On May 13, 1981, four shots rang out in Saint Peter's Square. A gunman, Mehmet Ali Agca, had made an assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II as he greeted the crowds gathered there for his weekly audience. The gunman was apprehended immediately after being wrestled to the ground by a nun. As it turned out, he was a Turkish national whom many believe was contracted by the Soviet KGB to silence the Pope who had given a voice to the suffering of people living under communist rule. Despite the seriousness of his injuries, Pope John Paul II survived the attack and credited the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary for both protecting him and restoring him to health. And, in just eight short years following the attack, the countries of Eastern Europe living behind the Iron Curtain including Poland, Yugoslavia, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania, would be liberated from their communist governments almost overnight, and the Soviet Union would crumble under the weight of its corruption and godlessness. Many historians credit Pope John Paul II with helping to bring an end to the communist superpower which had murdered millions and had spread fear throughout the world.
In today's first reading, Peter - the first pope - was under a similar threat. He had been arrested by Herod who planned to execute him after Passover. However, the people of God had been praying incessantly for Peter. An angel of the Lord appeared to him in prison loosening his chains and leading him out past the guards to freedom. Just as all the powers of the Soviet Union were no match for the powerful intercession of the Mother of God on behalf of John Paul II, the power of Herod backed by the force of the Roman guards and legions were no match for the prayers of God's holy people.
In the gospel, Peter professes his faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Jesus rejoices in Peter's bold profession of faith because he recognizes that it wasn't the result of Peter's intelligence or powers of observation, but that it was a gift of insight given him directly by God himself. It was this faith that Jesus used to build his Church. And, Jesus promised that all the powers of hell itself would be no match for the faith that this simple fisherman professed. Peter would find this to be true in his own life up to the time that he was martyred in Rome. Jesus' promise would continue to hold true through the centuries up to the present day as we witnessed with the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II.
We see the same scene played out day after day in our world. The powers of hell strive to silence the good news which we live and proclaim as a Church. In China, Catholics are routinely imprisoned and tortured. In Pakistan, Christian churches are targeted for bombings and other acts of violence. And, in the United States, the followers of Jesus are routinely ridiculed in the media. Yet, the Church has survived every threat whether it be from the Roman Empire or the Soviet Union. Christians have courageously professed and lived their faith whether the persecutions originated with Nero or with Hitler.
How is it that for over two thousand years believers have never failed to pass on the good news of Jesus Christ to a world so hostile to the message and despite powers so opposed to it? It is for the same reason that Herod could not keep Peter chained to a prison wall in Jerusalem. It is for the same reason that an assassin's bullet could not silence the witness of Pope John Paul II. Very simply, God has willed that his Son, Jesus Christ, be proclaimed to all generations as Lord and Savior until the end of the world. No earthly power nor any power in hell will frustrate God's plan to bring salvation to the world he created in love.
Today, we gather in this place to celebrate the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. We celebrate Saint Peter's profession of faith upon which Jesus built his Church. We also celebrate Saint Paul who tirelessly preached the good news of Jesus' death and resurrection. We are here today because of them. And, not just them, but because of millions of believers who throughout the centuries sacrificed their lives to bear witness to Jesus Christ. The Church is still here two thousand years later, and - if Christ does not come in his glory in the meanwhile - the Church will be here two thousand years from now preaching the same gospel that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and the Savior of the World.
In every age, God provides the world with women and men of faith who witness powerfully to his love. It began with Saints Peter and Paul. The task now falls to each of us. In this place, Jesus invites us to a meal and asks each of us, "Who do you say that I am?". Thanks to the witness of Saints Peter and Paul, we already know the answer - Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God! Thanks to the witness of Pope John Paul II, we know that this truth has the power to change the course of history. What's to stop us, then, from leaving this place to proclaim to everyone we meet the joyful message of a God who loves us and has saved us in Jesus Christ?