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Forgotten Customs of Saints Peter and Paul

Editor’s note: as we discussed last week in our post on June, this month all of our lay sodalities and efforts here at OnePeterFive have a confluence of purpose, not the least of which begins today with one of the most ancient customs of June: the Apostles Fast. Besides the liturgical and spiritual greatness of June and the importance of the feast itself, we certainly have many reasons to invoke the intercession of the “New Romulus and Remus” throughout this month.

The Ancient, Yet Forgotten Apostles Fast

The observance of a fast leading up to the Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul likely originated in the Early Church. While this fasting period fell out of observance in the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Catholic Church still observes this fast to some extent. Fr. R. Janin summarizes the Traditional Byzantine Fast and Abstinence observance for the Apostles Fast:

This varies from 9 to 42 days depending on the feast of Easter. It begins on the first Monday after Pentecost until the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. This Lent has the same rules as Great Lent but oil and fish are tolerated (in some places) except on Wednesdays and Fridays.

Even in the Eastern Churches, there is a little divergence on the date when the Fast begins. The Coptic and Old Syrian traditions keep the fast on the First Monday after Pentecost (as noted above), yet in the current Byzantine tradition, the fast begins on the Second Monday after Pentecost (i.e., the day following All Saints Sunday in their calendar).

Join the Fellowship of St. Nicholas to participate in this ancient fast this year!

The Vigil of Ss. Peter and Paul

While the Apostles Fast fell out of observance in the West, the Roman Church retained two fasting Vigils around this time: the Vigil of Pentecost and the Vigil of Ss. Peter and Paul. In addition, the Ember Days also remained during the Octave of Pentecost. As a result, only a fragment of the fasting that was originally practiced during the early summer months persisted in the Roman Rite.

The Vigil of Ss. Peter and Paul ceased being a fast day in America by 1842. In Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, and Canada the Vigil of Ss. Peter and Paul remained a day of fasting and abstinence up until the 1917 Code of Canon law. In 1902, the Holy Father granted a special dispensation for Catholics in England from fasting on the Vigil of Ss. Peter and Paul in honor of the coronation of King Edward VII, illustrating historical proof of its observance in the early part of the 20th century.

Per the 1917 Code, fasting and abstinence were not observed should a vigil fall on a Sunday: “If a vigil that is a fast day falls on a Sunday the fast is not to be anticipated on Saturday but is dropped altogether that year.” However, beforehand, the fast was transferred to the Saturday previous. As a result, in years when the Vigil of Ss. Peter and Paul (June 28th) falls on a Sunday, we can observe the fast and abstinence on Saturday. Other years, we can observe June 28th as a day of fasting and abstinence to prepare for the Feast in honor of Ss. Peter and Paul.

The wisdom of Dom Gueranger, written in the late 1800s, can apply to us even today:

Let us, then, recollect ourselves, preparing our hearts in union with holy Church, by faithfully observing this vigil. When the obligation of thus keeping up certain days of preparation previous to the festivals is strictly maintained by a people, it is a sign that Faith is still living amongst them; it proves that they understand the greatness of that which the holy liturgy proposes to their homage.

Christians in the West, we who make the glory of Saints Peter and Paul our boast, let us remember the Lent in honor of the Apostles begun by Greek schismatics on the close of the Paschal solemnities, and continued up to this day. The contrast between them and ourselves will be of a nature to stir softness and ingratitude hold too large a share. If certain concessions have, for grave reasons, been reluctantly made by the Church, so that the fast of this vigil is no longer observed, let us see therein a double motive for holding fast to her precious Tradition. Let us make up by fervor, thanksgiving and love, for the severity lacking in our observance, which is yet still maintained by so many Churches notwithstanding their schismatic separation from Rome.

