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The Primacy of Peter

The following conference is one of a second series of retreat conferences given by Father John A. Hardon S.J. Father Hardon is professor of theology and teaches at the pontifical institute for advanced studies and Catholic doctrine at Saint John University in New York. Father is well known as a lecturer, retreat master, and author. This second series of retreat conferences has proved to be of great spiritual inspiration and assistance to priests, religious, and laity alike, because like all of Father Hardon’s conferences one can be well assured they are founded on solid Catholic doctrine. In the following conference Father Hardon speaks on the subject, “The Primacy of Peter”. Father Hardon:

The Primacy of Peter

Rather surprisingly perhaps, St. Ignatius makes a great deal of the appearances of Christ after the resurrection. He recounts no less than fourteen appearances. Also not surprisingly, Ignatius believed that Christ’s first appearance after His rising from the dead was to His mother, Mary. Here is Ignatius:

He appeared to the Virgin Mary and although this is not mentioned in scripture still it is considered as mentioned when it says that “He appeared to many others” for the scripture supposes that we have understanding *according* as it is written, “Are you also without understanding”. It is obvious. (That is Ignatius)

The bible did not have to mention it. In non-biblical terms, we are to use our heads! Jesus first appeared to Mary.

Christ appeared not to everyone, but only to certain people. The actual number we don’t know, we know it was in the hundreds. Some of these apparitions of Christ after His resurrection are recounted in great detail. The one on Easter Sunday evening; the one when Thomas, the doubter, was present; the one recounted by Luke on the way to Damascus; and the one to which St. John devotes a whole chapter. In fact, it may be considered a kind of afterthought on John’s part because he closes his gospel devoting the whole chapter to Christ’s appearance to a number of disciples, but especially to Peter. Not coincidentally, the last gospel has a whole last chapter devoted to Christ’s appearing to Peter and conferring on him the primacy.

My intention is to first read the first nineteen verses, which really close the episode that we want to reflect on. Then we shall go back and choose some eight areas of prayerful reflection.

“Later on”, now this “later on” chapter has left biblical scholars over the centuries, because just before this “later on” John had already closed his gospel. He had closed it with the appearance of Christ to the doubting Thomas. In the last words of what would have been the end of John’s gospel read, (Christ speaking to Thomas), “You believe because you can see me. Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

Then just before the “later on”, “there were many other signs that Jesus worked, and the disciples saw, but they are not recorded in this book. These are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing this you may have life through His name.”

That everyone holds was the original close of the last gospel. But, before he died, John added one more chapter, the present one. Evidently, providentially, anticipating the need for the faithful not only believing in Christ, but in His vicar.

So the twenty-first chapter begins:

“Later on Jesus showed Himself again to the disciples, it was by the Sea of Tiberias, and it happened like this: Simon Peter, Thomas (called the twin), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two more of His disciples were gathered. Simon Peter said, “I am going fishing.” They replied, “We will come with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but caught nothing that night.
It was light by now, and there stood Jesus on the shore, though the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.
Jesus called out, “Have you caught anything friends?”
And when they answered, “No”
He said, “Throw the net out to starboard and you will find something.”
So they dropped the net and there were so many fish that they could not haul it in. The disciple whom Jesus loved, said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” At these words, “It is the Lord,” Simon Peter who had practically nothing on, wrapped his cloak around him and jumped into the water. The other disciples came on in the boat towing the net and the fish.
They were only about a hundred yards from land. As soon as they came ashore, they saw that there was some bread there and a charcoal fire with fish cooking on it. Jesus said, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.”
Simon Peter went aboard and dragged the net to the shore full of big fish. One hundred and fifty three of them! And in spite of there being so many of them the net was not broken. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples were bold enough to ask, “Who are you?” They knew quite well it was the Lord. Jesus then stepped forward and took the bread and gave it to them. And the same with the fish. This was the third time that Jesus showed Himself to the disciples after rising from the dead.
After the meal, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these others do?”
He answered, “Yes Lord, you know I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
A second time He said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He replied, “Yes Lord, You know I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Look after my sheep.”
Then He said to him a third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was upset that He asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” and said, “Lord, you know everything. You know I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. I tell you most solemnly when you were young you put on your own belt and walked were you liked. But when you grow old you will stretch out you hands and somebody else will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go.”
In these words, Jesus indicated the kind of death by which Peter would give glory to God. After this Jesus said, “Follow me.”

There is enough here for years of meditation. Let us just choose some of the *** features of this narrative and in Christ’s Eucharistic presence. The same Jesus who did and said all of this, and what this is all about.

