10 - 14 minutes readAugust 1 – Saint Peter’s Chains ~ Dom Prosper Gueranger

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August 1 – Saint Peter’s Chains

Rome, making a god of the man who had subjugated her, consecrated the month of August to Cæsar Augustus. When Christ had delivered her, she placed at the head of this same month, as a trophy of her regained liberty, the feast of the chains, wherewith, in order to break hers, Peter the Vicar of Christ had once been bound. O Divine Wisdom, who hast a better claim to reign over this month than had the adopted son of Cæsar, thou couldst not have more authentically inaugurated thy empire. Strength and sweetness are the attributes of thy works, and it is in the weakness of thy chosen ones that thou triumphest over the powerful. Thou thyself, in order to give us life, didst swallow death; Simon, son of John, became a captive, to set free the world entrusted to him. First Herod, and then Nero showed him the cost of the promise he had once received, of binding and loosing on earth as in heaven: he had to share the love of the Supreme Shepherd, even to allowing himself, like him, to be bound with chains for the sake of the flock, and led where he would not.

Glorious chains! never will ye make Peter’s successors tremble any more than Peter himself; before the Herods and Neros and Cæsars of all ages ye will be the guarantee of the liberty of souls. With what veneration have the Christian people honored you, ever since the earliest times! One may truly say of the present feast that its origin is lost in the darkness of ages. According to ancient monuments, St. Peter himself first consecrated on this date the basilica on the highest of the seven hills, where the citizens of Rome are gathered today. The name Title of Eudoxia, by which the venerable Church is often designated, seems to have arisen from certain restorations made on occasion of the events mentioned in the Lessons. As to the sacred chains, which are its treasure, the earliest mention now extant of honor being paid to them occurs in the beginning of the second century. Balbina, daughter of the tribune Quirinus, keeper of the prisons, had been cured by touching the chains of the holy Pope Alexander; she could not cease kissing the hands which had healed her. “Find the chains of blessed Peter, and kiss them rather than these,” said the Pontiff. Balbina, therefore, having fortunately found the Apostle’s chains, lavished her pious veneration upon them, and afterwards gave them to the noble Theodora, sister of Hermes.

The irons which had bound the arms of the Doctor of the Gentiles, without being able to bind the word of God, were also after his martyrdom treasured more than jewels and gold. From Antioch, in Syria, St. John Chrysostom, thinking with holy envy of the lands enriched by these trophies of triumphant bondage, cried out in a sublime transport: “What more magnificent than these chains? Prisoner for Christ is a more beautiful name than that of Apostle, Evangelist, or Doctor. To be bound for Christ’s sake is better than to dwell in the heavens; to sit upon the twelve thrones is not so great an honor. He that loves can understand me; but who can better understand these things than the holy choir of Apostles? As for me, if I were offered my choice between these chains and the whole of heaven, I should not hesitate; for in them is happiness. Would that I were now in those places, where it is said the chains of these admirable men are still kept! If it were given me to be set free from the care of this Church, and if I had a little health, I should not hesitate to undertake such a voyage only to see Paul’s chains. If they said to me: Which wouldst thou prefer, to be the Angel who delivered Peter or Peter himself in chains? I would rather be Peter, because of his chains.”

Though always venerated in the great basilica which enshrines his tomb, St. Paul’s chain has never been made, like those of St. Peter, the object of a special feast in the Church. This distinction was due to the pre-eminence of him “who alone received the keys of the kingdom of heaven to communicate them to others,” and who alone continues, in his successors, to bind and loose with sovereign power throughout the whole world. The collection of letters to St. Gregory the Great proves how universally, in the sixth century, was spread the cultus of these holy chains, a few filings of which enclosed in gold or silver keys was the richest present the Sovereign Pontiffs were wont to offer to the principal churches, or to princes whom they wished to honor. Constantinople, at some period not clearly determined, received a portion of these precious chains; she appointed a feast of the 16th of January, honoring on that day the Apostle Peter, as the occupant of the first See, the foundation of the faith, the immovable basis of dogma (Menæa Græca).

