Pope John Paul II and the Call of Peter

COMMENTARY for 40th anniversary of papal election: In order for the Church to receive the gift of Peter, one man must be willing to pay the price.

Pope John Paul II circa 1983.
Pope John Paul II circa 1983. (photo: © Vatican Media/National Catholic Register  )

The 40th anniversary of the election of St. John Paul II as pope brings to mind his two rhetorical introductions, the power of which instantly characterized his long papacy.

First, there was the “pope from a faraway country” address on the balcony moments after his election Oct. 16, 1978. Then there was the “be not afraid” homily of Oct. 22, 1978, at his inaugural Mass in St. Peter’s Square.

In the coming days, the video of both those world-changing moments will be replayed countless times.

But there was another moment of rhetorical magnificence — and significance — in October 1978. There is no video of it, and it was largely unknown until papal biographer George Weigel included it in Witness to Hope. He discovered it in the Kalendarium życia Karola Wojtyła, an exhaustive pre-papal chronology compiled by Adam Boniecki.

It took place after the death of Pope John Paul I. The Polish cardinals had come to Rome for the second conclave of that year. At a memorial Mass offered by Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, the primate of Poland, Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, the archbishop of Kraków, preached the homily on the conversation between Jesus and Peter in John 21:

And Christ asked: Do you love me more than these? ... This question was so difficult, so very demanding. And possibly Simon Peter, of all the apostles, best understood how this question exceeds the scope of a human being. That is why he trembled in answering. He was giving himself up to the love of him who was asking, when he answered, “Lord, you know that I love you.”

The succession of Peter, the summons to the office of the papacy, always contains within it a call to the highest love, to a very special love. And always, when Christ says to a man, “Come, follow me,” he asks him what he asked of Simon: “Do you love me more than these?” Then the heart of man must tremble. The heart of Simon trembled, and the heart of Albino Luciani, before he took the name John Paul I, trembled. A human heart must tremble, because in the question, there is also a demand. You must love! You must love more than the others do, if the entire flock of sheep is to be entrusted to you, if the charge, “Feed my lambs, feed my sheep” is to reach the scope which it reaches in the calling and mission of Peter.

It is a truly remarkable passage. On the threshold of the papacy in 1978, John Paul II already felt the weight of the call — a weight which must cause the heart of man to tremble. And his heart no doubt trembled.

In order for the Church to receive the gift of Peter, one man must be willing to pay the price. Peter paid that price with his life, crucified upon the Vatican Hill.

The homily again:

The text of St. John’s Gospel continues. Christ speaks enigmatic words. He says them to Peter: “When you were younger, you girded yourself and went where you wanted. But when you grow old, someone else will gird you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Mysterious and enigmatic words. … And so, in this summons, directed to Peter by Christ after his resurrection, Christ’s command, “Come follow me,” has a double meaning. It is a summons to service and a summons to die …

Those sentiments, which Cardinal Wojtyła placed in the heart of Pope John Paul I, were also animating his own and remained with him for the rest of his life.

At his 25th anniversary as pope, John Paul said this:

Every day the dialogue between Jesus and Peter takes place in my heart. In spirit, I fix my gaze on the Risen Christ. He, well aware of my human fragility, encourages me to respond with trust as Peter did: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you” (John 21:17). And then he invites me to assume the responsibilities which he himself has entrusted to me.

In his long pontificate, when St. John Paul II spoke of his papal office, he preferred the text of Luke 22:32. Jesus, predicting Peter’s denial, assures him at the same time that he has prayed for him, that his “faith may not fail” and that Peter will return and have the mission of strengthening the others in their faith.

Relatively rarely did John Paul take up the more well-known Petrine passages in Matthew 16 and John 21. But in his internal life of prayer with the Lord, it was the conversation of John 21 that accompanied him always.

At John Paul’s great funeral Mass in 2005, that Gospel passage was read, and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger placed the entire pontificate with the context of John 21:

By shepherding the flock of Christ, Peter enters into the paschal mystery; he goes towards the cross and the Resurrection. The Lord says this in these words: “... when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go” (John 21:18). In the first years of his pontificate, still young and full of energy, the Holy Father [John Paul II] went to the very ends of the earth, guided by Christ. But afterwards, he increasingly entered into the communion of Christ’s sufferings; increasingly, he understood the truth of the words: “Someone else will fasten a belt around you.” And in this very communion with the suffering Lord, tirelessly and with renewed intensity, he proclaimed the Gospel, the mystery of that love which goes to the end (John 13:1).

Cardinal Ratzinger’s homiletic masterpiece provided a bookend, as it were, to the homily Cardinal Wojtyła preached for John Paul I, between which is found the election, pontificate and death of John Paul II. The heart of Cardinal Wojty a trembled in 1978, but his heart was strong, every day carrying within it Peter’s conversation with the Risen Jesus, until that day when that heart was finally stilled by a body that had grown weak.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.