St. Peter and the Virtue of Priestly Obedience, June 2, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican
Lithuanian Chapel
Mass for the Seminarians of the Rome Experience 2014
June 2, 2014
1 Pet 5:1-4, Ps 23, Jn 21:15-19

This homily was not recorded.

The following points were attempted in the homily: 

Peter the Mentor 

My life changed dramatically on March 25, 1994. I was a pre-theologian at Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, MD, and I went into Washington, DC, to have pizza with my bishop, then Bishop Sean O’Malley, at one of his favorite places close to Catholic University where he used to study and teach. It was just a time to get together and catch up. Neither of us was expecting it to be momentous. He asked me how it was going at the Mount. I told him, “Well, I could win a Jeopardy category on philosophy now, but unfortunately if the hope were to have my philosophy studies really prepare my mind for theology, I would need more time to retread the brain after so much scientific study and research at Harvard. I’m still thinking like a scientist, not a philosopher.” The question arose — I can’t remember if he brought it up or I did — as to whether it would be possible to take another year to learn more philosophy. He suggested that I could go to Toronto where the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies is and possibly live and/or study with the Oratorians at St. Philip’s Seminary. We decided to look into it, something I ended up doing.

But then he asked whether the Mount would be fine having me just return there after a year away studying at another seminary. I asked him whether he would consider sending me elsewhere after the year in Toronto. He said he would and asked where I might want to go. I replied, “Rome.” He asked why. I responded that even though I loved the Mount I hadn’t found anyone who was really a mentor to me and I had always grown by having good mentors who could challenge me and push me harder than I would normally be pushed in a group. He asked who I thought would be a good mentor for me in Rome. “St. Peter,” I said. I told him that I hoped he wouldn’t find the answer strange, but I had always thought that St. Peter would be a good priests’ mentor and that being there in Rome would be a great opportunity to get to befriend me much more, up close.

He told me we’d work on Toronto and he’d think about Rome. A year later he told me that Rome is where I’d be going. And after I arrived in Rome, I spent more than five years in this great Basilica, praying, leading pilgrims to St. Peter’s tomb, understanding and explaining the symbolism in the Basilica, being ordained a deacon, and so much more. It was here that I ponder St. Peter’s life, his death, his priestly example and what that means for all of us today. I remain convinced Peter has been a special mentor for me and is a great mentor for every priest. He can teach us many things.

What I’d like to ponder today is how St. Peter can mentor all of us in the virtue of faithful Christian and priestly obedience. Obedience, we know, comes from the word “ob-audire,” which is a specification on the verb audire, to listen. It means to listen intensively to someone in particular, to listen on a particular wavelength. St. Peter’s life is replete with examples of what it means to listen not idly but rather intensely to God. I’d like to focus on five different aspects: how he mentors us to obey our vocation, our mission, our invitation to pray, our summons to serve, and our privilege to do the Eucharist in Jesus’ memory.

St. Peter shows us how to obey God’s call to us as priests

When St. Peter heard the Lord saying, “Come, follow me,” he replied with prompt obedience. Even though he knew he was a sinner, even though he knew he wasn’t worthy, even though he had fears that he might let the Lord down out of his weakness, he left everything — including the biggest haul of fish in his career, including his boats and nets, including his mother-in-law and his house in Capernaum — to follow Jesus along a path that wasn’t clear for him.

He shows us how to listen to that call and respond obediently, recognizing that what we’re leaving behind is nothing in comparison with what we’re receiving. The Lord doesn’t call us just once. He continually calls us. He forms us little by little, just he formed Peter. Sometimes like Peter we think like human beings do rather than God, sometimes we seek to lead him rather than to follow, sometimes he needs to upbraid us for being obstacles, but Peter shows us how to persevere in that vocational listening.

Jesus was still calling Peter to follow at the end of today’s Gospel. And after this, when he asked Jesus what would happen to St. John, Jesus reminded him, “Your business is to follow me.” That’s always our principal task, to follow Jesus with faith. To follow him with holy obedience. Renewing our priestly vocation is to renew this type of vocational obedience, to be grateful in memory for the ways we’ve said yes in the past and to ask the Lord for the gift of continued yeses.

St. Peter shows us how to obey in our priestly mission.

