The Pope: On Peter, the Apostle

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In these catecheses we are meditating on the Church. We have said that the Church lives in people and because of this, in the last catechesis, we began to meditate on the figure of the individual apostles, beginning with St. Peter. We saw two decisive stages of his life: the calling on the Lake of Galilee and then the confession of faith: “You are the Christ, the Messiah.” A confession, we said, that is still insufficient, initial though open.

St. Peter undertakes a journey of following. Thus, this initial confession already bears in itself, like a seed, the future faith of the Church. Today we wish to consider two other events in the life of St. Peter: the multiplication of the loaves. We just heard in the passage read the Lord’s question and Peter’s answer, and then the passage when the Lord calls Peter to be shepherd of the universal Church.

We begin with the event of the multiplication of loaves. You know that the people had heard the Lord for hours. At the end, Jesus said: They are tired, they are hungry, we must give these people something to eat. The apostles asked him: But how? And Andrew, Peter’s brother, calls Jesus’ attention to a boy who was carrying five loaves and two fish. But of what use are these for so many people? the apostles wondered.

Then the Lord had the people sit down and had the five loaves and two fish distributed. And all were filled. What is more, the Lord asked the apostles, and among them Peter, to gather the abundant leftovers: 12 baskets of bread (cf. John 12-13). Then the people, seeing this miracle — which seemed to be the much-awaited renewal of the new “manna,” the gift of bread from heaven — want to make him their king.

But Jesus did not accept and withdrew to the mountain to pray alone. The following day, on the other side of the lake, in the synagogue of Capernaum, Jesus interpreted the miracle — not in the sense of kingship over Israel with a power of this world in the manner expected by the crowd, but in the sense of gift of self: “The bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51). Jesus announces the cross and with the cross the true multiplication of loaves, of the Eucharistic bread — his absolutely new way of being king, a way totally contrary to the people’s expectations.

We can understand that these words of the Master — who did not want to carry out a multiplication of loaves every day, who did not want to offer Israel a power of this world — were truly difficult, even unacceptable, for the people. “Gives his flesh” — what does this mean? And even for the disciples, what Jesus said at this moment seemed unacceptable. It was and is for our heart, for our mentality, a “hard” saying that puts faith to the test (cf. John 6:60). Many of the disciples withdrew. They wanted someone who would really renew the state of Israel, its people, and not someone who said: “I give my flesh.”

We can imagine that Jesus’ words were difficult also for Peter, who at Caesarea Philippi was opposed to the prophecy of the cross. And yet, when Jesus asked the Twelve: “Do you also want to go away?”, Peter reacted with the outburst of his generous heart, guided by the Holy Spirit. In the name of all he responds with immortal words, which are also our words: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (cf. John 6:66-69).

Here, as in Caesarea, Peter initiates with his words the confession of the Church’s Christological faith and also becomes the voice of the other apostles and of us believers of all times. This does not mean that he had understood the mystery of Christ in all its profundity. His was still an initial faith, a journeying faith. It would come to true fullness only through the experience of the paschal events.

But, nevertheless, it was already faith, open to a greater reality — open above all because it was not faith in something, but faith in Someone: in him, Christ. Thus our faith is also an initial faith and we must still journey a long way. However, it is essential that it be an open faith that lets itself be guided by Jesus, because not only does he know the way, but he is the way.

Peter’s impetuous generosity does not safeguard him, however, from the risks connected to human weakness. It is what we can also recognize based on our lives. Peter followed Jesus with drive; he surmounted the test of faith, abandoning himself to him. But the moment comes when he also gives way to fear and falls: He betrays the Master (cf. Mark 14:66-72). The school of faith is not a triumphal march, but a journey strewn with sufferings and love, trials and faithfulness to be renewed every day.

Peter, who had promised absolute faithfulness, knows the bitterness and humiliation of denial: The arrogant learns humility at his expense. Peter, too, must learn that he is weak and in need of forgiveness. When the mask finally falls and he understands the truth of his weak heart of a believing sinner, he breaks out in liberating tears of repentance. After this weeping, he is now ready for his mission.

On a spring morning, this mission would be entrusted to him by the risen Jesus. The meeting would take place on the shores of the Lake of Tiberias. It is the Evangelist John who refers to the dialogue that took place in that circumstance between Jesus and Peter. One notes a very significant play of words. In Greek the word “filéo” expresses the love of friendship, tender but not total, whereas the word “agapáo” means love without reservations, total and unconditional.

Jesus asks Peter the first time: “Simon … do you love me (‘agapâs-me’)” with this total and unconditional love (cf. John 21:15)? Before the experience of the betrayal, the apostle would certainly have said: “I love you (‘agapô-se’) unconditionally.” Now that he has known the bitter sadness of infidelity, the tragedy of his own weakness, he says with humility: “Lord, I love you (‘filô-se’),” that is, “I love you with my poor human love.” Christ insists: “Simon, do you love me with this total love that I want?” And Peter repeats the answer of his humble human love: “Kyrie, filô-se,” “Lord, I love you as I know how to love.”

The third time Jesus only says to Simon: “Fileîs-me?”, “Do you love me?” Simon understood that for Jesus his poor love, the only one he is capable of, is enough, and yet he is saddened that the Lord had to say it to him in this way. Therefore, he answered: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you (‘filô-se’).”

It would seem that Jesus adapted himself to Peter, rather than Peter to Jesus! It is precisely this divine adaptation that gives hope to the disciple, who has known the suffering of infidelity. From here trust is born that makes him able to follow to the end: “This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God. And after this he said to him, ‘Follow me'” (John 21:19).

From that moment, Peter “followed” the Master with the precise awareness of his own frailty; but this awareness did not discourage him. He knew in fact that he could count on the presence of the Risen One beside him. From the ingenuous enthusiasm of the initial adherence, passing through the painful experience of denial and the tears of conversion, Peter came to entrust himself to that Jesus who adapted himself to his poor capacity to love. And he also shows us the way, despite all our weakness.

We know that Jesus adapts himself to our weakness. We follow him, with our poor capacity to love and we know that Jesus is good and he accepts us. It was a long journey for Peter that made him a trustworthy witness, “rock” of the Church, being constantly open to the action of the Spirit of Jesus. Peter would present himself as “witness of the sufferings of Christ and participant of the glory that must manifest itself” (1 Peter 5:1).

When he wrote these words he was already old, having reached the end of his life, which he would seal with martyrdom. He was now able to describe the true joy and to indicate where the latter can be attained: The source is Christ believed and loved with our weak but sincere faith, notwithstanding our frailty. That is why he would write the Christians of his community, and he says it also to us: “Without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy. As the outcome of your faith you obtain the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8-9).

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~ by Rob on May 25, 2006.

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