Today is the feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Two men who shaped the Early Church and whose contribution to the Faith can still be seen and felt 2000 years later. One was the first Pope and the other proclaimed the Good News to the Gentiles, after St. Peter helped move the Church from just the Jews, to the whole world. Due to the fact that both of these men loom so large in the Church, I have chosen to meditate on the conversion of Saint Peter. Saint Paul would require an entire article of his own, in fact both men have books upon books written about them.
In the Gospel of Matthew we see that Simon, who is now called Peter, was among the first disciples to be called to follow Jesus.
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And he said to them.
Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. Matthew 4:18-20
Jesus did not go to the Temple in Jerusalem for his disciples at first. He did not seek out the learned and the powerful first. No, he went to the Sea of Galilee and summoned two fisherman to be his first disciples. When Peter abandoned his nets to follow Christ, he had no idea of the place he would play in the mission of bring the world to Christ. Notice, however, that Peter’s decision to follow Christ was immediate. He left his very livelihood and went down a path he did not fully understand at the time.
Peter’s conversion was a slow going process. He stayed with Jesus and followed Him as He proclaimed the Good News, but there are moments in Scripture where it is quite evident that Peter did not understand what he was a part of. The revelation of Jesus as the Son of God was a slow going process. The disciples did not understand immediately that He was the God-Man. In fact, it would take the Paschal Mystery for the Apostles to understand who Jesus truly was, so that explains why Peter understood slowly.
Peter’s slow development and trust of Our Lord is on full display in Matthew 14:22-33.
When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was many furlongs distant from the land, beaten by the waves; for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying “It is a ghost!” And they cried out for fear. But immediately he spoke to them, saying “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.”
And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Peter desired to trust in Christ. He walked out onto the water towards His Master and Teacher in confidence, as long as he had his gaze fixed on Christ, he could walk on water to Him. When he took his eyes off of Christ, he saw the storm and became afraid. How many of us do this in our own lives? When hard times come to us, do we focus on Christ, or do we let the storm engulf us? Notice that when Peter cried out to Jesus, He “immediately” grabbed him and saved him. Jesus rebuked Peter, but He still put him back in the boat.
It is a great lesson that Christ made Peter the first Pope of the Church. Peter’s conversion and journey was slow going and contained many falls. He made bumbling errors, misspoke, and ran when it was time for the Crucifixion. Peter’s denial of Christ is one of the most heart-wrenching, yet instructive, narratives in the Gospels. Remember that Peter, in his own pride, assured Christ that he would never deny or betray him. Peter did not yet understand his own weakness, but he would learn the hard way.
Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. And a maid came up to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean; but he denied it before them all, saying, “I do not know what you mean.” And when he went out to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” And again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man.” After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you are also one of them, you accent betrays you.” Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know the man.” And immediately the cock crowed. And Peter remembered the saying of Jesus, “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly. Matthew 26:69-75
Here it is, our first Pope, Peter’s weakness on full display. In fear for his own life, he did exactly what Our Lord told him that he would; he denied Christ three times. For many this could be the end. It could be a moment to fall into despair and leave Christ all together. This is a crucial moment for Peter. He can give into despair and leave Christ altogether, or he can repent and begin anew. Praise be to God, he chose the latter!
Peter waited in Jerusalem. He was not entirely sure of what was to come, but Peter and the disciples gathered, after running, to wait. Then, even after such utter betrayal and abandonment Jesus appears in the upper room and the first thing out of his mouth is “Shalom”, peace be with you. Even after his torture and Crucifixion he came back in forgiving love.
Our Lord does not leave Peter in his denial. Before the Ascension, he spoke to Peter one morning at breakfast.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me.” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him a third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him a third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you fastened your own belt and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands and another will fasten your belt for you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” And after this he said to him, “Follow me.” John 21:15-19
There is a lot to unpack here. First, notice that Christ asked Peter three times if he loved Him. This is to override Peter’s denial. Jesus had to go into that broken and hurting place of Peter and ask him to affirm his love, in order to heal the hurt that denial caused Peter. Second, Jesus is telling Peter to lead the Church, as the shepherd. Peter is to be the Prince among the Apostles. Christ is calling him to tend to his sheep throughout the world. Third, Christ is telling Peter that he will die a martyr’s death, much like his own and to follow him anyway. This is a beautiful passage for Lectio Divina or other forms of meditation. It is packed with beautiful meaning and redemption. Peter does in fact go out to the lost sheep, including the Gentiles.
St. Peter spent his later years in Rome. The specific chronology of his activity has been lost to history, but many Early Church Fathers, including St. Clement of Rome and St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote of Peter, and his crucifixion upside down has been passed on through Tradition. His very bones are interred directly below the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica. He labored and fed the sheep of Our Lord, until he died a death like His.
St. Peter is a great saint to know. His life is a great lesson to all of us on the journey of holiness. Most of us do not experience a radical and immediate conversion. Instead, many of us take missteps, take our eyes off of Christ, run, or even deny our faith in our daily lives. When we choose sin, we deny our faith. St. Peter gives us hope that while the journey is long and arduous, Our Lord will lead us to our eschatological end that is Heaven. In those moments of weakness, open up the Gospels and meditate on St. Peter’s life and his experiences with Our Lord. Remember that even in our brokenness and weakness all we have to do is return to Christ. He will immediately pick us up and set us back on the journey. Remember what St. Paul tells us, “For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38-39. St. Peter and St. Paul, ora pro nobis.