Pope Benedict XVI met with 60,000 pilgrims who gathered in St Peter’s Square for his general audience on May 17. He continued his series of teachings on the nature of the Church. In his previous teachings the Holy Father explained how Christ entrusted his Church to the care of the apostles. He announced his plans during the coming weeks to reflect on each individual apostle and the example they provide. He began with St. Peter.
“Peter is the best known and most
widely quoted figure in the New Testament writings,” Pope Benedict said. A
“Peter could not yet imagine that
one day he would go to
Peter experienced another significant moment on his spiritual journey near Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” Peter spoke up on behalf of the other disciples and acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah. Yet, he was scandalized when Jesus revealed that his mission would include suffering, rejection and death. Peter had to painfully learn the meaning of conversion and true discipleship, following in Jesus’ footsteps by embracing the mystery of the cross.
“I think that St. Peter’s various conversion experiences and his whole personality are a source of great consolation and a great learning experience for us,” Pope Benedict concluded. “Like Peter, we have to always experience conversion anew. We must follow Jesus and not precede him. He shows us the way. Peter tells us: You think you have the recipe and that you have to transform Christianity, but the Lord is the one who knows the way. It is the Lord who says to me and who says to you: ‘Follow me!’ We must have the courage and humility to follow Jesus because he is the Way, the Truth and the Life.”
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In this new series of teachings, we have tried to understand, first of all, what the Church is and the Lord’s plan for this new family. We then said that the Church exists in her people, and we saw that the Lord entrusted this new reality, the Church, to the 12 apostles. Now we would like to examine the apostles one by one in order to understand through these people what it means to live within the Church and follow Christ. Let us begin with St. Peter.
After Jesus, Peter is the best
known and most widely quoted figure in the New Testament writings: He is
mentioned 154 times by his nickname, Pétros (stone or
rock), which is the Greek translation of the Aramaic name, Kepha, that Jesus himself gave him, which is affirmed on nine occasions,
especially in Paul’s letters. We should add to this the frequent use of the
name Simon (75 times), which is the
Greek form of his original Hebrew name, Simeon
(used two times in Acts 15:14 and 2 Peter 1:1). The son of John (see John 1:42)
or, in its Aramaic form, bar-Jona (son of Jonah) (see Matthew 16:17), Simon was from
He was a Jew who believed and was observant and who trusted that God was at work in the history of his people; he was saddened by the fact that he had not seen him powerfully at work in the events of which he had been a witness up to that time. He was married and his mother-in-law, whom Jesus healed one day, lived in the town of Capernaum, in the house where Simon stayed whenever he was in town (see Matthew 8:14-15; Mark 1:29-31; Luke 4:38-39). Recent archaeological excavations have uncovered under the octagonal, mosaic floor of a small Byzantine church the remains of an older church that was built over house, to which graffiti mentioning Peter testify. The Gospels tell us that Peter was among the first four disciples of Jesus of Nazareth (see Luke 5:1-11), to whom a fifth was added (see the calling of Levi in Luke 5:27), in keeping with the custom of the rabbis to have five disciples. When Jesus went from five to 12 disciples, it became clear that he had a new mission: He was not one of the many rabbis, but had come to gather together the eschatological Israel, symbolized by the number 12, equal to the number of the tribes of Israel.
Peter’s First Call
Simon appears in the Gospels as a
strong and impulsive figure; he is ready to assert himself, even to the point
of using force. (He used his sword in the
Peter’s Second Call
Peter experienced another significant moment on his spiritual journey near Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus posed a specific question to his disciples: “Who do men say that I am” (Mark 8:27)? For Jesus it was not enough to have an answer based on hearsay. He wanted those who had accepted to commit themselves personally to him to take a personal stance. For this reason, he insisted: “But who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29).
Peter was the one who answered him on behalf of the others: “You are the Messiah, the Christ” (Mark 8:29). Peter’s response, which “flesh and blood” had not revealed to him but the Father who is in heaven (see Matthew 16:17), contains the seed of the Church’s future profession of faith. However, Peter had not yet understood the profound substance of Jesus’ messianic mission, the new meaning of the word Messiah. It become clearer shortly thereafter when he realized that the messiah he sought in his dreams was very different from God’s perfect plan. Faced with the announcement of the Passion, he was scandalized and protested, eliciting a strong reaction from Jesus (see Mark 8:32-33). Peter wanted the Messiah to be a “divine man” who would meet people’s expectations by imposing his power upon everyone. We, too, have a desire for the Lord to impose his power and transform the world immediately. Jesus presented himself as the “human God,” God’s servant, who confounded the crowd’s expectations by following the path of humility and suffering. It is the important choice that we, too, have to make again and again: whether to give preference to our own expectations and reject Jesus or to accept Jesus in the truth of his mission and set aside our overly human expectations.
Peter, impulsive as he is, does not hesitate to take Jesus aside and rebuke him. Jesus’ response dashes all his false expectations, while he calls him on to conversion and to follow him: “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Mark 8:33). Don’t show me the way; I will follow my way and you will follow me.
Thus, Peter learned what following Jesus really means. It is his second call, like Abraham’s call in Genesis 22 following his first call in Genesis 12. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the Gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). This is what following him demands: we need to know how to renounce the whole world, if need be, in order to protect our true values, to save our soul and to protect God’s presence in the world (see Mark 8:36-37). With some difficulty, Peter accepted this invitation and continued his journey in the footsteps of the Master.
I think that St. Peter’s various conversion experiences and his whole personality are a source of great consolation and a great learning experience for us. We, too, desire God and we, too, want to be generous, but we, too, expect God to work powerfully in the world and to transform the world immediately according to our ideas and the needs we see.
God chooses another way. God chooses the path of transforming hearts in suffering and humility. Like Peter, we have to always experience conversion anew. We must follow Jesus and not precede him. He shows us the way.
Peter tells us: You think you have the recipe and that you have to transform Christianity, but the Lord is the one who knows the way. It is the Lord who says to me and who says to you: “Follow me!” We must have the courage and humility to follow Jesus because he is the Way, the Truth and the Life.