Ancient and local tradition and written documents regarding the apostolic work and martyrdom of SS. Peter and Paul in Rome validly serve as the historical foundation for the universal celebration of their feast. The solemn commemoration of these two leading Apostles takes place on June 29, a feast day of obligation in the Byzantine Metropolitan Province of Pittsburgh. The feast is preceded by a shorter or a longer period of fasting referred to by the faithful as “Petrovka,” meaning Peter’s Fast.
1. St. Peter is referred to as the Prince of the Apostles and the Vicar of Christ on earth, the visible Head of the Church. His original name was Simon, but in view of his future role in the Church, our Divine Savior changed his name to Peter, which means rock. The significance of this name change became evident only later when Jesus Christ, praising Peter’s faith, said: “You are Peter (the rock), and on this rock I will build my Church; and the gates (powers) of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Mt.16:18)
On this same occasion, our Divine Savior promised Peter supreme authority in His Church, saying:
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you will bind on earth it shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you will loose on earth it shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mt. 16:19) This supreme authority given to Peter was extended also to matters of faith: “I prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may never fail (infallibility), and once you have recovered (after his denial) you, in turn, must strengthen your brothers.” (Lk. 22:32)
After His glorious resurrection, Jesus formally conferred this supreme authority in the Church upon Peter, saying: “Feed my sheep! Feed my lambs!” (In. 21 :15-17). Up to that time Jesus was The Shepherd of His flock, the Church, but from that time on, Peter and his successors are to tend Christ’s flock to assure that “there be only one Fold (Church) and Shepherd.” (In. 10:14-16)
Thus, Peter became the indisputed head of the primitive Church.
As the head of the Church, Peter took the initiative in the election of Matthias to the Apostolic College in place of Judas (Acts 1 :15-26). It was Peter who delivered the first sermon on Pentecost (Acts 2:14-40) and it was he who received the first Gentiles into the Church (Acts 10:9-48). After his arrest by Herod Agrippa I, Peter was miraculously set free from prison and, leaving James Jr. in “charge of the Jerusalem community,” departed to “another place” (Acts 12:1-17), that is, to Antioch in Syria (Gal. 2:11). Subsequently, he presided over the Council of Jerusalem which resolved not to impose the obligation of the Mosaic Law on the Gentiles (Acts 15:1-12). After a short stay in Antioch, Peter began his long missionary journey through Pontus, Cappadacia, Galatia, 8ythinia and Asia Minor (I Peter 1 :1). Finally he arrived in Rome. Here Peter spent the last years of his ministry and it was here that he gave witness to the Gospel by his martyrdom.
2. Paul, known as Saul before his conversion, received his education at the feet of the celebrated Rabbi Gamaliel in Jerusalem and was a member of the Pharisee sect (Phil. 3:5). In his zeal for the Mosaic law, he persecuted the Church. However, by the direct intervention of Christ (Acts 9:1-19), he soon converted to Christianity and became a leading champion of the Gospel. Paul ‘s three extended missionary journeys and his thirteen epistles (the Epistle to the Hebrews is now being contested) eloquently testify to his unsurpassed apostolic zeal. Finally, in the winter of 61 AD, he reached Rome as a prisoner.
After Paul’s release from the Roman prison, he journeyed “to the limits of the West” (cf. Epistles of St. Clement 5,7), i.e. to Spain, fulfilling his longlasting desire (Rom. 15:24). He then revisited his missionary territory of Asia Minor, leaving Titus in Crete (Tit. 1 :5) and Timothy in Ephesus (I Tim. 1 :3) with full episcopal authority “to accomplish what had been undone.” Paul returned to Rome where, during the persecution under Nero, he was arrested and, in all probability, he was beheaded in 67 AD. For Paul, life was Christ, and dying “the gain” (Phil. 1 :21).
Thus, if Peter was the first among the Apostles because of his authority, Paul was equally first among the Apostles because of his apostolic labor. Therefore, in the Byzantine Liturgy their feasts are celebrated together as ” the first among the Apostles.”
3. Peter and Paul gave living testimony to their faith by their glorious martyrdom during the first persecution of Christians by Emperor Nero. Bishop Eusebius of Ceasarea (d. 339), the first Christian historian, wrote:
“Publicly announcing himself as the first among the enemies of God, he (Nero) was led on to the slaughter of the Apostles. It is recorded that in his days Paul was beheaded in the city of Rome and that Peter, also, was crucified.