Ss. Peter and Paul Are Always Mentioned Together

Ss. Peter and Paul is an interesting feastday as it honors both St. Peter and St. Paul. Interestingly, in the Church’s rubrics, any collect of St. Paul is always followed by one for St. Peter, and vice versa. This custom extends back to the Middle Ages. The Rubrics for the Roman Breviary and Mass, published in 1960, state the following as rubric #110:

The commemoration of St. Paul is always made in the Office and Mass of St. Peter, and vice versa. This commemoration is termed inseparable and the two prayers are considered to be united in such a way that, in counting the number of prayers, they are reckoned only as one.

It should be noted that this rubric is a 1960 innovation as beforehand there was always a separate commemoration made. But the point remains that Ss. Peter and Paul are intricately united in the Church’s Liturgy.

The Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul as a Universal Holy Day of Obligation

All of the feasts of the Apostles were Holy Days of Obligation on the Universal Calendar from 932 AD – as cited by Father Weiser on page 279 in his Christian Feasts and Customs – to 1911. However, most localities did not observe all of these feastdays as Holy Days. Yet, the Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul was the most commonly observed Holy Day among the feasts of the Apostles. The Liturgical celebration of Ss. Peter and Paul dates back to ancient times with this particular feast of the Apostles being a Holy Day of Obligation, according to Father Weiser, since the 5th century. For example, after the changes to Holy Days of Obligation in Ireland in the mid-1700s, Ss. Peter and Paul remained a day of double precept.

At the time of the formation of the United States, the holy days of obligation, in addition to every Sunday, were as follows for the new country: the feasts of Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Annunciation, Easter Monday, Ascension, Whitsun Monday, Corpus Christi, Ss. Peter and Paul, Assumption, and All Saints. But even though these were the “official” holy days, practices varied across the dioceses in the United States as there was no uniformity until 1885.

In 1722, Bishop Giffard, the Vicar Apostolic of London, approved a dispensation “on behalf of the mission of Maryland for the ease and quiet of poor Catholics of that Mission” to sanction a dispensation of holy days. He granted the Maryland Superior the faculties to dispense Catholics from holy days and fasting obligations. As American Catholic Quarterly Review notes,

Bishop Giffard permitted the Jesuits to dispense Catholics in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania from the obligations of all holy days for just cause, e.g. getting in crops at harvest, between May 1 and September 30, respect for the feasts of Ascension, Easter Monday, Corpus Christi, and Assumption

On March 9, 1777, Pope Pius VI “dispensed all Catholics in the kingdom of Great Britain from the precept of hearing Mass and abstaining from servile works on all holydays except the Sundays of the year, the feasts of Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Annunciation, Easter Monday, Ascension, Whitsun Monday, Corpus Christi, St Peter and St Paul, Assumption, and All Saints.” As the Catholic Dictionary of 1861 further states:

The Vigils of the Feasts thus abrogated his Holiness transferred to the Wednesdays and Fridays of Advent, on which he ordered that fast should be kept as in Lent or Embertide, ‘although it is an English custom to keep fasts and vigils on Friday.’ The pope adds a power to the Vicars Apostolic to dispense from the precept of abstaining from servile works on SS. Peter and Paul falling in the hay-harvest, and the Assumption in the wheat-harvest, provided Mass has been previously heard, if possible.

And Ss. Peter and Paul seemed to have been dispensed for those Catholics in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, America’s first Archdiocese. An 1818 Ordo for the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Baltimore does not list Ss. Peter and Paul as a required day of precept.

Before 1885, holy days varied within various jurisdictions in the United States. Those formerly French colonies (which followed the Holy Days as set by Quebec) differed from the English. This disunity continued for the young United States since new territories (e.g., Florida, Texas, and Oregon) did not follow the same holy days of obligation and the same fasting days.

Even after the significant changes made by Pope St. Pius X to the list of Holy Days in 1911, Ss. Peter and Paul remained a Holy Day of Obligation in the Universal Church, though it was not reestablished as such in the United States: “Where, however, any of the above feasts has been abolished or transferred, the new legislation is not effective. In the United States consequently the Epiphany and the feast of Saints Peter and Paul are not days of precept” (Catholic Encyclopedia).

