Saint Peter the Great-Hearted, by Monsignor John T McMahon

[Saint Peter the Apostle]The twelve men upon whom Christ laid the foundations of His Church were the most interesting group that the world has seen. No two of them were alike; none of them were educated in our sense, and yet, with one exception, all of them fulfilled the task Christ gave them to do. What was Saint Peter like, and why did Christ select him as His First Vicar on earth?

Saint Peter was a fisherman on the inland Sea of Galilee. He was a successful fisherman for he owned a large boat. Andrew, his brother, brought him to Jesus. “Simon, we have found the Master.” Peter believed Andrew for he came without argument. Christ looked deeply into the eyes of Peter, saying: “You are Simon, Son of John. From now on you shall be called Cephas, which means rock.” Here at their first meeting Christ indicated what He will do with Peter. Peter did not understand the significance in the change of name, but was so attracted to Jesus that he gave up his active life as a fisherman, and, since his wife was now dead, he became the constant companion of Jesus for three years. At this time Peter was a young man in his early thirties. He was full of enthusiasm, bubbling over with eagerness and energy. But he was impulsive, hot-headed, and not waiting to think he blurted out whatever came to mind. There was a big share of the Celtic temperament in his make-up. Christ saw the qualities of his big heart, and the wonderful potentialities of his generous nature.

On the evening of the day of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes Christ sent the Apostles down to the lake to sail to Bethsaida. Then He told the crowd to go home and went up to the mountain to pray (St. Mark 6:46). As the night advanced, a storm broke over the sea; the boat was tossed on the waves, and the Apostles had to lower sail and work hard at the oars. In the fourth watch of the night, (3a.m. to 6a.m.) Jesus came to them, walking upon the sea. They were afraid, thinking it was an apparition; but Jesus assured them: “It is I, fear not, all of you.” Peter could not restrain himself in the boat at seeing the Master. Standing up he cried out: “Lord, if it be You, bid me come to You upon the waters.” And Jesus said: “Come.” Eagerly Peter jumped overboard and walked on the waters towards Jesus. The great white- topped waves rushing under his feet frightened Peter, his nerve gave way, and he began to sink, crying: “Lord, save me.” And immediately Jesus stretching forth His hand took hold of him, and said to him: “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Then Jesus with Peter came into the boat, and the wind ceased. “And they, that were in the boat, came and adored Jesus saying: Indeed You are the son of God.” (Matt. 14:24-33)

“Lord, to whom shall we go?”

About daybreak the Apostles berthed their little ship at Bethsaida, where most of them lived, and an hour or so later they accompanied Jesus to Capharnaum. This was to be a memorable day, a day of promise and trial. Many, who had witnessed the miracle of the loaves and fishes yesterday, walked around the shore and came to Capharnaum where Jesus was preaching in the synagogue. They interrupted the sermon asking for a sign from Heaven to prove that He was the Messiah.

Jesus gave them the astonishing answer: “I am the living Bread which came down from Heaven. If any man shall eat of this Bread, he shall live for ever, and the Bread that I will give is My Flesh, for the life of the world.” A tumult burst forth, and one shrill, incessant cry was heard, “How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?” This question shows that the Jews understood that Our Lord meant exactly what He said. With them it was a question of how can this Man give us His flesh to eat and still live? Jesus answered their “how” by using the solemn double words: “Amen, amen, I say to you, except you eat the Flesh and drink the Blood of the Son of Man, you shall not have life in you.” “Then,” says Saint John, “many of His disciples went away, and walked no more with Him.” Jesus let them go, He did not call them back, made no explanation. Instead, He turned to the Apostles, saying: “Will you also go away?” Peter, whom Jesus had upheld on the sea that morning, answered for all. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed and have known that You are Christ the Son of God” (John 6:43-70).

Peter, generous loyal, great-hearted Peter, is hurt to the quick by this mass desertion and rushes to defend and to support his Leader. Surely this magnificent profession of faith and loyalty which poured from his heart on the spur of the moment reveals Peter at his best, and at that level there is none of the Apostles his equal.

“At your word I will let down the net”

On that day when Jesus sat in Peter’s boat and from it taught the people, Jesus said to Peter: “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a draught. And Simon, answering, said to Him: Master, we have laboured all the night, and have taken nothing, but at Your word I will let down the net” (Luke 5:4-5).