First the background. Christ made sure that the disciples would fish all night and catch nothing. God is uncanny in getting us to see how helpless we are of ourselves. We as it were, become unemployed in working for creatures that He brings us to Himself the divine employer, so that we might work for the Creator.

The reason of course, unless there were periodic blanks in our life, or periodic bleaks, or blacks, it is not likely that we would then appreciate the grace. Not inappropriately, all of this took place at dawn. Oh, how shrewd the Holy Spirit is!

God puts enough nights into our lives to make us appreciate the dawn of His grace. The important thing is to know that all nights end, and another name for the end of nights is the dawn. This is not poetry, it is God’s providence. Watch it! Never then while we are under trial or difficulty to give in to discouragement, but always reassure ourselves with a confident hope that God will come through. He always does.

After having caught nothing all night in miraculous *draft. Suppose they had caught these one hundred fifty three, (you wonder who had counted them, it must have been John) suppose they had caught all these fish during the night. Would they have appreciated His large *draft? No. This too, is part of God uncanniness. He not only comes through after “the night”, but He comes through with the blazing light of His Son with gifts and graces and blessings far beyond what we had a right to expect. I would like to add (speaking figuratively) that a number of fish we catch will depend on the confidence we have during “the night”.

Saint John recognized Jesus. Now this is a bit odd that he should mention that because he is the one who is writing the gospel, and as you know he never fully identified himself. What we know about John, by his own definition of himself, is that he was a disciple who specially loved Christ. Love is remarkably perceptive. We speak of knowing with the mind. We do. There is also such a thing as knowing with the heart. It is therefore, not chance that either John was the one who first recognized Christ or that he should so identify himself as having thus recognized. Those who love Christ will recognize Him, even where others will not.

Then characteristically, Peter jumps into the water. Notice it was not John, not James, not Thomas, but Peter. How symbolic! He was always jumping into water. In fact, you almost sense a bit of humor on John’s part. He didn’t have to mention this, but knowing Peter he wanted to sort of symbolize- this is what Peter was doing always. Impetuous and generous, with a corresponding strength and weakness of impetuosity. He was the one who the night before Christ died, boasted to the lesser mortals (the other apostles) “Lord I can’t speak for them, but if they all abandon you, bank on me.” That is where we got that severe rebuke, and if this was a promise, that too was a promise or rather a prediction: “You boastful, arrogant, impetuous friend, you are going to deny me!”

I think it is well to spend just a moment on Peter swimming in those hundred yards. (By the way, also noted as John mentioned). Having typified his impetuosity John wanted to make it clear that Peter was no great swimmer. A hundred yards is nothing! Then the beautiful scene, my notes say Jesus “the cook”. Revelation describes the savior as the “Messiah”, as the “King of Kings”, as the “Judge of the Living and the Dead”, as the “Light of the World”. Well this same revelation tells us that Jesus, the Son of God, was also a “cook”. He used His divine wisdom to cook. What a lesson!

There are many definitions of humility. One that I think is apropos here is Christ’s humility in hiding His real dignity. There should then be in our lives, be nothing too lowly. How can we use the word lowly? Those categories are the worlds standard.

I don’t ** how reflected on just this passage of John, but when as I have never done in my life before (and I hope will never have again). We were asked by our superior when we moved in Chicago to name the ten people in the community we would most like to live with, and we were moving into apartments. Please, I will never write my life in an apartment. But I figured I didn’t like the option, but here is what I did: We had about twelve brothers in the community, so what I did is to go down the alphabetical list and name the first ten brothers I would most like to live with them. I ended up living with Brother Mike and Brother Tom. They will be delighted to know that they are being recorded. Two finer men of God I have never met. Mike is the mechanic, Tom is the mailman. When I got back to Chicago my bed will be covered with mail, and we get along famously. Mike tells me that Tom is my most avid reader. We talk about God and the things of God almost always. (That is not in my notes.)

Before God there is no higher or lower, no greater or smaller, no more or less important, there are no ****society, there are no cultural barriers; before God we are all absolutely the same. Nothing of ourselves, and everything because He loves us. Jesus “the cook”, and you may be sure a good one!

Then the main purpose of this conference:

Jesus took Peter aside. The others we may be sure, very wisely, went about their business. Almost all of them, maybe, all of them knew what was going to be done. He asked him, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these do?” Now that is an odd question for two reasons: First, He didn’t call him Peter. Right? And for the best of reasons, the man He was talking to was no Peter, he was no rock. And Peter got it immediately. This is in stark contrast to John. Simon Peter, Simon Peter, Peter, Simon Peter – that is John. Well, John was writing about the year 95 A.D. The narrative occurs somewhere in the mid 30’s A.D. Christ therefore, wanted to impress on what Peter was to be, that of himself, he is just plain Simon. His being the foundation of the Church is no credit to him.

