As we saw last time, the gift of fortitude, while related to the natural virtue of fortitude, also goes beyond mere earthly courage — just as the gift of counsel goes beyond mere earthly prudence.
As we see in the Scriptures, St. Peter had plenty of natural fortitude, but not the supernatural and sanctifying gift of fortitude. He was a man who was brave enough to take a sword to Malchus’ ear in a fit of heroic bravado, but who, hours later, could be found claiming, “I do not know the man” to a scullery maid and two others.
Peter’s denial of Christ filled him with shame, but not enough to keep him from doing it again two other times. His earthly programming for self-preservation was stronger than his courageous willingness to lay down his life for Jesus’ apparently insane death wish.
The kind of death Jesus was facing — not death in battle at the head of the Judean People’s Front, but death in utter disgrace, rejected by all the best people and made a spectacle of for the scum of the earth to laugh at — was too much for Peter. He could lose his life, but he couldn’t lose his pride.
Peter’s actions were right in keeping with his command to Jesus, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22), and his initial response to Jesus’ attempt to wash his feet, “You shall never wash my feet” (John 13:8). In both cases, Peter’s rebukes of Jesus are projections of his pride. What he really means is: “This — rejection by the authorities and a slave’s shameful death — shall never happen to me!” and “I shall never wash anyone’s feet. That is for slaves.”
He, like the rest of the apostles, has his eye on that sweet spot, sitting at Jesus’ right hand when he sets up the new Davidic Kingdom after he kicks out the Romans. He can be courageous for that, but not for shame, rejection and the life (and death) of a slave.
So how did Peter get his groove back after that wretched triple denial? It was by the gift of the Holy Spirit and the chastening and restorative grace of Christ. So we see Jesus give the Holy Spirit to Peter and the apostles in John 20:22, when he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” With the Spirit comes the gift of fortitude and the beginning of his new life.
Next comes the painful interrogation by Jesus; three times Christ asks Peter, “Do you love me?” as a sort of penance for his triple denial. But the question is not asked in order to shame Peter or make him crawl. It is asked in order to give Peter the chance at embracing the humility he had before refused — to die, not in glorious battle for some earthly leader, but to his own pride in humility.
And as Peter gives his answers, Jesus does not chew him out and say, “Well, then, why did you deny me?” He knows why Peter denied him: because Peter was just mortal flesh. But that’s all forgiven and in the past now. So, instead, Jesus builds Peter up by restoring him to his office and giving him a mission: Feed my sheep.
Peter’s life after this will consist of his struggle to lose his life for Christ’s sake rather than to save his pride. He won’t always succeed perfectly. A few years later, we will find him again chickening out in Antioch and refraining from eating with Gentiles in response to social pressure from Jewish Christians who looked down on their Gentile brethren. But we also see him respond with humility when Paul corrects him (Galatians 2:11-14).
The gift of fortitude is about the courage to become smaller in order to become greater. Of which, more next time.
Mark Shea is a Register blogger and columnist.