The following is the legend of the feast in the Roman Breviary:

Theodosio juniore imperante, cum Eudocia ejus uxor Jerosolymam solvendi voti causa venisset, ibi multis est affecta muneribus: præ cæteris insigne donum accepit ferreæ catenæ, auro gemmisque ornate: quam illam esse affirmabant, qua Petrus Apostolus ab Herode vinctus fuerat. Eudocia catenam pie venerata, eam postea Romam ad filiam Eudoxiam misit, quæ illam Pontifici maximo detulit: isque vicissim illi monstravit alteram catenam: qua, Nerone imperatore, idem Apostolus constrictus fuerat. During the reign of Theodosius the younger, Eudoxia, his wife, went to Jerusalem to fulfil a vow, and while there she was honored with many gifts, the greatest of which was an iron chain adorned with gold and precious stones, and said to be that wherewith the Apostle Peter had been bound by Herod. Eudoxia piously venerated this chain, and then sent it to Rome to her daughter Eudoxia. The latter took it to the Sovereign Pontiff, who in his turn showed her another chain which had bound the same Apostle, under Nero.
Cum igitur Pontifex Romanam catenam cum ea, quæ Jerosolymis allata fuerat, contulisset, factum est ut illæ inter se sic connecterentur, ut non duæ, sed una catena ab eodem artifice confecta esse videretur. Quo miraculo tantus honor sacris illis vinculis haberi cœpit, ut propterea hoc nomine sancti Petri ad Vincula ecclesia titulo Eudoxiæ, dedicata sit in Exquiliis, ejusque memoriæ dies festus institutus calendis Augusti. When the Pontiff thus brought together the Roman chain and that which had come from Jerusalem, they joined together in such a manner that they seemed no longer two chains, but a single one, made by one same workman. On account of this miracle the holy chains began to be held in so great honor, that a church at the title of Eudoxia on the Esquiline was dedicated under the name of St. Peter ad vincula, and the memory of its dedication was celebrated by a feast on the Kalends of August.
Quo ex tempore honos, qui eo die profanis Gentilium celebritatibus tribui solitus erat, Petri vinculis haberi cœpit: quæ tacta ægros sanabant, et dæmones ejiciebant. Quo in genere anno salutis humanæ mongentesimo sexagesimo nono accidit, ut quidam comes, Othonis imperatoris familiaris, occupatus ab immundo spiritu, seipsum dentibus dilaniaret. Quare is jussu imperatoris ad Joannem Pontificem ducitur: qui, ut sacra catena comitis collum attigit, erumpens nefarius spiritus hominem liberum reliquit: ac deinceps in Urbe sanctorum vinculorum religio propagata est. From that time St. Peter’s chains began to receive the honors of this day, instead of a pagan festival which it had been customary to celebrate. Contact with them healed the sick, and put the demons to flight. Thus, in the year of salvation 909, a certain count, who was very intimate with the Emperor Otho, was taken possession of by an unclean spirit, so that he tore his flesh with his own teeth. By command of the Emperor he was taken to the Pontiff John, who had no sooner touched the count’s neck with the holy chain than the wicked spirit was driven away, leaving the man entirely free. On this account devotion to the holy chains was spread throughout Rome.

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. 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 scepter 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 Cæsars: 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 had become a rallying standard for her faithful children in the latter trials of the 19th century. Make good the word once uttered by her poets (lines 1070-1076), that “encircled with these chains she will ever be free.”