The day Peter was called, he had fished all night, for fish were caught in shallow water in darkness. But after Jesus had borrowed his boat as a pulpit, he sent him on out to cast his already-clean nets into deep water in broad daylight. Even though Peter had pulled an all-nighter and was likely exhausted, even though it was totally counter-intuitive to try to catch fish in deep water during daylight when fishermen on the Galilean sea caught at night in shallow water, he obeyed the Lord and put out into the deep, lowering his nets for a catch. We know the rest of the story.

St. Peter shows us about the obedience we need for our priestly apostolate. He has made us fishers of men and he wants us to go out fishing. Sometimes we can wonder whether there are any fish in the water because they might not seem to be biting. We may be tired. We may think that we’re wasting our time in particular pond or lake that he has entrusted to us, but Jesus tells us, too, in the motto St. John Paul II chose for the third Christian millennium, to put out into the deep and lower our nets (Duc in Altum). At his word, we do so, not trusting in our experience, not looking at it with merely human lenses, but obeying, counting on his being able to bring in a great catch in an environment, at a time, in circumstances, we think impossible.

St. Peter shows us how to obey in prayer

In one of the pivotal moments not just in Peter’s life but in the history of the Church, Peter heard God the Father indicate to him in prayer that Jesus was more than just a great prophet in the line of John the Baptist, Elijah, or Jeremiah. When Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?,” Peter replied obedient to what God the Father had revealed to him in prayer, not just that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, but that he was also the “Son of the Living God.” Jesus praised him in response because he would never have realized that by “flesh and blood” (human means) but only from the Father, and Jesus replied by making Simon the Rock on whom he would build his Church.

The whole Petrine ministry was a response to Peter’s obedient prayer. Even though it seemed so much beyond what flesh and blood could grasp, that the Nazarene carpenter was actually God’s Son, someone far greater than what the Jews were expecting of the Messiah, he obeyed what he heard and confessed the fruit of that prayer, come whatever derision might proceed.

We learn from him how to listen to the Lord in prayer with a prompt obedience, seeking his will, intending to do it, to confess it, to live it. To the extent that we faithfully hear God in prayer and act on it. we become rocks, living stones built on Christ the corner stone on whom others can build lives of faith.

St. Peter shows us how to obey in shepherding others.

In the famous scene from today’s Gospel, Jesus asks Peter three times whether he loves him more than “these” — basically everything — and three times Peter replies, “Yes, Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” Jesus didn’t reply, “Cool,” as if his commandment was to “love me as I have loved you,” but rather “love one another as I have loved you.” His love for Jesus would be shown in his love for others. And Jesus gave him three commands: Feed my lambs, tend (guard) my sheep, feed my sheep. The whole Petrine ministry would be one of love feeding and protecting Christ’s sheep and lambs. And Peter obeyed in this work.

Feeding in a sense was teaching. This is depicted for us on the back of the Altar of the Chair where I was ordained a deacon upstairs in 1998. There’s a bas relief showing Peter feeding Christ’s sheep and lambs with every word that came from God’s mouth. And protecting, as St. Augustine, one of the four spiritually upholding the chair of Peter’s teaching authority, involves giving his life as a good shepherd for those sheep and lambs. And Peter obeyed the Lord giving his life for both.

This was something very difficult for Peter to obey because he had lost confidence and thought that the Lord was asking too much. Weeks before, after telling Jesus that even if he would need to die for him he would never betray him, Peter went out and denied even knowing Jesus three times to stay warm by a fire and keep watch over what was happening to Jesus. It was probably the lowest moment of his priestly vocation, that he apostasized hours after his ordination. He wasn’t going to be guilty of the same bravado.

We see this play out in the verbs in today’s Gospel scene. When Christ first asks Peter “Do you love me more than these,” he says, “Agapas me?, “Do you love me with a total self-sacrificial type of love?” Peter replied, “Kyrie, su oidas oti philo se.” “Lord, you know that I love you like a friend.” The same dialogue happened a second time. “Do you love me enough to die for me?” Peter replied, “Lord, you know I love you as a friend. In the third time, Jesus lowered his word. “Simon, Son of John, phileis me?” That’s why Peter was hurt. And he said, “You know all things, Lord. You know that I love you as a friend.”

Jesus started there, accepting Peter’s inability to promise more than his weak flesh could deliver. But Jesus wanted to encourage him. So he said, “Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” St. John tells us that he was describing how he would glorify God by his death. Jesus was indicating that in the end Peter would actually love the Lord with a total self-sacrificial type of love.