Obeying the Lord’s command Peter cast his net into the sea, and in reward for his humility and confidence caught a miraculous draught of fishes and then realized the doubts he had harboured, doubts born of a life-long experience of this Sea of Galilee, whose every mood and temper he had studied as a fisherman. If old salts could not catch a fish in the dim light of dawn what chance had they in the noon-day brilliance? The others, with incredible grins, watched Peter sail the boat out into the deep, and they chuckled at what testy Peter was thinking and what he should have liked to say to Christ. The reward for Peter’s “at Your word I will let down the net” was so sudden and startling that urgent signals summoned the other boats to take the overflowing catch. Saint Luke tells us of Peter’s generous reparation for his doubts. “Which when Simon Peter saw, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying: Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord. For he was wholly astonished, and all that were with him, at the draught of fishes which they had taken.” (Luke. 5:9-10).

Jesus was grateful for this humble confession, and knowing how hard it was for Peter to keep his tongue from arguing, rewarded him, saying, “Fear not, from henceforth you shall catch men” (Luke: 5:11).

“Love you Me?”

Saint John records the triple test of love which Jesus put on Peter. “At that time, Jesus said to Simon Peter: Simon, son of John, love you Me more than these? He says to Him: Yea, Lord, You know that I love You. He says to him: Feed My lambs. He says to him again: Simon, son of John, love you Me? He said to Him: Yea, Lord, You know that I love You. He said to him: Feed my lambs. He says to Him the third time: Love you Me? And he says to Him: Lord, You know all things: You know that I love You. He said to him: Feed my sheep.” (John 21:15-17).

When Christ selected the twelve Apostles, He did not question them on their birth and breeding, on their schooling and talents, on their wealth or influence. No, He had but one test for an Apostle, namely: “If you love Me, follow Me.” Before Saint Peter is appointed Chief Pastor and Shepherd of the lambs and sheep of Christ’s flock, Christ searches Peter’s heart with the triple question: “Love you Me more than these?” Peter took the first two calmly but the third tried him severely, yet, he conquered his natural irritation, and only said: “Surely, Lord, You know me inside and out, and You know that I truly and sincerely love You more than all the rest.” Our Lord must have looked with eyes of gratitude on Peter as He gave him charge of bishops and priests: “Feed My Sheep.”

Peter in the Garden

Let us watch Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane. He sees the crowd with weapons and sticks threatening Jesus. Up to now he had been dazed, did not quite understand what was happening, for he had slept since supper. But this is something he understands. Peter cannot argue but Peter can fight. He steps forward, a sword flicks out from beneath his cloak, and one of the crowd screams in pain. It is Malchus, servant of the high priest. Jesus turns and rebukes Peter: “Put up your sword.” Peter hangs on to the sword but the crowd are too many and they wrench it from him. Peter, helpless and unarmed, with tears of rage in his eyes, runs to get the others.

Not finding the others Peter followed the crowd at a safe distance, and got into the courtyard of the high priest. Peter is no coward, and yet, within a short time he denies that he ever knew Christ. A hush falls upon the crowd around the fire. They look up at the balcony to see Jesus being led away by the soldiers. Peter’s eyes meet the eyes of his Master and from that day until his death, nearly thirty years later, Peter’s eyes never dried.

“Where are you going?”

For twenty-five years Saint Peter ruled the infant Church from Rome. In the year 67, Nero, the Emperor, fancied himself as a musician, so he had the bright idea to burn Rome so that he might play better. The fire was a success but the playing was not. Nero blamed the Christians for the fire and a drastic persecution followed. Peter, arguing on human lines, decided that he would be safe out of Rome, so under cover of night he stole out of the city. On the Appian Way he met Christ, coming towards Rome. “Quo vadis?” asked Peter, “Where are You going?” “Back to Rome to be crucified again,” answered Christ. Peter took the hint and returned to his martyrdom. His one request to be crucified head down was granted. He was an old man then. His shoulders had tasted the whips of the Romans. His eyes, once farseeing as a keen fisherman, were dim and weak from weeping. His cheeks had deep furrows worn by his constant tears of repentance and love.

What a big-hearted man was Peter!

How we love to think of his unpredictable ways! No calm, calculating lover he: no measuring of his loyalty and devotion. No, he might speak and act first and think afterwards, but how transparent is his sincerity and how deep is his loyalty to his Master! Peter was a man after Christ’s own heart, and it is so easy to see why this great-hearted man was chosen by Christ to be the rock upon which to build His Church.

Even in life how richly Christ rewarded Peter for his love. On Mount Thabor, in His Transfiguration, Christ gave Peter a preview of the Beatific Vision of Heaven, and out from that big heart came Peter’s words: “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” Peter is honoured as the first Pope in return for his great love. Peter was the instrument selected by the Holy Spirit to write some of the Epistles.

- Monsignor John T. McMahon, M.A., Ph.D., Australian Catholic Truth Society, 1957