European Customs in Honor of Ss. Peter and Paul

Father Weiser relates some of the following customs associated with June 29th:

In Hungary, grains are blessed by the priest after Mass on Peter and Paul’s Day. People weave crowns, crosses, and other religious symbols from straw, have them blessed, and carry them on wooden poles in procession around the church. Afterward they take them home and keep them suspended from the ceiling over the dinner table. Bread is also blessed in a special ceremony on this day in Hungary.

A moving custom is practiced in rural sections of the Alpine countries. On June 29, when the church bells ring the “Angelus” early in the morning, people step under the trees in their gardens, kneel down and say the traditional prayer the “Angel of the Lord.” Having finished the prayer they bow deeply and make the sign of the cross, believing that on Saint Peter’s Day the blessing of the Holy Father in Rome is carried by angels throughout the world to all who sincerely await it.

Sadly, as with most customs associated with the liturgical era, these faded into history when devotion faded from modern man’s life.

Priests Obliged to Solemnize the Feast on the Following Sunday

In 1840, Pope Gregory XVI dispensed the remaining dioceses then in the United States from keeping Ss. Peter and Paul as a Holy Day of Obligation. Permission however was granted to the United States on December 19, 1840, to solemnize the Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul the Sunday following June 29th. Such permission had been given for this Feastday in addition to Epiphany, Corpus Christi, and the patrons of the place to the French by Pope Pius VI on April 9, 1802.

In fact, it was a requirement for priests in the United States to continue to solemnize the feast on the following Sunday – a requirement that continued even through the 1962 Missal. Matters Liturgical from 1959 notes:

The external solemnity of the feast of Corpus Christi must be transferred in the United States and celebrated on the Sunday following; this is also prescribed for the feast of SS. Peter & Paul (June 29), when this feast falls on a week day (Indult of Nov. 25, 1885). Hence, where on Sundays the principal Mass is usually a sung Mass, on the Sundays following these feasts this sung Mass in churches and public oratories must, and in semi-public oratories may, be of the transferred external solemnity (S.R.C. 2974, IV; 4269, IX). This Mass shall be celebrated as on the feast, with only those occurring Offices to be commemorated as are noted in n. 209 f, even if the Mass is one of two or more different sung Masses, the rubrics in M.R.: ADD., v, 4 being now abrogated.

Its observance as an external solemnity in other nations (e.g., France) is optional. As such, liturgists who are often quoted like Father J.B. O’Connell do not mention this requirement in his rubrics for Votive Masses as he did not write from an American perspective.

Despite these changes over the centuries, the fact that so many observed Ss. Peter and Paul as a Holy Day for so long underscore our own need to keep this day holy, to attend the External Solemnity of Ss. Peter and Paul and our need to keep the Vigil of Ss. Peter and Paul as a day of fasting and abstinence.

Commemoration of St. Paul

Each year on June 30th, the Church commemorates St. Paul. Why this ancient commemoration the day after he is already celebrated? Father Weiser comments on the history of this liturgical Commemoration, showing that it dates back to ancient times, much like the aforementioned ancient Roman custom regarding the collects:

According to ancient tradition these two Apostles were put to death by Emperor Nero (64). Peter died by crucifixion in the public circus or amphitheater at the Vatican hill; Paul was beheaded outside the city. The special celebrations which the Christians in Rome held in honor of the “Princes of the Apostles” are known from earliest times. At the end of the fourth century the faithful thronged the streets on June 29 going in pilgrimage to the Vatican (Saint Peter’s) and from there to the Church of Saint Paul’s “outside the walls,” praying at the shrines and attending the pontifical Mass which the pope celebrated first at Saint Peter’s, then at Saint Paul’s.

Since the great distance between the two churches made it quite inconvenient, both for the pope and for the people, to perform the two services on the same morning, the liturgy of the feast was divided in the sixth century, and the Mass in honor of Saint Paul was henceforth celebrated on the following day. This “commemoration of Saint Paul” has remained a liturgical feast on June 30 ever since.

