Ss. Peter and Paul by Bartolomeo Vivarini
Peter, who was named Simon, was a fisherman of Galilee. Jesus gave him the name Cephas (Petrus in Latin), which means ‘Rock,’ because he was to become the rock upon which Christ would build His Church. Peter was the first to recognize that Jesus was “the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” and pledged his fidelity until death.
Although he had his human weaknesses, Peter was chosen to shepherd God's flock. Peter led the Apostles as the first Pope and ensured that the disciples kept the true faith. St. Peter spent his last years in Rome, leading the Church through persecution and eventually being martyred in the year 64. He was crucified upside-down at his own request, because he claimed he was not worthy to die as his Lord.
He was buried on Vatican hill, and St. Peter's Basilica is built over his tomb.
St. Paul was the Apostle of the Gentiles. His letters are included in the writings of the New Testament, and through them we learn much about his life and the faith of the early Church.
Before using his Gentile name of Paul, he was Saul, a Jewish pharisee who viciously persecuted Christians in Jerusalem. Scripture records that Saul was present at the martyrdom of St. Stephen.
Saul's conversion took place as he was on his way to Damascus to persecute the Christian community there. As he was traveling along the road, he was suddenly surrounded by a great light from heaven. He was blinded and fell off his horse. He then heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He answered: “Who are you, Lord?” Christ said: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Saul continued to Damascus, where he was baptized and his sight was restored. He spent the remainder of his life preaching the Gospel tirelessly to the Gentiles of the Mediterranean world.
Paul was imprisoned and taken to Rome, where he was beheaded in the year 67. He is buried in Rome in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls.
St. Augustine of Hippo wrote:
"Both apostles share the same feast day, for these two were one; And even though they suffered on different days, they were as one. Peter went first, and Paul followed. And so we celebrate this day made holy for us by the apostles' blood. Let us embrace what they believed, their life, their labors, their sufferings, their preaching, and their confession of faith."
O God, who didst give such grace unto thy holy Apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul, that they were enabled to bear witness to the truth by their death: grant unto thy Church that, as in the beginning she was enlightened by their teaching, so by their intercession she may continue in the same unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.
Basilica of St. Peter, Vatican City State
O God, who by the preaching of thy holy apostles Ss. Peter and Paul didst cause the light of thy gospel to shine upon the nations: Grant, we beseech thee, that we, having their life and labour in remembrance, may show forth our thankfulness to thee for so great a gift, by following the example of their zeal and service; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.