; not because of their perfection, but by His mercy and grace.
These apostles of Rome, these martyr saints, these witnesses of faith, became great only because they gave themselves to Christ. They’d known what it was to be lukewarm, and it wasn’t enough. They’d been half-hearted, and they wanted more. They’d made mistakes, but realised there is a way back. Their lives are so attractive precisely because they were weaklings won over by Christ, made strong in and through Him.
Peter was overcome by fear, Paul overcome with power. Peter was overcome with doubt, Paul overcome with pride. Peter was overcome with empty enthusiasm, Paul overcome with legalistic one-upmanship.
But here’s the point – and it’s such an important and absolutely fundamental point because it makes sense of them, and it makes sense of us – here’s the point: the true greatness of the Apostles Peter and Paul is that they, each in their own way, were overcome by Christ, overwhelmed by His love. This is the source of greatness for them, and for you and me. To be overcome by Christ; to be overwhelmed by His love.
‘I have fought the good fight to the end,’ said St Paul; ‘I have run the race to the finish; I have kept the faith.’
‘You are the messiah, the Annointed one,’ said St Peter; ‘You are the Son of the living God sent to save God’s people.’
Christ became irresistible to this fisherman and tentmaker. Christ became all-consuming for this half-hearted disciple and this persecutor of Christians. Christ became all they wanted, all they needed, all they hoped for, all they dreamed of. Christ, the king of glory, the way to heaven, became their friend and their Saviour. And He is willingly all this for you and for me.
‘Let us rediscover who we truly are,’ said Pope Francis ‘through a daily relationship with Jesus and through the power of his forgiveness.’
The Lord Jesus wants to overcome our lives; your life and my life. He wants to overpower your fear. He wants to hear you answer Him as He says to you now: ‘Who do you say I am?’
Dear friends, no matter who you’re sat with – whether you’re alone or with family – speak out your answer to that question; speak it aloud, speak it honestly from your heart. Hear the Lord Jesus ask you now: ‘Who I am to you?’ ‘What do I mean to you?’ ‘Who do you say I am?’
Did you speak it out loud? I hope so. Whatever answer you gave, let it become a prayer:
If you answered, ‘You are my king,’ then pray: ‘Lord Jesus, rule my life and rule my heart; help me to live as a child of your kingdom.’
If you answered saying, ‘You are my protector,’ then pray: ‘Lord Jesus, defend me from all that frightens me, from everything that stops me living joyfully in freedom.’
If you replied: ‘I don’t know who you are,’ then pray: ‘Lord Jesus, show yourself to me; through the experiences of my life, through the people that I meet, in the words of the Scriptures and in my prayer, let me encounter you and come to know you more.’
Whatever your answer, make it a prayer.
This pallium was given to me on this Feast last year by Pope Francis. A woven band of lambs’ wool recalls the sheep the shepherd is to carry on his shoulders. No shepherd, no disciple is perfect. I know that, and you know that. We, the baptised – bishops, priests, deacons, religious, lay faithful, consecrated people – we all together, share the responsibility for shepherding each other with the heart of the Good Shepherd. But we can do this only if, each day, you and I answer the Lord’s question: ‘Who do you say I am?’ making our response from a praying heart.
When I approached Pope Francis to receive the pallium I said, ‘Holy Father, I am a baby from England.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’m almost gone!’ His affectionate laughter and promise of prayer was a joyful moment of encouragement with the successor of St Peter.
Dear friends, let this commemoration of the Apostles St Peter and St Paul be an encouragement for you. An encouragement to know that the Lord calls us in all our fragility. That, like Peter and Paul, He wants you to know the joy of His love and the beauty of His friendship. ‘He is looking for witnesses who say to him each day: ‘Lord, you are my life.’ – ‘Lord, you are my life.’