Saint Peter

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Saint Peter is the apostle Peter. There are other saints called Peter, but it is the convention to refer to them by adding some identifying expression such as their surname, e.g., St. Peter Canisius or St. Peter Chanel.

Saint Peter was one of the twelve apostles. i.e., the twelve men chosen by Jesus to be his companions and to assist him in his mission. Peter was the most prominent member of this group and one of the ‘inner circle’ of apostles who were present with Jesus at some of the most significant points in the latter’s life. After Jesus’ death Peter became one of the leaders of the Christian Church, preaching and healing the sick not only in Jerusalem, but in other parts of Palestine. The many references to Peter in the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles say nothing about the final years of his life, but the tradition is that he travelled to Rome, became head of the church there, and suffered martyrdom by crucifixion during the reign of the emperor Nero (who reigned 54-68 CE). The Roman Catholic Church considers Peter to have been the first Pope.

Peter, whose name was originally Simon (or, in his native Aramaic, Shemayon), was a fisherman and, along with his brother Andrew, the first of the apostles to be called by Jesus (Matthew 4.18-22, Mark 1.16-20, Luke 5.1-11). He acquired the name Peter (or, more accurately, its Aramaic equivalent keppa) as a result of his recognition of Jesus as the Christ. When Jesus asked the apostles ‘Whom do you say that I am?’ and Peter answered ‘Thou art the Christ’, Jesus said ‘On this rock will I found my church’ – ‘rock’ in Aramaic is keppa, its Greek equivalent is petra, and so the proper name Πέτρος (Petros) and its Latin transliteration Petrus mean ‘rock’ (Matthew 16.13-20, Luke 9.18-22).

Peter seems to have been the most prominent of the apostles, often acting as spokesman for the group, and was one of the ‘inner circle’ who were present with Jesus at some of the most significant points in the latter’s life. For example, along with James and John, he was a witness to the transfiguration (when Jesus’ appearance changed and ‘his face shone like the sun and his raiment was white as the light’) (Matthew 17.1-9, Mark 9.2-10, Luke 9.28-36). In the final week of Jesus’ life Peter, along with John, was sent by Jesus to prepare a room for the Last Supper (Luke 22.7-13), and, with James and John, he waited with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane for the arrival of the Roman soldiers who would arrest Jesus – though in the course of the night he fell asleep and was reproached by Jesus for not staying awake (Matthew 26.36-46, Mark 14.32-42). According to John 18.10, it was Peter who, when the soldiers arrived, used his sword to cut off the ear of one of them – though the other Gospels do not give the name of the person responsible.

After the Last Supper, on the Mount of Olives, Peter had sworn that he would never abandon Jesus (‘Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended’, Matthew 26.33, cf. Mark 14.29, Luke 22.33, John 13.37), but Jesus foresaw Peter’s weakness and predicted ‘This night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice’ (Matthew 26.34). Later that night when Jesus, under arrest, was being questioned by the high priest, Peter mingled with the watching crowd and on three occasions was approached by individuals who accused him of being one of Jesus’ companions. Each time he vehemently denied the accusation. And then the cock crew and Peter, overcome with remorse, ‘went out and wept bitterly’ (Matthew 26.57-75, Mark 14.51-72, Luke 22.54-62, John 18.15-27).

Peter’s weakness in denying Jesus does not seem to have affected his preeminent position among the apostles, and after Jesus’ death it was to him that Mary Magdalene came running when she discovered that Jesus’ tomb was empty (John 20.2). Peter took the initiative in securing the election of another apostle (Matthias) to replace the traitor Judas (Acts of the Apostles 1.15-26), and on the day of Pentecost, after the apostles had undergone a mystical experience and had begun ‘to speak in other tongues’ (Acts 2.4), he preached persuasively to the inhabitants of Jerusalem (Acts 2.14-47). Over the course of the following years, as the apostles continued to work as Christian missionaries, Peter defended their activities before the religious authorities in Jerusalem (Acts 4.5-22), performed a number of miracles (e.g., Acts 3.1-11), was imprisoned, and miraculously escaped from prison (Acts 12.3-19). He came to see that Gentiles (i.e., non-Jews) as well as Jews could be admitted to the Christian Church and insisted that Christians were not obliged to observe all the rituals of Judaism (such as male circumcision and various dietary restrictions) (Acts 10).

The account of Peter’s activities after Jesus’ death occupies a significant portion of the first twelve chapters of Acts of the Apostles, but this account is silent about his final years. Tradition has it that he travelled to Rome and became head of the church there – the Roman Catholic Church acknowledges him as the first Pope. It is said that he suffered martyrdom by crucifixion, probably in c 67 CE when Christians were under persecution by the emperor Nero, and that he insisted on being crucified upside down since he was not worthy to die in the same way as Jesus.

The New Testament contains two ‘books’ attributed to Peter, namely, The First Epistle General of Peter and The Second Epistle General of Peter, but modern scholarship does not regard either of these attributions as justified.

  • Peter Chrysologus (chrysologus meaning 'golden-worded', a nickname supposedly given him by Galla Placidia, wife of Emperor [[Constantius III of Rome (c. 380 – c. 450) was Archbishop of Ravenna from about 433 until his death. He was renowned for his short but enlightening semons ('homilies'), of which many survive. He wasdprocalaimed a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XIII in 1729
  • The St Peter Chanel who shares with Our Lady of Lourdes the dedication of a church on Cottingham Road in Hull was born in 1803 in France (as Pierre Louis Marie Chanel). He served as a Marist priest and was martyred in 1841 in Futuna, an island lying between Samoa and Fiji in the Pacific, and canonized in 1954. He is Oceania's first recognized saint, and its patron saint
  • St Peter Canisius is the Latinised name of Pieter Kanis (1521-1597). Kanis, who was born in Nijmegen in what is now the Netherlands, attended the University of Cologne, and joined the Jesuit Order in 1543. Through his sermons and educational work he played a leading part in combatting the Protestant Reformation in Germany and Austria, and was canonised in 1925. A verse translation of one of his prayers (‘I am not eager, bold/Or strong – all that is past./I am ready not to do,/At last, at last.’) is to be found as No. 443 in The Oxford Book of Prayer (ed. George Appleton).