Peter's Penance |
To emulate Peter and make atonement for our own sins as Peter did, we need to recognize our limitations and that we aren't as strong as we might think we are. Like Peter, we can boast of our faith, but when push comes to shove is the proof.
Father James F. Wathen
"The most fundamental principle in spiritual theology is: 'Without Me, you can do nothing' (Jn 15:5). This means that we can neither avoid sin nor do anything meritorious, nor choose the right, nor do good works, without the enabling grace of the Holy Ghost. This is why our daily lives must be laced with prayer, to implore almighty God to bestow upon us the grace that is necessary to remain faithful, to regret our sins sincerely, to advance in virtue, to withstand the enticements of the world, to stand against others, to love our neighbor."
In the accounts of the Lordís Passion and Resurrection, Simon Peter plays a conspicuous role, a role which becomes central with Christís Ascension according to the Acts of the Apostles. Protestants blind themselves to the fact that our Lord most certainly gave indication that Simon Peter to be the first pope the day He met him (Jn. 1:42)., as they refuse to acknowledge that the other Apostles and the first Christians unquestionably regarded him as the supreme authority in the nascent Church and the Vicar of Christ.
It is because of the office which Christ bestowed upon him that Peterís denial and penitence are chronicled by the Evangelists. Nor is there any doubt that our Lord wants us to reflect on Peterís failure for our own instruction. We can learn from Christ and from Simon Peer, Christ, the Offended and the gentle Forgiver, Simon, the sinner and the deeply chastened penitent.
It was Simonís way to speak too soon. He was a genuinely good man, the natural leader and spokesman for the others, and, most important of all, totally devoted to Christ. It is this last quality that endears him to us, Simon Peterís open, manly, and strong love of Jesus, his divine Master. Nevertheless, he was still an imperfect man, beset with the common fault of too great pride. And in his pride, he was inclined to be precipitate, incautious, and too trustful of himself.
On the evening of the Last Super, having eaten the Paschal Meal, having attended the first Mass, having received Christ in their First Holy Communion, having been made priests and bishops, the Lord warns the Eleven of the tragic things that would take place later that night. He tells them of their imminent defection. He, the infinite God, Who has shown them time and again that He knows future things and the thoughts of their own minds, tells them they will fail Him, and they protest, Simon more vociferously than the others. Obviously, having been with Christ for three years, they should have been less sure of themselves and more respectful of His warning.
At that moment, they could envisage no circumstance in which they would be challenged with their loyalty to Him. They did not contradict Christ; each thought the warning applied to the others. And Simon, always the most assertive of all, affirmed more insistently than the rest. By the time they reached Gethsemani, Jesus was in a mood of incomprehensible foreboding and sorrow, and they were overcome with bafflement and fatigue. About two hours later, the scene had changed completely. They were brought to full wakefulness by the arrival of Judas and a thousand men, temple police, courtiers of the high priest, and others, with lanterns, swords, and clubs. The Apostles were totally unprepared for anything like this, although the Lord had said with great forcefulness, "Watch ye: and pray that ye enter not into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Mt. 26:41).
The message to us means that we are to adopt an attitude of distrust of ourselves. We must watch, stay on guard, expect trouble; and accept the fact that, left to our own resources, we will do evil. Our experience and self-knowledge should convince us that we are likely to get into moral trouble, because we are too confident, or, we are too unconcerned about falling into sin. And in our overconfidence, we do not think that we need divine help lest we come to grief.
Matthew 26:31. Then Jesus saith to them: All you shall be scandalized in me this night. For it is written: I will strike the shepherd: and the sheep of the flock shall be dispersed.
26:33-35. And Peter answering, said to him: Although all shall be scandalized in thee, I will never be scandalized.
Jesus said to him: Amen I say to thee that in this night before the cock crow, thou wilt deny me thrice.
Peter saith to him: Yea, though I should die with Thee, I will not deny Thee. And in like manner said all the Disciples.
At some point during our Lordís confrontation with the crowd and His arrest, possibly when they moved forward and lay hands on Him, the Apostles sensing danger, giving no thought to anything but escape, fled in every direction. Simon alone stopped and took thought, and went back. At a safe distance, he followed the arresting mob, determined to see what would happen. He made the mistake of imagining that he was completely anonymous, a nameless stranger in whom no one would be interested. For good or bad, he was able to gain admission into the court of the house of Caiaphas. Christ was within at the hearing, at which Caiaphas was determined through the semblance of a trial to get a capital conviction for false claims (pretending to be a prophet) and blasphemy. Peter thought himself lost in the crowd. His furtive effort to go unnoticed was noticed by this person or that one. In any case, one time after another, he was asked whether he was one of Jesusí followers; sometimes, simply identified as one of them to others.
