I have many fond memories of the years I spent studying with the Benedictines in Collegeville, Minnesota. That Abbey-University combination is quite unique, and it fosters a really vibrant academic (and especially theological) atmosphere. Such a place tends to draw influential people to it, and so on more than one occasion – and often to the detriment of my closest friends – I had to forgo the bar scene to attend a special guest lecture. Some people say of university life that it’s irresponsible to do too much partying, while others say it’s mind-numbing to do too much studying. In my estimation, it’s dangerous to do too
Anyhow, I vividly remember one visitor in the spring of 2009: Cardinal Walter Kasper, then President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. A special luncheon was arranged at the Graduate School of Theology, where I was studying; so we had the rare opportunity to sit and eat and chat informally with the Cardinal. Right away someone asked him what it was like to work in the Vatican, and I’ll never forget what he said…
As a theologian and an unassuming man by nature, he had expressed some uneasiness when Pope John Paul II summoned him to that animated city of Rome. But once there he soon began to appreciate the “universality of the Church” in a new way; he found that the Catholics who came to Vatican City throughout the year represented the diversity of the world in a unique way. “The peoples of the world do not come to Rome to see Benedict XVI or John Paul II,” said Kasper, “They come to see Peter.” It was a powerful statement.
Whether you are a Christian or not, you cannot understand the Catholic Church or the office of the Pope if you do not first understand the person of Peter. The Gospels and the book of Acts are quite clear about Peter’s preeminence among the disciples, but this historical fact tells us nothing of his character. To understand who Peter really was, we must study his actions and reactions in particular circumstances during the few years he spent with Jesus. For our purposes here, I’ve selected three examples which I think are very informative. The first comes from Matthew’s gospel (16:13-23) when Jesus and the disciples travel north to Caesarea Philippi and Peter makes the great declaration about Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus responds with a declaration of his own: that Peter is blessed, and that he will be the indestructible rock upon which the church is built. This famous dialogue is the scriptural basis for the institutional Church, with the Pope (the successor of Peter) at its head. And so it is with utter astonishment that we read the ensuing verses where Jesus becomes enraged at Peter’s misunderstanding of the Messianic mission and says, “Get behind me Satan!” No other person in the gospels is likened to Satan. Peter, the rock, the foundation, doesn’t understand Jesus.
The second example is from Matthew 14:22-33. The disciples are at sea in the midst of a storm, and Jesus walks toward them on the water. Seeking comfort, Peter follows Jesus’ command and begins walking on the water himself. But when again the wind picks up Peter becomes frightened, and beginning to sink he cries out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus does so and replies, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Despite his sincerest intentions and efforts Peter is perpetually falling short.
And finally, we cannot understand Peter without considering his denial of Jesus outside the house of the high priest. Recall Chapter 22 of Luke’s gospel, where at the last supper Peter proclaims, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!” And yet, in that same chapter, when facing imprisonment and possibly death by association, Peter fervently denies knowing Jesus altogether.
What are we to make of these defining moments in Peter’s life? How are we to characterize this man? He doesn’t fully understand the person he believes to be the Messiah. His faith is weak. He is a coward. He is obviously not
the “rock” on which any of us would confidently build anything. Yet this is precisely the point which is missed by those who scornfully accentuate the ineptitude of the papacy as if it were not an office consisting of human beings. They speak and write of scandal, corruption, and personal weakness as if these traits comprise a new kind of storm that is battering the bows of the Church to death. These traits should in no way be celebrated, and I am not doing so here. But in a very deep sense they are human, and so are realities for all of us. That the institutional Church experiences these realities (like at the present time) is not surprising; every other institution of the world, be it a religious community, political state, or financial corporation experiences them too. The difference, which is no small matter, is that the Church was wedded to human weakness from the very beginning in the person of Peter. That is its enduring strength. That was a calculation that only a divine being could have made, and it was made, when Jesus gave Simon a new name – Petros
, the Greek word for “rock.”
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