The joint Feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, kept on June 29, is one of the oldest liturgical celebrations in the Roman Church—one which came to be embraced by several Eastern Christian communions as well.
The Origins and Date of the Feast
While references to liturgical celebrations for Sts. Peter and Paul can be found throughout Christendom, during the early centuries of the Church, no fixed date was assigned to the Apostles. The 4th century Syrian Martyrology, which was extracted from the catalog of saints in use throughout Asia Minor at the time, groups Sts. Peter and Paul in with a series of post-Christmas commemorations, beginning with St. Stephen on December 26 and culminating with Peter and Paul on December 28. Other early Eastern Christian churches also placed the Apostles’ feast during the period between Christmas and Theophany (Epiphany).
In Rome, the city of their martyrdom, the Feast of Peter and Paul was kept on June 29 as early as the third century. By at least the year 258, it was recognized that the saints’ relics were transferred to the Catacombs of San Sebastiano on June 29, hence the date of the feast. In time, their relics were transferred again, with St. Peter’s returning to the Vatican Basilica and St. Paul’s going to the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, which was built on the site of his execution.
In time, June 29 was adopted in the East. Eastern Catholics following the Byzantine Calendar, such as Ukrainian Greek Catholics and Melkites, prepare for the Feast with the so-called Apostle’s Fast, a variable fasting period that runs from the Monday after the Second Sunday of Pentecost (All Saints’ Sunday) to June 28. Though slightly more relaxed than Lenten and Dormition (Assumption) fasts, traditionally Byzantine Christians were expected to refrain from meat and dairy during this period, with allowances for fish on all days except Wednesdays and Fridays.
The Coptic and Ethiopian Catholic churches also celebrate the Feast on June 29 (called 5 Epip on their calendars). Non-Catholic Eastern churches, such as the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox, also honor the Apostles on June 29, with some slight variants in commemoration based on local praxis.
The Importance of the Feast
Although the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul was historically held with great solemnity in the Roman Catholic Church, its position has fallen significantly over the last two centuries. The requirement that June 29 be kept as a holiday day of obligation was relaxed starting in the 1800s, with the bishops of the United States suppressing its obligatoriness in 1840. Still, some countries keep the feast as a holy day, including England, Scotland, and Wales. It also remains a holy day of obligation in Rome.
Even if the Feast is not kept with the same honor it once was, the importance of these saints is in no way diminished. At the Society of Saint Pius X’s (SSPX) ordinations in 1976, Archbishop Lefebvre took pause to invoke these saints as part of his cry for loyalty to the Church and Tradition:
We ask this especially of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary and of Saints Peter and Paul today. Let us ask the Most Blessed Virgin, who is the Mother of the Priesthood, to give these young men the true grace of the priesthood; to give them the Holy Ghost in Whose giving she was intermediary the day of Pentecost.
Let us ask St. Peter and St. Paul to maintain in us this faith in Peter. Ah, yes, we believe in Peter, we believe in the Successor of Peter! But as Pope Pius IX says well in his dogmatic constitution, the Pope has received the Holy Ghost, not to make new truths, but to maintain us in the Faith of all time. This is the definition of the Pope made at the time of the First Vatican Council by Pope Pius IX. And that is why we are persuaded that, in maintaining these traditions, we are manifesting our love, our docility, our obedience to the Successor of Peter.
May their prayers continue to fortify the Church today.