John 18:15-18. And Simon Peter followed Jesus: and so did another disciple. And that disciple was known to the high priest and went in with Jesus into the court of the high priest.
But Peter stood at the door without. The other disciple therefore, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the portress and brought in Peter.
The maid therefore that was portress saith to Peter: Art not thou also one of this man's disciple? He saith I am not.
Now the servants and ministers stood at a fire of coals, because it was cold, and warmed themselves. And with them was Peter also, standing and warming himself.
18:25-27. And Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They said therefore to him: Art not thou also one of his Disciples? He denied it and said: I am not. One of the servants of the high priest (a kinsman to him whose ear Peter cut off) saith to him: Did not I see thee in the garden with him? Again therefore Peter denied: and immediately the cock crew.
The note in the Douay-Rheims Bible explains: "Observe here, in order to reconcile the four Evangelists, that divers persons concurred in charging Peter with being Christ's disciple; till at length they brought him to deny Him thrice. 1. The porteress that let him in, and afterwards seeing him at the fire, first put the question to him; and then positively affirmed that he was with Christ. 2. Another maid accused him to the standers by; and gave occasion to the man here mentioned to renew the charge against him, which caused the second denial. 3. Others of the company took notice of his being a Galilean; and were seconded by the kinsman of Malchus, who affirmed he had seen him in the garden. And this drew on the third denial."
Each time, he denied a bit too hurriedly, a bit too defensively, a bit too emphatically. Even when the cock crew the first time and he had already fallen, he remained inadvertent, probably because he was trying to stay on guard. Eventually the pressure of the unexpected badgering took its toll. Simon lost all control and began to curse and swear, using language that he had not used for years, language that he had thought he would never use again.
Then two things happened, one immediately following the other: the cock crew the second time, loud and clear, the morning now nearer; and at the same moment Jesus was led out of the house of Caiaphas into the courtyard, He already showing signs of having been hit several times in the face; and His gaze fell on Simon:
Luke 22:61-62. And the Lord turning looked on Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, as he had said: Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny thrice. And Peter going out, wept bitterly.
Only then does Simon come to himself, and the weight of his monumental failure descends on him to the very depths of his soul. Too late. The deed is done. Exactly as the Lord said, all has come to pass. Now Simon does what he should have done before: he sees himself for who he is, a weak, rash, and proud man. Words serve no purpose; the only thing he has now are his tears, an inexhaustible flow of tears. We are told that Simon wept over this sin the rest of his life, so that there were deep ridges in his cheeks, his eyes were always red, and he led a life of extreme rigor to atone for it.
The sequel of the story is to be found in the twenty-first chapter of St. Johnís Gospel. It tells of the "fishing outing" by Simon and six other disciples. There is much in the narrative to engage our prayerful reflection, and evoke our adoration of the Risen Christ. What is relevant here is that the appearance of Christ on this occasion has a twofold purpose, the first, the public atonement of Simon Peter, the second, the conferring on Simon the office which the Lord had promised him some weeks before. On that occasion, the Lord used the images of the Rock as the solid foundation of the Church, a building, and the keys to the building, whose keeper exercises total authority over it. Now when He bestows the office, He recalls His image of the Church as a flock of sheep, of which He is the all-caring, all-providing Shepherd.
Matthew 16:15. Jesus saith to them: But whom do you say that I am?
16:16. Simon Peter answered and said: Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answering said to him: Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven. And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of Heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in Heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in Heaven.
Simon had denied the Lord three times, each time more vehemently and shamefully than the time before. His sin was manifold: He sinned against faith, thus breaking the First Commandment, by denying that he knew Christ, the true Son of God, (a truth which had been specially revealed by God the Father in Heaven); the Second, by swearing to the fact, and blaspheming; the Fifth, by disavowing Jesus, his most beloved Friend and Master, a sin against charity; the Fifth, again by giving great scandal; and the Eight, by piling one lie upon the other.
