Feast of St. Peter's Chains
by Father Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876


The Holy Church, today, celebrates a special feast in commemoration of the great benefit which God bestowed upon His people by miraculously delivering St. Peter, the visible head of the church, from prison. The entire event is described in the Acts of the Apostles, by St. Luke. Herod Agrippa, a son of Aristobulus, favored by the Roman Emperor Claudius, ruled over Judaea, with the title of king. To give more stability to his reign, he endeavored to make himself beloved by the Jews, for which there was no easier way than to persecute the Christians, especially those who fearlessly proclaimed the Gospel of Christ, as did the holy Apostles. He had, therefore, apprehended, and soon after beheaded, James the Great, brother of St. John, which bloody deed gave the Jews great satisfaction. To increase this, Herod commanded them to seize St. Peter, intending to make away with him in the same manner. His command was executed; Peter was taken prisoner, chained and locked in a narrow dungeon, which was guarded so vigilantly, that he could not escape. It was then near the Easter Festival, after which St. Peter was to be beheaded. The Christians, in deep distress, were praying day and night, that the Almighty would not permit His flock to be so soon deprived of its shepherd.

There was no human power to save him; but God, hearing the prayer of His people, delivered him by a miracle. On the eve of the day on which he was to be executed, God sent an Angel to set him free. Although heavily laden with chains, the holy Apostle slept peacefully, guarded by the soldiers. The Angel, who by his brightness, illumined the dungeon, struck him on the side and awakened him, saying: "Arise quickly. Gird thyself; put on thy sandals and cloak and follow me." The Apostle, whose chains had fallen from his hands, and who thought it all a dream, obeyed and followed the Angel. They passed the first and second watches without attracting their attention, and reached the iron gate which led into the street. The gate opened without the aid of human hands. After having conducted St. Peter through one street, the Angel vanished and was seen no more. Not until then did the holy Apostle realize that his deliverance was not a dream but a reality. Hence he began to praise the Almighty, exclaiming: "Now I know truly that the Lord has sent his Angel and delivered me out of the hands of Herod, and from all the expectation of the people of Judaea." He proceeded immediately to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where the faithful were assembled in prayer.

When he knocked at the door, a servant, named Rhode, came, and asked who was there. Judging by the voice that it was Peter, she was so greatly startled with joy and astonishment, that, without opening the door, she ran back to announce the news. They all believed that she was insane, but as she reiterated her words, some said that it must be his guardian Angel. Meanwhile, the Saint repeated his knocking at the door. They opened it and perceived, with amazement, their beloved shepherd safe and free from chains. Their joy on beholding him was as great as had been their grief when he was taken prisoner. Having given the sign for silence, St. Peter related all that had happened to him. They all gave thanks to Divine Providence when he had ended, and learned to trust in future to the heavenly power and mercy.

Among the sermons of St. Chrysostom, there is one in which he asserts, that the chains by which St. Peter had been bound to the ground, came into the possession of the Christians soon after his deliverance, and were held by them in great honor. Eudoxia, wife of the emperor Theodosius the Younger, received them as a present from the patriarch Juvenal, when on a visit to the holy places, and sent one of them to the Church at Constantinople. The other she gave to her daughter Eudoxia, who married the Emperor Valentinian III. Eudoxia showed the chain to Pope Sixtus III., who, on his part, showed her the one with which St. Peter had been bound, before the Emperor Nero sentenced him to die. No sooner had the two chains been held together, than they suddenly united as if they had been but one chain and forged by the same hand. This miracle increased the veneration in which these chains were held, and actuated Eudoxia to build a special church at Rome for their keeping, where they can still be seen. Many sick were healed by their touch and many possessed were delivered; among the latter was a Count of the court of the Emperor Otho, who, in the year 969, was sent to Rome to be freed from the Evil Spirit. Pope John XIII. had hardly touched the count's neck with the holy chains, when he was relieved and his torments were ended.

St. Gregory the Great, writes that it was considered a great happiness to possess a few particles filed off from these chains, and that many persons devoutly wore them enclosed in golden crosses and lockets around their necks. Experience has shown that the touch of these crosses or lockets has restored health to many a sick person. A nobleman, who scoffed at this, and, in derision, dared to break one of these crosses, was severely chastised. He was instantly possessed by the Evil One and became so enraged that he took his own life, as St. Gregory relates. St. Augustine states that the iron of these precious chains is justly esteemed far above gold. Blessed are those fetters which touched the apostle and made him a martyr. "The touch of the blessed limbs of St. Peter has sanctified the instruments of torture." In another place the same Saint says: "If the shadow of St. Peter possessed a healing virtue, how much greater power must the chains of his sufferings have derived from him."



PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS


St. Peter was innocent, yet persecuted, imprisoned, chained and sentenced to die, which shows that God allows His most faithful servants and best friends to be unjustly persecuted. St. Peter was not much disturbed at his imprisonment, but placing his trust in God, he peacefully slept in his chains. May this instruct you how to conduct yourself under trials. A good conscience and submission to the Divine Will were the means by which St. Peter's sleep, even in a dungeon, was not disturbed. Submit also, under all circumstances, to the Divine Will; endeavor to keep your conscience clear; and your mind will, at all times, be cheerful and quiet. As no human assistance was left to St. Peter and he was to be executed the next day, God delivered him by a miracle. Such is frequently the way of the Almighty with us. He waits until danger has reached its height, and we must despair of human help; then He suddenly manifests His power and His mercy. Hence, never give way to despondency in grief or sorrow, but trust in God. "If it has reached its height, hope most; for it is then that God shows most clearly His might," says St. Chrysostom.




