St Peter is a much-loved saint, perhaps because he often got things spectacularly wrong. His mistakes, well-recorded in the Gospels, are there for all to see, writes SUSAN GATELY
Peter could easily have thrown in the towel, especially after his public three-time denial of Jesus. Instead, he 'wept bitterly' and started again. He knew Jesus loved him and trusted him infinitely. Looking at Jesus he could walk on water. Experiencing the merciful love of the Risen Jesus, he could start over.
Andrew brought his brother Peter to meet Jesus. “Jesus looked hard at him and said ‘You are Simon, son of John; you are to be called Cephas’ - meaning Rock.”(Jn. 1:42). Pope Francis describes this look as the ‘gaze of choice’ with the ‘enthusiasm to follow Jesus’. (Osservatorio Romano 22/5/2015)
Peter is enthusiastic, a man of faith. Yet he appeals to us because he is also frail, humble, and conscious of his own weakness. “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man,” are the first words we hear him address to Jesus in Luke’s Gospel after the miraculous catch of fish (Lk 5:8). Jesus had asked him to “put out into the deep”. It was the wrong time for fishing. They had already fished all night, catching nothing, but having questioned Jesus’ judgement, Peter immediately obeyed. When he sees the huge catch he is moved, falling on his knees before Jesus. He realises Jesus’ greatness and his own nothingness.
It is later in Peter’s mission that Jesus explains to Peter the profound meaning of his name - the Rock. He had asked his apostles who people thought he was. Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, says “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” (Mt; 16:16) Moved by his answer, Jesus calls him ‘blessed’ and reveals to Peter who he is and what he must do: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church and the powers of death shall notprevail against it.”
Immediately afterwards Jesus begins to describe how he will suffer and die. Peter, perhaps feeling a certain pride in himself as the Church’s newly appointed chief executive takes Jesus aside. “This must not happen to you.” and from being ‘blessed’, Peter is reprimanded for his too human way of thinking. “Get behind me Satan.” (Mt 16:23).
Despite his mistakes, Peter is the acknowledged leader of the apostles, paying the shekel tax, booking the room for the last supper, accompanying Jesus (often with James and John) at key moments like the Transfiguration. His strong faith and frailty are contrasted vividly when he walks on the water. Peter sees Jesus walking on the water. Jesus bids him to join him. Immediately Peter steps out of the boat in faith but takes fright when he starts to sink, calling out to Jesus. “He discovers his own vulnerability,” says Fr Michael Mullins, author of many commentaries on the Gospels including The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Dublin: Columba, 2003). Jesus catches him, holds him, says “Why did you doubt?”
Jesus knows Peter as he is. He knows the Peter of faith who in answer to the question “What about you, do you want to go away too?” answers for them all; “Lord, who shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life and we believe; we know that you are the Holy One of God.” (Jn 6.67)
He also knows Peter will deny him. At the last supper he tells Peter he has prayed for him “that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Lk 22:31)
Preaching about St Peter in May 2015, Pope Francis described the ‘three gazes’ that Jesus had for the first Pope. The first, the gaze of ‘choice’, mentioned earlier, the second on Holy Thursday night when Peter denied Jesus. “Precisely in that moment, Jesus is led to another room, across the courtyard, and fixes his gaze on Peter. The Gospel of Luke recounts that ‘Peter cried bitterly.’ Thus, says Pope Francis, “that enthusiasm to follow Jesus has become remorse, for he has sinned, he has denied Jesus”. However, “that gaze transforms Peter’s heart, more than before”.
In her book, Servants of All (New York: New City Press, 1978), Chiara Lubich says that in contrast to this weakness of Peter, this temperament made of highs and lows, “what emerges majestically is the moving adamant faithfulness of Jesus to the man he has chosen”.
This trust in Peter is played out movingly on the lakeside after the resurrection when Jesus asks Peter three times ‘Do you love me?’ According to Fr Mullins, having Jesus ask twice made sense allowing his reply first, to feed the lambs, second to feed the sheep. Butthe third time, which seemed unnecessary, allowed Peter to make up completely for his three denials. Pope Francis sees in this incident the ‘third gaze’ - “the gaze of the mission”.
For the early Christian communities, Peter’s denial was important especially during the persecutions, like the frightful persecution by Nero. “A lot of people may very well have denied the faith and they were in danger of despairing so Peter’s story of denial and then re-instatement would have been important for them,” says Fr Mullins.
After Pentecost, Peter’s transformation is immense. He goes beyond his human abilities and limitations. He has started over and he is God’s instrument, seeing everything through the prism of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection through which God has brought about the fulfilment of the whole history of revelation. In his three great speeches, for example, in the Acts of the Apostles, “he opens the scriptures to people and is a spiritual guide,” says Fr Mullins.
At the same time, Peter keeps before himself at all times the figure of Christ, infinite love. “Let your love for each other be real and from the heart,” (1 Pt 22) he writes, putting into words the love and trust he himself experienced from Jesus that allowed him to begin anew each day.