This appearance occurs two or more weeks after the Resurrection of Christ, the Apostles and the rest of His Galilean followers, including our Lady, who have been in Jerusalem at the Passover, when the Lord was crucified and rose again, having returned to their homes in the northern province. Since Easter, the Apostles are revived, but they have little idea what is ahead of them. Only at Pentecost will the full meaning of their Apostleship become clear to them. During these days and nights, Simon, who knows that the Lord has received his contrition, lives in a state of profoundest remorse. When we read in St. Johnís account of how he, John, recognized Jesus on the shore, and says, "It is the Lord," the reaction of Simon is completely revealing. Leaving the miraculous catch of fish to the others, he jumps into the water and splashes his way toward Christ. We well understand that his desire is to make amends in so far as it might be possible for his grievous sins. Would that we wished for amendment with the same fervor! The narrative tells us that Jesus has already kindled a fire and begun to cook a fish, and tells the apostles, as they drag the net ashore, to bring some of the fish they have caught for breakfast.
We can easily imagine this gathering: Jesus shares a meal with his dear brethren in the morning gloom, as the sun slowly rises out of the Lake. It is impossible for them to converse as they did in days gone by, because the Resurrected state of our Lord renders Him somewhat distant and unfamiliar to them, even though they know Him perfectly well. We imagine them eating their fish and bread with eyes cast down, saying nothing. The Lord allows the silence because He thereby sets the scene for what, once they have eaten, He has in mind to do. On Holy Thursday in the presence of these same Apostles, Simon has declared that he would excel the others in his loyalty to Christ, that he was ready to die with and for Christ. Now, Simon must suffer a sound humiliation in front of these same men.
The reason we make a great point of this episode is to bring home the fact that we must expect that somehow the good God will require that we atone for our disloyalties. Protestants maintain that when one sins, all one needs do is "confess to Jesus," and the matter is ended. But all Simonís tears did not exempt him from this humbling chastisement, though it must be owned, our Savior administers it in as loving a way as is conceivable.
John 21:1-5 After this, Jesus shewed Himself to the disciples at the sea of Tiberias. And He shewed Himself after this manner. There were together: Simon Peter and Thomas, who is called Didymus, and Nathanael, who was of Cana of Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter saith to them: I go a fishing. They say to him: We also come with thee. And they went forth and entered into the ship: and that night they caught nothing. But when the morning was come, Jesus stood on the shore: yet the disciples knew not that it was Jesus.
Jesus looks the same and different since His Resurrection. He is never recognized at first. In this case, He may have been unrecognizable because there was not enough light yet.
21:5-6. Jesus therefore said to them: Children, have you any meat? They answered him: No.
He calls them "Children;" a term of endearment, like "my little friends. He saith to them: Cast the net on the right side of the ship; and you shall find. They cast therefore: and now they were not able to draw it, for the multitude of fishes.
The Lord Jesus with His divine power puts the great catch of fish on the right side of the boat for them to pull out of the water.
21:7. That disciple therefore whom Jesus loved said to Peter: It is the Lord. Simon Peter, when he heard that it was the Lord, girt his coat about him (for he was naked) and cast himself into the sea.
St. John is the first to recognize Jesus, and, very likely, recalls that the Lord worked a similar miracle before.
21:8-9 But the other disciples came in the ship (for they were not far from the land, but as it were two hundred cubits) dragging the net with fishes. As soon then as they came to land they saw hot coals lying, and a fish laid thereon, and bread.
Our Lord did not "catch" the fish, nor gather the wood for the fire; He "caused" them to be where He wanted them.
21:10-11 Jesus saith to them: Bring hither of the fishes which you have now caught. Simon Peter went up and drew the net to land, full of great fishes, one hundred and fifty-three. And although there were so many, the net was not broken.
Having gotten to the shore, Simon knows nothing to do except to help the others with the net once they pull the boat ashore. St. John considers that it is miraculous that some many fish have not broken the net.
21:12-13 Jesus saith to them: Come and dine. And none of them who were at meat, durst ask him: Who art thou? Knowing that it was the Lord. And Jesus cometh and taketh bread and giveth them: and fish in like manner.
The Lord Jesus, the infinite God of Heaven, serves breakfast to His beloved Apostles. We should advert to this scene often as an insight into what it means for God to love us. All Catholics should understand that their Faith is the surest sign of Godís predilection. When we receive Holy Communion, He feeds us His own Body.
21:14-15. This is now the third time that Jesus was manifested to his disciples, after he was risen from the dead. When therefore they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter: Simon, son of John, lovest thou Me more than these? He saith to him: Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee. He saith to him: Feed My lambs.