Prayer from the Liturgical Year, 1909


Put thy feet into the fetters of Wisdom, and thy neck into her chains, said the Holy Spirit under the ancient alliance; . . . and be not grieved with her bands. . . . For in the latter end thou shalt find rest in her, and she shall be turned to thy joy. Then shall her fetters be a strong defense for thee . . . and her bands are a healthful binding. Thou shalt put her on as a robe of glory (Eccli. vi. 25-32). Incarnate Wisdom, applying the prophecy to thee, O Prince of Apostles, declared that in testimony of thy love the day would come when thou shouldst suffer constraint and bondage. The trial, O Peter, was a convincing one for Eternal Wisdom, who proportions her requirements to the measure of her own love. But thou, too, didst find her faithful; in the days of the formidable combat, wherein she wished to show her power in thy weakness, she did not leave thee in bands; in her arms thou didst sleep so calm a sleep in Herod's prison; and, going down with thee into the pit of Nero, she faithfully kept thee company up to the hour when, subjecting the persecutors to the persecuted, she placed the sceptre in thy hands, and on thy brow the triple crown.

From the throne where thou reignest with the Man-God in heaven, as thou didst follow Him on earth in trials and anguish, loosen our bands which, alas! are not glorious ones such as thine: break these fetters of sin which bind us to Satan, these ties of all the passions which prevent us from soaring towards God. The world, more than ever enslaved in the infatuation of its false liberties which make it forget the only true freedom, has more need now of enfranchisement than in the times of pagan Caesars: be once more its deliverer, now that thou art more powerful than ever. May Rome especially, now fallen the lower because precipitated from a greater height, learn again the emancipating power which lurks in thy chains; they have become a rallying standard for her faithful children in these latter trials. Make good the word once uttered by her poets, that "encircled with these chains she will ever be free."




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Hymn: The Chains of Saint Peter

How blessed is the force of prayer:
Eager for Peter's fate,
Thy soldiers, Herod, bound him fast,
And watch'd before the gate.

But Jesus has His soldiers, too;
They also vigils keep;
They watch to prayer, while Peter rests
In faith composed in sleep.

And Jesus other soldiers has;
Responsive to the call
Of prayer His holy angels come,
Sent by the Lord of all.

Prayer brought an angel down from heaven;
Sentries and bars are vain;
With heavenly light the prison shines,
Unlocked is Peter's chain.




Hymn: Miris Modis

In wondrous mode set free, lo, at the Lord's command
The galling iron chain doth fall from Peter's hand,
From Peter, Shepherd blest, who doth with gentle sway,
His faithful children lead in virtue's fragrant way,
And e'er with watchful love the tempter drive away.

Now to the Father be eternal glory done;
Our songs we raise to Thee, O everlasting Son;
O Spirit from on high, Thy throne we bow before;
To Thee be honor, praise, and glory evermore:
The Holy Trinity we worship and adore.





Hymn: Quodcumque in orbe

Peter, whatever thou shalt bind on earth.
The same is bound above the starry sky;
What here thy delegated power doth loose,
Is loosed in heaven's supremest court on high:
To judgment shalt thou come,
when the world's end is nigh.

Praise to the Father, through all ages be!
The same to thee, O coeternal Son!
And Holy Ghost, one glorious Trinity;
To whom all majesty and might belong;
So sing we now, and such be
our eternal song. Amen




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Homily of St. Augustine


Peter alone among the Apostles was accounted worthy to hear: Amen I say to thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church. Worthy indeed was he to be the foundation-stone, the supporting pillar, the key to the kingdom, in building up the peoples into the house of God. Concerning this, the divine word says: And they laid, it says, their sick, that when Peter passed by, his shadow at the least might fall on them. If at that time the shadow of his body could give aid, how much more now can the fullness of his power? If a mere breath of air from him, as he passed by, was of such benefit to suppliants, how much more his favor now that he remains steadfast? With good reason is the iron of those Penal chains held throughout all the churches of Christ to be more precious than gold.

If the shadow of him who visited was so potent to cure, how much more the chains of him who binds? If even the mere appearance of an empty image could have the force of healing in it, how much more healthfulness should the chains, with which he suffered, whose iron weight had pressed upon his sacred members, deserve to draw forth from his body? If he was so mighty to help his suppliants before his martyrdom, how much more must he avail after his triumph?

V. Happy those bonds, which by touching the Apostle rendered him a Martyr, and so from menacles and fetters themselves were changed into a crown! Happy chains, which brought their prisoner even unto the cross of Christ, not so much for condemnation as for consecration!

R. Jesus said to His disciples: Who do men say that the Son of Man is? Peter answered and said: Thou art Christ, the son of the living God. And I say to thee: that thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church.





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