Likewise, New Liturgical Movement expands upon this and mentions several customs present in the Middle Ages for the day after Ss. Peter and Paul:

The following day, therefore, the whole of the liturgy is dedicated to St Paul, and is not called a day within the octave of the Apostles, but rather “the Commemoration of St Paul.” The variable texts of the Mass all refer to him, but a commemoration of St Peter is added to the feast, in accordance with the tradition that the two are never entirely separated in the veneration paid them by the Church. (The same is done on the feast of St Paul’s Conversion, and commemorations of him are added to the feasts of St Peter’s Chairs and Chains.) The Office is likewise dedicated entirely to him; both the Mass and Office, however, make use of St Paul’s own testimony in Galatians 2 to the mission of the two Apostles: “For he who worked in Peter for the apostleship of the circumcision, worked in me also among the gentiles; and they knew the grace of God that was given to me.” In the 1130s, a canon of St Peter’s Basilica named Benedict writes that it was still the custom in his time for the Pope to keep the feast of St Peter at the Vatican, but then celebrate Vespers at the tomb of St Paul in the great Basilica on the Ostian Way, “with all the choirs” of the city.

The Octave of Ss. Peter and Paul

The Octave of this feast, like so many other Octaves, was another casualty in 1955 that few people spiritually celebrate anymore. This is a Common Octave meaning that the days within (i.e., Days 2-7 which are Semidouble) yield to all Double and Semidouble feasts but have precedence over Simple feasts. The Octave is commemorated daily at Lauds, Mass, and Vespers when a higher feast occurs except if the feast is a Double of the First or Second class in which case the Octave is not commemorated. In practice, as laypeople, we can add to our morning and evening prayers (in either the Divine Office or in personal prayer) the collect from Ss. Peter and Paul which asks:

O God, Who hast consecrated this day to the martyrdom of Thine apostles Peter and Paul, grant to Thy Church in all things to follow their teaching from whom it received the right ordering of religion in the beginning. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, Forever and ever.

In practice, the only intra octave day where the Mass of Ss. Peter and Paul could be celebrated would be July 4th. The other intra octave days would be outranked by the liturgical feasts already on the Universal Calendar of Saints. Yet July 4th is Our Lady of Refuge in the Diocese of San Diego and in some places, such as Los Angeles and Brooklyn, it is the Commemoration of All Holy Popes.

The Commemoration of All Holy Popes

Listed in the pre-1962 Missal is an often-unknown feast for July 4th: “The Commemoration of All Holy Popes.” This Mass was a “Mass in Some Places” and was not universally celebrated. It is unfortunate that a quick internet search also reveals that few English websites have any information on this feast at all. In fact, the only substantial reference is to the 1960 Breviarium general norms which state, “124. Likewise, red is used in the office and Mass of feasts: … d) of the commemoration of all holy popes…”

Why celebrate this feast on July 4th? An Italian source from 1719 describes it as the result of the Octave of Ss. Peter and Paul:

On Sunday after the Octave of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul is solemnly celebrated as a double in the Vatican Basilica the Universal commemoration of all of the holy Popes of the Roman Church with its proper office granted by the Sacred Congregration of Rites on March 20, 1683…[1]

For our part, we can pray a litany to all canonized popes on July 4th, offering it up especially for the conversion of the United States.


The Vigil of Ss. Peter and Paul was kept as a fasting day until the time of St. Pius X, and the Vigil of Pentecost was kept as a fasting day until the changes post Vatican II. Like the Ember Days which also fell by the wayside, the end of the fast on the Vigil of the feast removed the last vestiges of “Summer Lent.” Let us not allow these days to pass without using them to perform penance and make satisfaction for sin.

And as it concerns the feastday itself, let us celebrate it fittingly and pray for union with all separated Christians – especially those in the East with valid Sacraments but who are separated from Catholic unity. May we, one day very soon, be united in the same profession of Faith, with the same Sacraments, and under the same hierarchy.

Ss. Peter and Paul, orate pro nobis!

[1] Translation of Emerologio Di Roma Cristiana, Ecclesiastica, e Gentile by Claudio Salvucci via Facebook.

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