Imagine that there’s this Pope who has a habit of saying and doing somewhat embarrassing things. When he opens his mouth, everyone cringes in anticipation of what words will spill out. He comes from a humble past and a humble place and is a humble man – but sometimes, what he says and does is just plain embarrassing.
No, I’m not talking about our beloved Francis. I’m talking about one of his predecessors, the ever bumbling Peter.
St. Peter is one of my favorite people in the Gospels. There are so many awkward “Peter moments,” the time that he suggests building tents when confronted with the awe and wonder of the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:4) being my personal favorite. When confronted with the majesty of Christ’s divinity, he responds not with reverent silence (as James and John do), but with an awkward suggestion.
Sometimes, what comes out of Peter’s mouth is more than embarrassing, but false. One of the most cringe-worthy moments in the Gospels is when he tries to insist that Jesus not suffer and die, and Jesus harshly rebukes him (Matthew 16:22-23). Can’t Peter sense when it is best not to speak?
Then, of course, there is Peter’s insistence that he won’t betray Christ (Matthew 26:35) only to deny him three times later that night (Matthew 26:74-75). This is not a mere embarrassment. It is an utter failure on Peter’s part.
There are many times when Peter opens his mouth and makes a fool of himself. But, his willingness to speak up for what he believes to be true – especially when no one else will – is also his greatest strength. Peter is the first Apostle to express faith in Christ’s divinity (Matthew 16:15-17). Although he is the one who denies Jesus, he is also the one who later re-affirms his love for Christ (John 21:17-18). And it is he who Jesus chooses to be the first head of the Church.
There is virtue in being willing to say what needs to be said, in any circumstance, despite the risk of sounding foolish. Recently, I attended an adult education class at our parish. I have a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in theology, but when it came time to answer the questions that the speaker asked – I froze. I didn’t want to give the wrong answer, even if I had a good answer to give. The speaker, a fellow professor at the seminary my husband teaches at, is an incredibly kind and humble man and certainly wouldn’t have judged me if I gave the wrong answer. It was simply my own pride that stood in the way. I was not humble enough to give an answer if I wasn’t sure if it was the right answer.
Yes, Peter may sound foolish at times, but his willingness to speak the truth in humility enables him to speak the truth. He doesn’t worry about having the perfect words, but rather about saying the words that God is calling him to say. The Peter we encounter in the Acts of the Apostles demonstrates what this kind of humility looks like, when coupled with wisdom from the Holy Spirit. Humility is a powerful thing.
As a perfect partner for Peter, we celebrate the feast of St. Paul on the same day. If Peter is the patron saint of speaking in humility, Paul is certainly the patron saint of acting in humility. Paul begins his missionary work at a disadvantage. He has a history of persecuting the Church, and he has to convince the early Christians that he is now committed to the cause of Christ. In both the Acts of the Apostles and in his Epistles, we see Paul acting in great humility, to demonstrate his love for God’s people.
I think the most beautiful example of this is found in Paul’s 2nd Letter to the Corinthians. He admits to the church of Corinth that he is suffering and struggling with an unnamed weakness, a “thorn in his side.” He explains that he has begged God to remove this weakness from his life. Rather than removing it, God answers Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul joyfully accepts this answer and affirms, “For whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10) Paul accepts that God can work through his imperfections.
Peter and Paul, both great men in the Church, remind us of the power of humility. If we long for holiness, then we must long for humility. We must be willing to say and do things that may confuse or be misunderstood by the world around us. It is only in humility that we will discover the gift of fortitude, to do what is right even when it may be difficult.
A saint is not foolish, but he must be willing to be a fool for Christ.
St. Peter and St. Paul, pray for us.