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The Primacy of Peter
Conference by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Rather surprisingly, Saint Ignatius makes a great deal of the appearances of Christ after the Resurrection. He recounts no less than fourteen appearances. Also, but not so surprisingly, Ignatius believed that Christ's first appearance after His rising from the dead, was to His Mother Mary.
Here's Ignatius: "He (Jesus) appeared to the Virgin Mary and although this is not mentioned in Scripture, still it is considered as mentioned when it says that He had appeared to so many others, for the Scripture supposes that we have understanding, occurring as it is written, 'Are you also without understanding?'" It is certain to Ignatius - the Bible didn't have to mention it. In non-biblical terms, we are to use our heads. Jesus first appeared to Mary.
Christ did not appear to everyone but only to certain people - the actual number we don't know. We do know it was in the hundreds. Some of these apparitions of Christ after His Resurrection are recounted in great detail. There is the one on Easter Sunday; then the one when Thomas-the-Doubter was present; and the one recounted by Luke about the disciples on the way to Emmaus. And there is the one to which Saint John devotes a whole chapter; in fact, it may be considered a kind of afterthought on John's part, because he closes his Gospel by devoting the entire last chapter to Christ's appearance to a number of disciples, but especially to Peter and conferring on him the Primacy.
My intention is first to present the nineteen verses which really close the episode upon which we wish to reflect. Then we shall go back and choose some eight areas of prayerful reflection.
John begins by writing, "Later on...." Now this "Later-On-Chapter" has vexed Biblical scholars over the centuries because just before this, John had already closed his Gospel. He had closed it with the appearance of Christ to the Doubting Thomas. The last words of what would have been the end of John's Gospel read (Christ speaking to Thomas): "You believe because you can see me. Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe." Then, just before the "later on" he writes, "There are many other signs that Jesus worked and the disciples saw, but they are not recorded in this book. These are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing this you may have life through his name." That, everyone holds, was the original close of the last Gospel. But before he died, John added one more chapter, the present last one. Evidently and providentially, he anticipated the need for the faithful not only believing in Christ but in His Vicar.
So the twenty-first chapter begins:
Later on, Jesus showed himself again to the disciples. It was by the Sea of Tiberias, and it happened like this: Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathaniel from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee and two more of his disciples were together. Simon Peter said, 'I'm going fishing'. They replied, 'We'll come with you'. They went out and got into the boat but caught nothing that night.
It was light by now and there stood Jesus on the shore, though the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. Jesus called out, 'Have you caught anything friends?' And when they answered, 'No', he said, 'Throw the net out to starboard and you'll find something'. So they dropped the net, and there were so many fish that they could not haul it in. The disciple Jesus loved said to Peter, 'It is the Lord'. At these words 'It is the Lord', Simon Peter, who had practically nothing on, wrapped his cloak round him and jumped into the water. The other disciples came on in the boat, towing the net and the fish; they were only about a hundred yards from land.
As soon as they came ashore they saw that there was some bread there, and a charcoal fire with fish cooking on it. Jesus said, 'Bring some of the fish you have just caught'. Simon Peter went aboard and dragged the net to the shore, full of big fish, one hundred and fifty-three of them; and in spite of there being so many the net was not broken. Jesus said to them, 'Come and have breakfast'. None of the disciples was bold enough to ask, 'Who are you?'; they knew quite well it was the Lord. Jesus then stepped forward, took the bread and gave it to them, and the same with the fish. This was the third time that Jesus showed himself to the disciples after rising from the dead.
After the meal Jesus said to Simon Peter, 'Simon son of John, do you love me more than these others do?' He answered, 'Yes Lord, you know I love you'. Jesus said to him, 'Feed my lambs' A second time he said to him, 'Simon son of John, do you love me?' He replied, 'Yes, Lord, you know I love you'. Jesus said, 'Look after my sheep'. Then he said to him a third time, 'Simon son of John, do you love me?' Peter was upset that he asked him a third time, 'Do you love me?' and said, 'Lord, you know everything; you know I love you'. Jesus said to him, 'Feed my sheep.
'I tell you most solemnly, when you were young you put on your own belt and walked where you liked; but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go.'
