This is why Saint Bernard of Clairvaux so often addresses this subject in his sermons to his monks. For this feast of Saints Peter and Paul we send you some passages of two of his sermons for this feast which contain a consoling antidote to this particularly dangerous poison which the enemy of our souls tries to inject in them to deprive them of eternal life.
St. Bernard: Sermon I for the feast of Saints Peter and Paul
1. A glorious feast dawns upon us which splendid martyrs, the leaders of the martyrs, the princes of the Apostles, consecrated by their renowned deaths. I speak of Peter and Paul, two great lamps which God placed in the body of His Church like eyes giving a twin light. They have been given me as teachers and mediators to whom I might securely confide myself : for they have made known to me the ways of life and through them I will be able to ascend to that Mediator who came to pacify all things in heaven and on earth (…) How will I dare approach Him, I who am a sinner who has sinned exceedingly, who has sins whose number exceed that of the sand of the sea, when He cannot be purer and I cannot be more impure ? I fear lest I fall into the hands of the living God if I presume to approach Him from whom I differ as much as evil differs from good.
That is why God gave me these men who are at the same time men and sinners and very great sinners, who thus have learned in themselves and from their own experience how they ought to be merciful towards others. For those who are guilty of great crimes will easily pardon great crimes, and in the measure that has been measured to them they will grant remission to us. Peter the Apostle sinned greatly and perhaps committed the greatest sin there ever was : and his pardon was as quick as it was easy, and in such a way that he lost nothing of the singularity of his primacy. However Paul as well, who ravaged the very entrails of the Church in a manner that was as unique as it was incomparable, is led to the faith by the voice of the Son of God Himself, and in exchange for such great evils was filled with so many goods that He became a chosen vessel to carry His name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel. He was a worthy vessel, filled with celestial victuals, from which the healthy might receive food and the infirm medicine.
2. Thus it behoved that pastors and doctors be constituted who would be gentle and powerful and nonetheless wise (…)
Sermon III “These are men of mercy” (Eccl. XLIV : 10)
1. Rightly, dear brethren, Holy Mother the Church attributes to the holy apostles the text :“But these are men of mercy, whose godly deeds have not failed:: good things continue with their seed.” (Eccl. XLIV : 10-11) For they are clearly men of mercy, because they have received mercy (…) Question Paul about himself, or rather hear him declaring spontaneously : “I was a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and contumelious. But I obtained the mercy of God” (I Tim 1 : 10).
For who has not heard how much evil he did to the saints in Jerusalem ? And not only in Jerusalem, but the bridle of his frenzy drew him through all of Judea, lacerating the members of Christ on the earth. He was going around, impelled by this madness, but grace came to meet him. As he was going, breathing threats and murder against the disciples of Christ, he became a disciple of Christ, and it was shown to him how much he would have to suffer for His name. He was going around, exhaling from his whole body a fearful stench, and suddenly he was changed into a chosen vessel, so that his heart enounced this good and holy word : “Lord, what wouldst thou have me do ?” (Acts IV).(…) Thus he rightly said later : “A faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners, of whom I am the chief” (I Tim 1 : 15).
Receive then this confidence and consolation from Saint Paul, brethren, so that having been converted to the Lord, the consciousness of your past sins not excessively torment but only humble you as it did him. “I am the least of the apostles”, he says, “who am not worthy to be called an apostle because I persecuted the church of God” (I Co XV : 9). Thus may we also humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God and have confidence, for we also have obtained mercy, we have been washed, we have been sanctified. And this applies to all of us, for we have all sinned and do need the glory of God (Rm III : 23).
2. But with regard to Peter I have something to bring forth which is all the more precious that it is more rare, and all the more unique that it is more sublime. For Paul sinned, but he did it ignorantly in unbelief : when Peter fell, he has his eyes open. Thus where sin abounded, grace also superabounded. It is certainly abundant, the redemption of those who sinned before they knew God, before they had experienced His mercies, before they had borne His sweet yoke and light burden, before they had received the grace of devotion and the consolations of the Holy Ghost. And all of us were such. But of those who, after their conversion, become caught up in sins and vices, ungrateful for the grace they had received, who, become tepid and carnal, turn back after having put their hand to the plough, who, after having known the way of truth go back and become manifest apostates, of these, I say, you will find very few who after these things come back to their pristine state, but rather placed in filth, they become filthier still (Apo XXII : 11). It is these that the prophet deplores, saying : “How is the gold become dim, the finest colour changed !” and “They that were fed delicately have died in the streets ; they that were brought up in scarlet have embraced the dung” (Lam. IV : 1, 5).
3. Nonetheless, if someone is in this state, let us not despair for him, but let him will to rise quickly. For the longer he remains like this, the more difficult will it be for him to change. May blessed be he who takes hold of the little ones of Babylon and dashes them against the stone : for if they grow up, they will hardly let themselves be overcome. Little sons, I say these things that you might not sin. But is someone has sinned, we have an Advocate who is before the Father who can do what we cannot do at all : only may he who has fallen not add to the evil by falling deeper, but rather may he rise, having confidence that neither will pardon be denied to him, if, nevertheless, he confess from his heart his sins. For is this Peter, of whom we speak, came back, after such a grave fall, to such an eminent sanctity, who else should ever despair, if only he wishes to come out of his sins ?
Hear what is written: “Going out, he wept bitterly” (Mt XVI : 75). The going out is the confession of the mouth, the bitter weeping is the compunction of the heart. And note that then he first remembers the words that Jesus had said : then first penetrate his heart the words by which his weakness had been predicted, when his temerity has vanished. But woe to you who, after your fall, show yourself to be stronger than us. Why are you so hard, unto your own destruction ? Incline yourself, rather, that you might the better be raised, and don’t refuse to let what is crooked be broken so that it might better become whole. Why do you become indignant at the cock that crows ? Be indignant rather at yourself. (…)
4. You have now heard what mercy our apostles obtained, so that no one among you might be confounded more than necessary by his past sins, full of compunction in the chamber of his conscience. What then ? perhaps you have sinned in the world, but more than Paul ? Or perhaps even in religious life, but more than Peter ? Nonetheless, repenting with their whole hearts, they not only obtained salvation, but attained sanctity ; more, they even became ministers of salvation and doctors of sanctity. You then do likewise, because it is for your sake that Scripture says that these are men of mercy because of the great mercy that they obtained. (…)