Father Joseph Egan was a long-time dogmatic theology professor at St. Bernard’s Seminary in Rochester, New York. It was always his contention that St. Luke wrote Acts of the Apostles in order to justify the missionary activity to the Gentiles by St. Paul in light of the prior if somewhat limited outreach to the Gentile world by St. Peter. By the time St. Luke was writing Acts, St. Peter’s stature within the Christian community was acknowledged and respected enough that any precedent St. Peter had initiated could justifiably be cited as reason for other followers of Christ, like St. Paul and St. Barnabas, to venture out into similar even if more extensive challenges and apostolates. Accordingly, St. Luke devotes an entire chapter of Acts to the conversion by St. Peter of the Gentile but God-fearing centurion Cornelius and his household.
Cornelius belonged to an auxiliary unit of archers (bows and arrows) that had roots in both Italy and Syria. He was a generous man, given to good works and charitable causes long before his conversion to Christianity. Through a Divinely inspired intuition, Cornelius sends for St. Peter who was staying at Joppa along the Palestinian coastline. Through an equally Divinely inspired intuition, St. Peter has a preparatory vision in which food previously considered unclean by Jewish law is declared clean and acceptable to the new Christian movement. This revelation would make St. Peter’s sojourn at Cornelius’ Gentile home much easier. Former Mosaic restrictions were gradually being forfeited by recently converted Jews in preparation for a wider Christian community. Cornelius, for his part, broadens his conversion event even more by inviting Gentile friends into his home to encounter St. Peter on his arrival. Cornelius himself dramatically falls to his feet when St. Peter arrives, sensing that he is in the presence of Divine activity.
St. Peter then shares with the assembled Gentile gathering a brief history of salvation. Indeed, God did call and favor the Jews of antiquity but God’s kindness to the Jews should not be understood to limit God’s benevolence to one race. Jesus Christ came as God’s Son to announce and achieve salvation for all peoples. Christ did this through his public ministry of preaching and healing but also, and especially, through his death and resurrection. Here, in his brief outline of the Good News being shared with Cornelius and his neighbors, St. Peter is careful to include first a mention of Israel, then some details of Christ’s earthly life, and finally the fulfillment realized by Christ’s Resurrection. The early Christian community would continue this three-fold teaching in the “kerygma,” the preaching outline that became the core of the apostolic message.
In a vivid repeat of the Pentecost Sunday event, the Holy Spirit descends powerfully on the small Gentile group and they begin to express the authenticity of their newly found faith through utterances and ecstasies. With joy and gladness beyond words, Cornelius and his Gentile friends are powerfully embraced by God and they themselves powerfully embrace God in return. St. Peter recognizes the genuineness of their faith and calls for baptism by water of these men and woman and their families whom God has obviously already selected as his children. “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit even as we have?” Thus a new and broader epoch in salvation history begins not with the later instigation of St. Paul as is often thought but rather with the initial ingenuity of St. Peter, the true cornerstone of the Church’s missionary apostolate.
The Jewish Scriptures did occasionally recognize God’s universal call to holiness. The magnanimous depiction of Ruth, the Moabite daughter-in-law of Naomi, whose fidelity to her elderly relative is still celebrated in song was one hint at a wider believing community. The hapless Jonah who fought against preaching to Nineveh’s Gentiles got a whale of a comeuppance for his narrowness. But St. Peter’s innovative words to Cornelius leave no doubt about the Church’s universal mission: “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.” From the beginning, the Church was meant to be Catholic.