In these words he indicated the kind of death by which Peter would give glory to God. After this he said, 'Follow me'.
There is enough here for years of meditation. Let us just choose some of the salient features of this narrative and ask the same Jesus who did and said all of this what is all about.
First the background. Christ made sure that the disciples would fish all night and catch nothing. He is uncanny in getting us to see how helpless we are of ourselves. We, as it were, become unemployed in working for creatures so that He might bring us to Himself, the Divine Employer; then we work for our Creator. The reason of course is that unless there were periodic blanks, or periodic bleak or black periods in our lives, it is unlikely that we would appreciate God's grace. Not inappropriately, all of this took place at dawn. Oh how shrewd the Holy Spirit is! God puts enough nights into our lives to make us appreciate the dawn of His grace. The important thing is to know that all nights end, and after the night comes the dawn. This is not poetry; it is God's providence. We must never, then, while we are under trial or difficulty give in to discouragement but always reassure ourselves with confident hope that God will come through. He always does.
After having caught nothing all night, they had a miraculous draft. (You wonder who counted them - one hundred and, fifty-three: It must have been John.) Suppose they had caught all these fish during the night, would they have appreciated this large draft? No! This too is part of God's uncanniness; He not only comes through after the night, but He comes through with the blazing light of His sun, with gifts, graces and blessings far beyond what we had a right to expect. I would like to add, figuratively speaking, that the number of "fish" we catch will depend on the confidence we have had during the night.
Saint John recognized Jesus. Now this is a bit odd that he should mention that, because he is the one who is writing the Gospel, and as you know he never fully identifies himself. What we know about John by his own definition of himself is that he was the disciple who specially loved Christ. Love is remarkably perceptive. We speak of knowing with the mind. We do. There is also such a thing as knowing with the heart. It is, therefore, not chance that John was the one who first recognized Christ nor that he should identify himself as having recognized the Master. Those who love Christ will recognize Him even where others will not.
Then, characteristically, Peter jumped into the water. Notice it was not John, nor, James, nor Thomas, but Peter. How symbolic; he was always jumping into water! In fact you almost sense a bit of humor on John's part. He didn't have to mention this. But knowing Peter, he wanted to symbolize that this is what Peter was always doing. He was impetuous and generous, with the corresponding strengths and weaknesses of impetuosity. Peter was the one who, the night before Christ died, boastingly looked at the other apostles and said, "Lord, I can't speak for them, but though they all abandon You, You can count on me:" That was when Peter got a severe rebuke and if this was a promise, that too was a promise, or rather a prediction: "You boastful, arrogant, impetuous friend; you're going to deny Me." Think a moment about Peter swimming those hundred yards. Notice that John, having typified Peter's impetuosity, wanted to make it clear that Peter was no great swimmer - a hundred yards is nothing.
Then a beautiful scene. Revelation describes the Savior as the Messiah, as the King of Kings, as the Judge of the living and the dead, as the Light of the world. This same revelation tells us that Jesus, the Son of God, was also a cook! He used His divine wisdom to cook - what a lesson: There are many definitions of humility. One that is apropos here is Christ's humility in hiding His real dignity. In our lives, then, there should be nothing "too lowly"; how can we even use the word "lowly"? That category is of the world's standards. Before God there is no higher or lower, no greater or smaller, no one more important or less significant. There are no strata of society; there are no cultural barriers. Before God we are all absolutely the same - nothing of ourselves and everything because He loves us. Jesus was once a cook - and we may be sure He was a good one.
Now, the Primacy of Peter. Jesus took Peter aside. The others very wisely went about their business. Almost all of them, maybe all, knew what was going to be done. Jesus asked, "Simon son of John, do you love me more than these others do?" Now that's an odd question for two reasons. First, he didn't call him Peter. And for the best of reasons. The man He was talking to was no Peter, he was no rock. Peter got the point immediately. This is in stark contrast to John's use of his name in the preceding portion of the chapter; "Simon Peter, Simon Peter, Peter, Simon Peter". That's John, who was writing about the year 95 A.D.; but the narrative occurred somewhere in the mid-thirties A.D. Christ, therefore, wanted to impress on the Peter-to-be that of himself he was just plain Simon; his being the foundation of the Church was no credit to him.