During this time of pilgrimage as part of the Rome Experience, the Lord Jesus asks each of us, despite the times when we haven’t lived up fully to a life of faith in him, “Do you love me with a total self-sacrificial type of love?” He wants that love. He wants us to know that he’ll give us the grace to stretch out our hands to receive his help. And he wants us to see that the way he wishes us to love him in this way is by pouring out our lives for his sheep and lambs.

St. Peter passed on this same lesson to the priests of the early Church in the five provinces of Asia Minor. It his first letter, he said, “I exhort the priests among you, as a fellow priest and witness to the sufferings of Christ and one who has a share in the glory to be revealed. Tend the flock of God in your midst, [overseeing] not by constraint but willingly, as God would have it, not for shameful profit but eagerly. Do not lord it over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd is revealed, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.”

He calls us to tend and feed willingly, eagerly and through our example. Our obedience isn’t supposed to be dry, but full of energy, hope, enthusiasm, and as example of the flock so that they may imitate us in feeding and caring for others in the name of Christ.

St. Peter shows us how to follow Jesus in giving Jesus to others in a particular way.

In the great Eucharistic discourse in the Capernaum synagogue, Peter listened obediently to Jesus’ words about the Eucharist and responded with faith. He had watched most of the disciples abandon Jesus because they found his teaching too hard to endure. It wouldn’t be any easier for St. Peter and the apostles to understand how they were going to gnaw on Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood. It wouldn’t make any sense until exactly a year later when Jesus would take bread and wine into his hand in the Upper Room and totally transform them into his body, blood, soul and divinity.

But Peter showed us what obedience of God looks like.

When Jesus asked him and the other 11, “Do you also want to leave?,” Peter said “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.” Because he believed in Jesus, he believed in what he said, and obeyed the one with the words of eternal life with faith. St. Thomas Aquinas writing about this scene put Peter’s sentiments on all of our lips: Credo quidquid dixit Dei Filius. Nil hoc verbo veritatis verius!” “I believe whatever the Son of God has said. Nothing is truer than the Word of truth.”

And later, when Jesus fulfilled what he had indicated in Capernaum the following Passover, Peter would heed Jesus’ command, “Do this in memory of me” probably more than any other command. That’s the same command that has been passed on to priests in every age. To do “this” — the Mass — in memory of Christ. To celebrate this great gift of Jesus and to give our own body and blood together with Jesus’ to the Father and for others. The more we’re obedient to that command, the more we obey this imperative willingly, eagerly and exemplarily, the more we are renewed in our priesthood.

That renewal happens every day. For me it has taken place 7,812 times in the 5,456 days since my priestly ordination, doing this in Jesus’ memory and seeking to conform myself obediently to the mysteries I celebrate. I hope that each of you will have experience similar daily renewals both as disciples and God-willing as priest apostles.

Obeying until the end

Today in this sacred spot a stone’s throw from the mortal remains of the Rock on whom Jesus built his Church, we ask our priestly mentor’s intercession that we may continue to follow Jesus obediently in our vocation to follow him, in our vocation to put out into the deep as fishers of men lowering our nets for catches even where we think it’s a waste of time, in our daily prayer attuning ourselves to the Father’s voice revealing to us in Son, in our tending and feeding his beloved flock, and in perpetuating the agapic sacrifice of Jesus to nourish the world so that we together with St. Peter and with and all those who eat the flesh and blood that we are so privileged to transubstantiate in our hands may one day obey Jesus’ command, “Come, you who are blessed by Father. Inherit the kingdom of prepared for you since the foundation of the world.

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

1Pet. 5:1 So I exhort the presbyters among you, as a fellow presbyter and witness to the sufferings of Christ and one who has a share in the glory to be revealed.  2 Tend the flock of God in your midst, [overseeing] not by constraint but willingly, as God would have it, not for shameful profit but eagerly.  3 Do not lord it over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock.  4 And when the chief Shepherd is revealed, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.

Psa. 23:1 A psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack.  2 In green pastures you let me graze; to safe waters you lead me;  3 you restore my strength. You guide me along the right path for the sake of your name.  4 Even when I walk through a dark valley, I fear no harm for you are at my side; your rod and staff give me courage.  5 You set a table before me as my enemies watch; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.  6 Only goodness and love will pursue me all the days of my life; I will dwell in the house of the LORD for years to come.

John 21:15 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.”  16 He then said to him a second time, “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.”  17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed that he had 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.  18 Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”  19 He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”