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Peter the Apostle and Paul, the teacher of the Gentiles

In the story of salvation, it may happen that a slave’s son is plucked from a river and raised into a great prophet. Shepherd boys may be chosen to slay giants, and a baby in a manger can be the King of Kings.

In the Gospels, St. Peter comes across as an earnest and good-natured simpleton. He is overflowing with zeal but notably lacking in subtlety or sophistication. Jesus is constantly chiding him after he misunderstands an instruction or blurts out the wrong thing. He tends to need literal explanations for metaphors or parables.

On Good Friday, he fails the critical test by denying Our Lord and running away — but even after he has repented and seen the resurrected Christ in the flesh, he still doesn’t seem to understand the role he is meant to play. Instead of making plans for the fledgling Church, he returns to his fishing nets, where Christ must seek him out yet again to ask him to “feed my sheep.” The lesson is repeated three times.

After the Holy Spirit descends at Pentecost, St. Peter changes dramatically. He takes on a new aura of authority. He stops saying awkward things and starts breaking out of prisons, with angels as his assistants. People line the streets hoping that his shadow will pass over them. He’s something of a spiritual superhero. At last, we see the leader that Our Lord presumably saw when he called Simon to be a “fisher of men.” Over time, his simplicity has matured into a purposeful gravitas.

St. Paul’s story is very different. Unlike the other apostles, he doesn’t react with joy the first time he hears the Good News. Rather, his first impulse is to persecute the Church. At no point do we see in St. Paul the wholesome simplicity of an honest fisherman. A dramatic reprimand is needed to set him on the right path.

Despite that, St. Paul became an invaluable asset to the young Church, once his conversion was accomplished. No doubt it was by design that God placed his most scholarly apostle under the authority of a man of lesser birth, but it’s noteworthy that, unlike St. Peter, he didn’t require a lengthy period of growth and development before he was ready for ministry. A relatively brief catechesis was evidently sufficient for him; he was a quick study. Though it took a special divine act to bring him to the truth, his education and pre-conversion experience evidently served as good preparation for his divinely-ordained role.

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