A Glance Behind Peter’s Pence
Last Sunday at Mass the second collection which is usually for Share was replaced by one for ‘Peter’s Pence’. This is an annual suggested offering which is taken up throughout the Catholic world either on 29 June, the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, or on the Sunday closest to this feast. When the priest was notifying us about the change, he observed that he didn’t know exactly where this had its origins.
As a child I can recall Peter’s Pence vividly because I was quite fascinated by the alliterative sounding and somewhat whimsical title. All I knew about it then was that it was money that was given directly to the pope. It is in effect financial support offered by the faithful to the Holy Father as a sign of their sharing in the concern of the Successor of Peter for the many different needs of the Universal Church and for the relief of those most in need.
Anglo-Saxon Times and Onwards
Peter’s Pence derived its name from a ninth century English custom started by King Alfred the Great, who collected money from landowners as financial support for the pope. The term did not actually appear in writing until 1031. It was called Peter’s Pence because a penny from every house (subject to a means test) was collected on 1 August, the feast day of St Peter ad Vincula.
Alfred was a very devout man who at the very young age of four years had visited the pope, St Leo IV in Rome and because of that was to claim he was blessed with the right to rule. He founded monasteries and convinced foreign monks to relocate to them. Whilst he did not enact any major reforms to religious practice, Alfred did strive to appoint learned and pious bishops and abbots.
From this the Denarius Sancti Peter (Alms of St Peter) spread throughout Europe and the Northern Kingdoms. It was revived and formalised by Pope Pius IX in 1871 and was known as the Obolo di San Petro (“Offering from the Faithful”). This was the pope who donated money to Ireland during the Great Famine and under whose reign financial administration was increasingly put in the hands of laymen. In 1850 he had created a government finance body (“congregation”) consisting of four men with a background in finance. He gave his approval to Peter’s Pence in the Encyclical Letter Saepe Venerabilis.
A more recent Holy Father Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI called Peter’s Pence, “the most characteristic expression of the participation of all the faithful in the Bishop of Rome’s charitable initiatives in favour of the Universal Church.” The worldwide special collection goes to support the international ministries of the Holy See, its charitable and philanthropic work – special aid is given in the Pope’s name to dioceses and religious communities in particularly poor and needy parts of the world.
In recent years Pope Francis has given great attention to helping refugees in different parts of the world – and the Church is the largest provider of support for refugees in the world after the U. N.
When the Church celebrates the shared memorial on 29 June of Saints Peter and Paul, it is remembering that these two great apostles are the guardians of the faith and true guides of the faithful.
Peter was a brawny, unsophisticated fisherman who had to step up to the challenge of leading the young Church of Christ. Empowered at Pentecost, the once-cowardly man (who had denied Jesus), preached to thousands, set out on his own missionary journeys, healed the sick, negotiated Church disputes and endured imprisonment, death threats and his final persecution and martyrdom.
He and Paul were imprisoned in the infamous Mamertine Prison in Rome, and both had foreseen their approaching deaths. It is said they were martyred on the same day at the command of the notorious Emperor Nero. Their method of execution however differed greatly. St Peter was crucified, whereas St Paul was beheaded with a sword which befitted a citizen of Rome. Peter asked to be crucified upside down because he did not believe himself worthy to die in the same way as Christ.
The reference to Peter in Peter’s Pence emphasises that the current pontiff is inextricably linked to the man and the rock upon which Jesus built his Church.
Written by Marie – Therese Cryan