This story is supported by the fact that the names of Peter and Paul are preserved in the cemeteries of that place even to the present day . . . For if you would go to the Vatican, or to the Ostian Way, you would find their trophies (monuments)” (cf. Eusebius, The Church History II , 25) .
The first to mention the martyrdom of Peter and Paul in Rome was Pope St. Clement (88-97) in his Letter to the Corinthians. The second century writer, Tertulian, mentions that Peter was “crucified” on Vatican Hill, while Paul was ” beheaded” and buried on the Ostian Way “outside the walls” (cf. On the Prescription, 36). The same Eusebius quotes Origen of Alexandria (d. 253), as saying: “Peter …, having at last come to Rome, was crucified head downwards, for he had requested that he might suffer in this way” (Church Hist. III ,1). Since that time, the tradition of the Roman martyrdom of both of these Apostles has been constant and unanimous. It has also been confirmed by recent excavations.
The Roman Church commemorates the marytrdom of SS. Peter and Paul on June 29, but it has no fixed tradition as to the year of their executions.
One thing is certain, they both suffered violent deaths during the Neronian persecution which lasted from 64 to 67 AD.
4. The tomb of St. Peter on Vatican Hill and the tomb of St. Paul on the Ostian Way “outside-the-walls” soon became places of public veneration. Constantine the Great (d. 337) built a magnificent basilica over the tomb of St. Peter in the Vatican, and a modest church over the tomb of St. Paul.
By the middle of the fourth century the Roman Church began to celebrate the Feast of SS. Peter and Paul on June 29 with “great solemnity and festivities.” The Emperors Valentinian II (d. 392) and Theodosius the Great (d. 395) rebuilt the modest church of St. Paul to the fitting grandeur of a basilica.
In a short period of time, the pilgrims had extended the public veneration of SS. Peter and Paul to all the corners of the Roman Empire, in the West as well as in the East. Generally, the Eastern Churches celebrated the memory of SS. Peter and Paul on December 28, immediately following the commemoration of St. Stephen, the First Martyr (December 27) . At the beginning of the sixth century, when the Church of Constantinople started to celebrate the memory of SS. Peter and Paul with great solemnity, the East also accepted the Roman date of celebration. Since then, the Byzantine Churches have been celebrating the Feast of the Holy, Glorious and Illustrious Supreme Apostles, Peter and Paul together with the West, on June 29.
The following day, June 30, the Byzantine Church solemnly commemorates all Twelve Apostles together (Synaxis).
5. The importance of the commemoration of the Holy Apostles SS. Peter and Paul in the Byzantine Church is emphasized by a certain period of fast, known as Peter’s Fast, or the Fast of the Apostles.
The Fast of the Apostles is a very ancient fast, and there are some indications that it was already observed at the end of the fourth century, in connection with Pentecost:
” After you have kept the Feast of Pentecost, keep one week more festive (i .e. an exempt week – A.P.), and after that, fast. It is reasonable to rejoice for the gifts of God, but after some time of relaxation, you should fast again.” (cf. The Apost. Constitutions V, 20)
This is confirmed by the great Byzantine liturgist, Archbishop Symeon of Thessalonica (d. 1429), who, in his “Answers” to Bishop Gabriel of Pentapolis, wrote: “After the descent of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost) we, according to the Apostolic Constitutions (ascribed to st. Clement of Rome), still rejoice for one week, and then, we start fasting again, as not to be spoiled by excessive pleasure.
At the same time, by our fasting, we honor the Apostles who taught us how to fast” (P. G., vol. 155, col. 901).
Beginning in the sixth century, through the influence of the monasteries, a stricter and more regulated way of fasting in honor of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul was introduced. This time also became a period of preparation for the reception of the Holy Sacraments [Mysteries]. The Fathers insisted that the faithful receive Holy Communion at least four times a year, namely: 1) before Easter [Pascha], 2) around the Feast of the Apostles, 3) on the feast of the Assumption of B.V.M. [Dormition of the Theotokos], and 4) before Christmas [Nativity]. Hence, the reason why we, in the Byzantine Church have four fasting seasons.
These serve as suitable times of preparation for the reception of Holy Communion.
Today the observance of Peter’s Fast (Petrovka), as well as the fasts before the Assumption [Dormition] (Spasovka) and that before Christmas (Filipovka), are left completely to the discretion of the faithful.
Nevertheless, these venerable fasting traditions give us an opportunity to prepare ourselves, by prayer and fasting, for our spiritual renewal and for the proper reception of Holy Communion.