The August heavens glitter with the brightest constellations of the sacred cycle. Even in the sixth century, the Second Council of Tours remarked that this month was filled with the feasts of Saints. My delights are to be with the children of men, says Wisdom; and in the month which echoes with her teachings, she seems to have made it her glory to be surrounded with blessed ones who, walking with her in the midst of the paths of judgment, have in finding her found life and salvation from the Lord. This noble court is presided over by the Queen of all grace, whose triumph consecrates this month and makes it the delight of that Wisdom of the Father, who, once enthroned in Mary, never quitted her. What a wealth of divine favors do the coming days promise to our souls! Never were our Father’s barns so well filled as at this season, when the earthly as well as the heavenly harvests are ripe.

While the Church on earth inaugurates these days by adorning herself with Peter’s chains as with a precious jewel, a constellation of seven stars appears for the third time in the heavens. The seven brothers Machabees preceded the sons of Symphorosa and Felicitas in the blood-stained arena; they followed divine Wisdom even before she had manifested her beauty in the flesh. The sacred cause of which they were the champions, their strength of soul under the tortures, their sublime answers to the executioners, were so evidently the type reproduced by the later Martyrs, that the Fathers of the first centuries with one accord claimed for the Christian Church these heroes of the synagogue, who could have gained such courage from no other source than their faith in the Christ to come. For this reason they alone of all the holy persons of the ancient covenant have found a place on the Christian cycle; all the Martyrologies and Calendars of East and West attest the universality of their cultus, while its antiquity is such as to rival that of St. Peter’s chains in that same basilica of Eudoxia where their precious relics lie.

At the time when in the hope of a better resurrection they refused under cruel torments to redeem their lives, other heroes of the same blood, inspired by the same faith, flew to arms and delivered their country from a terrible crisis. Several children of Israel, forgetting the traditions of their nation, had wished it to follow the customs of strange peoples; and the Lord, in punishment, had allowed Judea to feel the whole weight of a profane rule to which it had guiltily submitted. But when king Antiochus, taking advantage of the treason of a few and the carelessness of the majority, endeavored by his ordinances to blot out the divine law which alone gives power to man over man, Israel, suddenly awakened, met the tyrant with the double opposition of revolt and martyrdom. Judas Machabeus in immortal battles reclaimed for God the land of his inheritance, while by the virtue of their generous confession, the seven brothers also, his rivals in glory, recovered, as the Scripture says, the law out of the hands of the nations, and out of the hands of the kings. Soon afterwards, craving mercy under the hand of God and not finding it, Antiochus died, devoured by worms, just as later on, were to die the first and last persecutors of the Christians, Herod Agrippa and Galerius Maximian.

The Holy Ghost, who would himself hand down to posterity the acts of the Protomartyr of the New Law, did the same with regard to the passion of Stephen’s glorious predecessors in the ages of expectation. Indeed it was he who then, as under the law of Love, inspired with both words and courage these valiant brothers, and their still more admirable mother, who, seeing her seven sons one after the other suffering the most horrible tortures, uttered nothing but burning exhortations to die. Surrounded by their mutilated bodies, she mocked the tyrant who, in false piety, wished her to persuade at least the youngest to save his life; she bent over the last child of her tender love, and said to him: My son, have pity upon me, that bore thee nine months in my womb, and gave thee suck three years, and nourished thee, and brought thee up unto this age. I beseech thee, my son, look upon heaven and earth, and all that is in them: and consider that God made them out of nothing and mankind also: so thou shalt not fear this tormentor, but being made a worthy partner with thy brethren, receive death, that in that mercy I may receive thee again with thy brethren. And the intrepid youth ran in his innocence to the tortures; and the imcomparable mother followed her sons.

3rd Collect
Fraterna nos, Domine, Martyrum tuorum corona lætificet: quæ et fidei nostræ præbeat incrementa virtutum, et multiplici nos suffragio consoletur. Per Dominum. May the fraternal crown of thy martyrs rejoice us, O Lord, and may it procure for our faith an increase of virtue, and console us with multiplied intercession. Through, &c.


This text is taken from The Liturgical Year, authored by Dom Prosper Gueranger (1841-1875)