By CAROLE BRESLIN
“You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church” (Matt. 16:18; Mark 8:27). As I was looking at a replica of the Vatican, whose architecture is in the shape of a key in a keyhole, I realized that Christ really did build His Church on St. Peter. Deep in the recesses of St. Peter’s Basilica are the relics of St. Peter. There is no other church in all of Christendom that can claim to be built on St. Peter.
There is little known about Peter’s early life except that he was born in Bethsaida, a small town near Lake Genesareth. More of his history, however, can be gained from the passages in Scripture that relate to him. We know that he was a fisherman. Peter’s brother, Andrew, came to Peter and told him, “We have found the Messiah!” Later when Peter was casting his nets into the sea, our Lord called him and renamed him Cephas or Peter, meaning rock (Matt. 4:18).
Surely our Lord knew that here was the man who would become the first Vicar of Christ.
It is interesting to note that Peter drops what he was doing and answers the call “at once” (Matt. 4:20). Soon after our Lord accompanies Peter to his home. (As a fisherman, he is a boat owner and he also has a home, so he must have made a reasonable living.) Upon entering, they learn that Peter’s mother-in-law is ill with fever. Our Lord cures her and immediately she gets up and prepares food for them. Thus we know that Peter was married.
In the Gospels that recount the calling of the twelve at the beginning of Christ’s ministry, the first man named is “Simon called Peter.” Peter’s prominence is also recognized in the Gospel accounts in the way Jesus is questioned. In the Bible, either “the disciples” ask Jesus to explain the parables or Peter asks (Matt. 14:22-31).
Most significantly, when Jesus asks the apostles, “Who do you say I am?” it is Peter who answers, “You are the Christ.” Then our Lord told Peter he will head His Church and that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. When Jesus next foretells His Passion and Resurrection, Peter shows just how human he is. First of all, he does not seem to listen to the words spoken that Christ will rise again. Rather he asserts that this could not happen to Christ. To which Christ responds somewhat vehemently, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matt. 16:23).
One minute Peter is exalted for proclaiming Christ and the next he is scolded for an apparent attempt to thwart the will of God the Father. Yet our Lord does not abandon him. Rather He seems to be training him by including him in several other marvelous events such as the curing of the daughter of Jairus and the Transfiguration.
In John 6, the chapter of the Eucharist, Jesus asks His disciples if they, too, will abandon Him. Peter responds as if speaking for all of the apostles with simplicity and frankness: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life and we have come to believe and to know that you are the Christ, the Son of God” (John 6:69-70).
Peter is impulsive, passionate, and very much aware of his limitations. He recognizes that he does not always understand the point that Jesus is trying to make. It is Peter who asks Jesus to explain the parables and it is Peter who does not understand what Jesus is doing at the Last Supper when He washes the feet of the disciples.
When Peter declares that he will follow Christ, Jesus tells him he will deny Him three times. How this must have struck the heart of Peter! As St. Paul said, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. After the Last Supper, this becomes all too apparent.
In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus asks the three apostles to pray with him but Peter, James, and John fall asleep three times — and thus Jesus falls three times. When the soldiers come to arrest Jesus, Peter cuts off the ear of one of them. Then Peter follows as they take Christ to the high priest.
After hearing the beating that Christ receives after His questioning, Peter then denies that he knows Christ, perhaps fearful that he too will receive such brutal treatment. When the cock crows, Peter leaves and weeps. Yet he does not despair as Judas does.
Three days later, on that first Easter Sunday morning, he runs to the tomb. Even though the youthful John arrives first, he waits for Peter, thus showing the primacy that Peter has among the apostles. Only after Peter enters the tomb does John go in.
Before our Lord ascends to Heaven, Peter and some apostles are fishing. When Peter learns that it is Jesus on the shore, he strips and leaps into the water so that he can get to Jesus all the more quickly. As they are eating the fish, Jesus questions Peter, “Do you love me?” three times. Peter answers three times; in the Greek there is much more meaning to the words used for love. Again Peter realizes the limits of the human heart and the great merciful love of God. Great sinners make great saints and Peter is a prime example.
Once our Lord ascends to Heaven, the apostles wait for the descent of the Holy Spirit. After that, Peter is a changed man, demonstrating the power of the gifts and the fruits of the Holy Spirit. His courage, fortitude, love, wisdom, and joy astound the Jewish leaders.
He is imprisoned and freed by angels. He meets with Paul and blesses his mission to the Gentiles. He is threatened, but this time does not deny Christ. He is finally crucified around AD 64 in Rome under the rule of Nero, who blamed the burning of Rome on the Christians. He asks that he not be crucified upright as Jesus had been because he is not worthy to die in the same manner. Thus, he is crucified upside down, as beautifully depicted in the painting by Caravaggio.
One of the books in the Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, is Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz, recounting the time of Peter and Paul in Rome — great reading for the lenten season.
On February 22 the Church celebrates the Chair of St. Peter. The First Vatican Council at the end of the 19th century formally declared the infallibility of the Pope, much to the consternation of many European nations. For two thousand years the Church has stood on the rock and the gates of Hell have not prevailed against it.
Glory be to God. Amen.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. Mrs. Breslin’s articles have appeared in Homiletic & Pastoral Review and in the Marian Catechist Newsletter. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)