The second surprising thing is that Christ asked him an almost unanswerable question: "Do you love me more than these others do?" How was Peter to know? Let me suggest why Christ asked it. First of all, He knew His Simon, and He knew that if anyone was not afraid to say that he loved Christ more than someone else did, it was Simon. Secondly, in effect Christ was giving His own answer; He assumed that Peter did love Him more than the others. But this is a chastened Simon. He didn't say, "Why of course I love you more than the rest of them" but only, "Yes Lord, you know I love you". Peter had learned his lesson. Christ was asking Peter, in the context of the temperament that He knew Peter had, and it is the sort of question that before his denial, Peter would have leapt up immediately and answered, "Why sure:" But no more. Peter is saying, "If I love you more than the rest of these do, frankly Lord, if I do You know it, but I'm not going to boast about it". What a lesson for us in the constant invidious comparisons we are making between ourselves and others. With some people it is almost their favorite mental recreation.
Then Christ asked a second time, and a third time. Peter did not say, "Yes I love You"; he didn't even say that, let alone "I love you more than the rest of these". He only said, "You know that I love You. I trust Your judgment". After each answer by Peter, Christ told him first "Feed My lambs", then "Feed My sheep" which commentators over the centuries, and indeed even a solemn Council of the Church, explain as meaning "all the people of God". All the lambs and all the sheep belonging to the faithful, belong to Peter.
What is he told by Christ to do? To "feed". This narrative on the shore of the Lake of Tiberias, what we call the Primacy of Peter, includes many things; there are especially three. First that the Vicar of Christ has a divinely conferred right to teach and therefore to feed the flock of Christ with God's revealed Truth. Secondly, the Pope has final jurisdiction over all the Sacraments. When he declares this is valid - that is not; this must be done - that may not be done; these are the words to be pronounced - those may not be pronounced; the Pope is speaking with the authority of Christ himself. And he thereby, not by himself but through the Bishops and Priests of the Catholic Church, feeds the flock of Christ with the Sacramental graces over which he, the Vicar of the Savior, has final authority. Again, though we don't usually use it in this way, there is such a thing as not merely feeding, in the sense of actually handing out the food, but as pastoring or guiding. Watch sheep graze; they really feed themselves, provided you lead them to the right pasture. Consequently, the Vicar of Christ has the final authority to lead, direct, and rule the people of God.
All these three forms of highest authority were conferred on Peter and his successors. And how beautifully Christ did it - after breakfast, after all had had a good meal. It was also after that most famous of all meals that Christ instituted the Eucharist. There is a marvelous relationship between Christ eating with His followers and His teaching them His doctrine.
That is not all of it. The Primacy was promised to Peter in the sixteenth chapter of Matthew; it was then conferred on him in John, the twenty-first chapter. Those two, go together. In Matthew there is the promise, "I will build my Church on you, the Rock"; then in John the command, "Feed my lambs; feed My sheep". The Primacy was born when Christ conferred the authority on Peter. But having done that, Christ wanted to make sure (and John, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, also made sure we would have the record) that having conferred the Primacy, He also conferred the cross. Every gift that God gives us carries with it a burden. Every grace brings with it a cross. And the greater the gift - in this case the highest responsibility on earth - the more Christ will demand that person share in His own suffering and sacrifice. Anything good for the Church, certainly anything great for the Church, must (that is the Divine imperative) carry with it the cross. Peter was told how he would die, and tradition tells us that, like his Master, he was crucified.
Let us especially ask our Savior to help everyone in the Catholic Church today to either rediscover or strengthen and reaffirm, their faith in the Primacy of Peter. Obedience to the Vicar of Christ among all Catholics is the single greatest need in the Catholic Church today. Let us pray that God in His mercy will enlighten those who have the faith to see that this faith will last only if it is built on the foundation that is Peter: a Peter who had sinned, who was humiliated, who was repentant; a Peter who loved Christ and who, out of love for his Master, shed his blood. The Church of the future will be only as strong as the faith of every Catholic is firm in Peter's primacy.
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