Saint Peter is a great and revered person in the history of the Catholic Church.
Jesus said, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19)
What powerful words! What else does one need? The person who came to save the world, the Messiah, directly tells you of the important role you have to play in salvation history. On the outset, it looks like a clear cut plan for Saint Peter. But did he have it easy? No! Peter’s path to become the leader of the church was not easy.
Simon, the chosen one
Luke’s gospel recounts of Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ call. “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Simon, renamed Peter by Jesus, continued to be cognizant of the divinity of Jesus as he witnesses and professes it throughout the different Gospel stories. When Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was, Peter famously said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus would famously reply that God the Father was the source of this revelation. Imagine, the Almighty Father whisper to Peter the identity of his Son! Peter would also testify to God, the Father’s voice during the Transfiguration. The voice of God, once feared by the people of Israel, resounded at Mount Tabor to strengthen his Son’s chosen ones.
Another time, a number of Jesus’ disciples left him as they could not understand and accept his teaching. At this juncture, Peter reaffirmed his loyalty to Jesus and said, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Does not Simon Peter’s words show of his rich faith in the Lord? Does he not seem like the right fit to take helm of the church?
The Hour has come
On the night of his betrayal, Jesus said that his closest apostles would soon desert him. Peter characteristically declared, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” Jesus in reply prophesied Simon’s three-time denial. To which the apostle replied, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” While uttering these words, Peter spoke out of his own humanity. It was no longer as a receiver of messages from the Father Almighty, but as Simon, the impetuous fisherman.
Jesus would invite Peter to pray with him in the Garden of Gethsemane. Simon along with John and James doze off. When they awake, everything changes. Jesus is arrested. Peter tried again to intervene with his sword, but is stopped by Jesus. Not knowing what to do, Peter followed him to the Council of priests, scribes and elders and awaited the trial of his master at the courtyard outside. Here, operating from his human nature Peter, who proudly declared that he would not desert Jesus even when faced with death, denied his Master, not once but thrice.
Reflection on Peter’s denial
Peter, on his faith journey, failed to listen to his master’s counsel at the Passover meal. He failed to pray along with Jesus in Gethsemane. He failed to strengthen his weak flesh. A simple remark by bystanders offended Simon’s placidity. Fear took over. The bold confirmation of his loyalty to Jesus before a few hours were forgotten. Through his human nature, Peter could only do that much.
As I meditate on the scene, I look at Peter’s continual denial of Jesus. I am shocked. I look at Jesus, as a prisoner, gaze at Peter from across the courtyard. The accusations of his own people hurt, but the denial of his own chosen apostle hurt even more. His disappointed look spoke volumes. I try to grasp for a reason. How could St Peter do this to his Master, even after visible signs and wonders? A direct voice from God did not seem enough to strengthen Simon Peter.
Looking at Jesus again, I realise that he was no longer looking at his erring apostle but at me.
I am confused. Me, Lord? Wasn’t this St Peter’s story?
Not anymore. It has become mine now. For every time that I denied his precepts, Jesus is disappointed. Every time, I was afraid of being judged by others, Jesus looks at me as he looked at St Peter. His gaze reminds me of the mighty deeds he has wrought in my life; the miracles that kept me close to Jesus always; the temporal needs he has helped me with. I forget all in an instant to gain the approval of human beings. I try to lean on my own strength to follow him and become helpless.
I frantically look around, not knowing what to do. Then my eyes turn to St Peter. “He broke down and wept” (Mark 14:72). The pride of approval and fear of life were broken to pieces as the apostle understood the true meaning of Jesus’ words and mission. St Peter in his letter wrote, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time” (1 Peter 5:6). Peter, no longer, wanted to prove his importance by being right all the time. Peter realised his weakness when he looked at Jesus, who was bound and taken from one place to another. The Catechism (CCC 1429) describes, “Jesus’ look of infinite mercy drew tears of repentance from Peter and, after the Lord’s resurrection, a threefold affirmation of love for him.” In the words of Venerable Fulton Sheen, “The man who had fallen most deeply and learned most thoroughly his own weakness was certainly the best qualified for strengthening weak and feeding the lambs.”
Learning from St Peter
Peter’s lessons learnt during this denial was profound. St Peter teaches, “His divine power has given us everything needed for life and goodliness, though the knowledge of him who called us by his glory and goodness” (1 Peter 5:6). He reinforces that we are given the grace from God to stand against the wiles of the world. He speaks from experience – of when he forgot that the words that pleased Jesus came from God. Saint Peter continues thus in his Second letter, “Be all the more eager to confirm your call and election, for if you do this, you will never stumble” (2 Peter 1:10). He had learnt the need to be constantly vigilant and conscious of the fact that Jesus’ plan for each enfolds in Divine love.
Peter’s response in tears of contrition and words of reparation brought him closer to Christ. His surrender allowed Jesus to fulfil the plan he had for Peter. “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Venerable Sheen writes of the apostle’s denial, “And yet, knowing all, the Son of God made Peter, who knew sin, and not John, the Rock upon which He built His Church that sinners and the weak might never despair.”
I learn my lesson through St Peter. The “I” in me should no longer be the hero of the story, but “Jesus” in me should. When Jesus becomes the centre of my story, his Divine Mercy forgives all my sins. He strengthens my weak and sinful nature. When I learn to completely surrender and trust his will in my life, his love transforms me every day.