Simon had boasted of his devotion to Christ as being greater than that of the others. He does not say the same now. And what is important is not what he, Simon, says, but what the Lord Himself knows.
When Jesus says: "Feed My lambs," He is giving Simon His own place as the Shepherd of the faithful.
21:16. He saith to him again: Simon, son of John, lovest thou Me? He saith to him: yea, Lord, Thou knowest that I love thee. He saith to him: Feed My lambs.
This second question corresponds to the second denial. All this is very painful to Simon. The other Apostles keep their eyes down, because they know what great mortification he is suffering. They know he "has it coming," but cannot help but sympathize with him. They are very mindful of the fact that they ran away in cowardly fashion; hence they have no reason to feel "smug."
21:17. He said to him the third time: Simon, son of John, lovest thou Me? Peter was grieved because He had said to him the third time: Lovest thou Me? And he said to Him: Lord, Thou knowest all things: Thou knowest that I love thee. He said to him: Feed My sheep.
When John writes: "Peter was grieved, etc.," he means that Simon is extremely disconcerted, almost desperate. He doesnít know what else to say but to repeat himself.
The threefold injunction, "Feed My lambs, feed My lambs, feed My sheep" can best be understood if we advert to the fact that the number three means completeness, totality, perfection. In this context, the Lord Jesus is giving Simon Peter charge over all His sheep, which we are to understand as including, not only the lay people, but the priests and bishops also. His care and authority includes all the faithful.
This was by no means the end of Simon Peterís penance. The story of his shameful denial of our Lord was repeated among the early Christians and inscribed in the four Gospels, which were copied and disseminated throughout the Church, so that literally everyone knew of it. Wherever Peter went in his apostolate labors, his unhappy story preceded him. He was stigmatized with his ineradicable blunder for all the world to know and to see for the rest of his life.
What spiritual lessons does the fall of our saintly hero have for us? We must pray for a genuine hatred of sin, for every sin is a betrayal of Christ. It is because, on the one hand, we do not love Christ enough, and on the other, do not dread offending Him, that we sin so frequently and indifferently. Sin is more an inconvenience to us, because we must confess it, than something that we truly loathe, as the greatest personal error and tragedy that can befall us.
We must be convinced that there is no sin of which we are not capable, there is no disloyalty of which we are no capable, given the occasion. It is because we are not convinced of this that we commit sins unexpectedly, then are too proud to draw the conclusion that we are not as strong as we thought.
Most of us imagine that we hate sin, or, at least, we do not love it. For this reason, we do not flee the occasions of sin. I do not mean bad places, but situations, gatherings, for example, where people talk, act, and drink like pagans. We do not admit that certain people are a bad influence on us, especially our relatives, to please (or to avoid displeasing) whom, we would do anything, as it is a worse thing to have them "mad" at us than to be in the state of sin. It is not an accident that our Lord included the prayer, "lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil" in the most important prayer.
We must acknowledge the fact that sin has its appeal, and those around us often want us to do the evil that they do, as Eve was bound to entice Adam to into her sin. Your friends and relatives resent the fact that you do not accept the modern Church with its hypocrisy and faithlessness and falsity. In their heart of hearts, they know that their parish church, if they bother to go there any more, is no longer Catholic.
The most fundamental principle in spiritual theology is: "Without Me, you can do nothing" (Jn 15:5). This means that we can neither avoid sin nor do anything meritorious, nor choose the right, nor do good works, without the enabling grace of the Holy Ghost. This is why our daily lives must be laced with prayer, to implore almighty God to bestow upon us the grace that is necessary to remain faithful, to regret our sins sincerely, to advance in virtue, to withstand the enticements of the world, to stand against others, to love our neighbor.
Above all things, in imitation of St. Peter, our first Pope, and a most saintly lover of Christ, who joyfully accepted crucifixion for Him, we must pray for a true love of God, the theological virtue of charity. Those who truly love God are the glory of the Church, the saints of the earth, the delight of the angels, and the beloved of God.
I thank everyone who is praying for me. I think I am getting better, though the progress is slow. I attribute this as much to prayer as to chemotherapy. I thank everyone who has sent me get well wishes, and money for my expenses. Please accept my priestly blessing and my prayer that the good God will grant everyone an abundance of Paschal grace.
Father James Wathen
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