The second surprising thing is that Christ asked him almost and unanswerable question. Isn’t that odd, “Do you love me more than these do?” How is Peter to know? Right? *Exegetes have struggled with that question. Let me suggest why Christ asked it. First of all He knew His Simon and He knew that if anyone was not afraid to say that he loved Christ more than someone else did, it was Simon.

Secondly, in effect Christ was giving His own answer. He assumed that Peter did love Him more than the others. But now listen, this is a chastened Simon. He didn’t say, “Why of course I love you more than (where are they?) the rest of the them. “Yes Lord, you know I love you.” Ah, Peter had learned his lesson.

Isn’t that beautiful? Christ was asking Peter in the context of the temperament that He knew Peter had. It is the sort of question that before his denial Peter would have leapt up immediately, “Why sure!” But no more, “If I love you more than the rest of these do, frankly Lord, if I do, you know it- but I am not going to boast it.” What a lesson for us in the constant, invidious, comparisons we are making between ourselves and others. With some people it is almost their favorite mental recreation.

Then a second time, and a third time. After each answer on the part of Peter, protesting that, notice? He did not say, “Yes, I love you!” He did not even say that, let alone, “I love you more than the rest of these.” You know what he said? “You know that I love you. I trust your judgement.”

After each answer by Peter, Christ told him first to feed My lambs, then My sheep. Which commentators over the centuries and indeed even a solemn council of the Church explain means- all the people of God. All the lambs and all the sheep belonging to the faithful, belong to Peter. And what is he told by Christ to do? To feed.

Now we know since this narrative on the shore of the lake of Tiberius, that would be called the “Primacy of Peter”, includes many things, especially three: That the Vicar of Christ has a divinely conferred right to teach, and therefore to feed the “flock of Christ” with God’s revealed truth. That secondly, the Vicar of Christ has final jurisdiction over all the sacraments. When the pope declares, “This is valid, or that is not, or this must be done, that may not be done, these are the words to be pronounced, those may not be pronounced”, he is speaking with the authority of Christ Himself (not of course by himself, but through the bishops, and priests of the Catholic Church.) Feed the flock of Christ with the sacramental graces over which, he, the vicar of the Savior has final authority.

And again, though we don’t usually use it in this way, there is such a thing as not merely “feeding” in the sense of actually handing out the food, but pasturing, guiding, because (as one who is not a farmer) but I have watched sheep graze. They really feed themselves, right? Provided you lead them to the right pasture. Consequently, the Vicar of Christ has the final authority to lead, direct or a word that some people are embarrassed to use nowadays- rule the people of God.

All these three forms of highest authority were conferred on Peter and his successors. And how beautifully Christ did it after breakfast. After all had had a good meal. Come to think of it, it is also after that most famous of all meals, that Christ instituted the Eucharist. There is a marvelous relationship between Christ eating with His followers, and His teaching them His doctrine.

Now we might say that is it. Well, that is not it, because having conferred the primacy it was promised in Peter (16th chapter of Matthew) and it was conferred in John (21st chapter). Those two go together. In Mathew the promise, “I will build my Church on you, the rock.” Then in John, the command: “Feed my lambs, feed my sheep.”

The primacy was born when Christ conferred the authority on Peter, but having done that Christ wanted to make sure (in John) under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, also made sure we would have the record. Having conferred the primacy He also conferred the cross. Every gift that God gives us carries with it a burden. Every grace brings with it its cross. And we may say, better, we should say the greater the gift in this case the highest responsibility on earth, the more Christ will demand of that person a share in His own suffering and sacrifice.

All I can say speaking for one person, it took years to find out and I am still learning. Anything even good for the Church, certainly anything great for the Church, must (that is the divine imperative) must carry with it the cross. So then Peter was told how he would die, and as tradition tells us, like His master he was crucified.

In closing this conference, let us especially pray asking our Savior to help everyone in the Catholic Church today, to in some cases even rediscover, certainly to strengthen and reaffirm their faith in the Primacy of Peter. Bishops need it, oh how they need it! Priests and religious desperately need it.

Recently in speaking to a national convention of vocation directors, after I finished my fifty-five minute talk (this has almost never happened to me in my life. There was always at least some ripple of applause, at least some kind souls somewhere that will in mercy applaud.) But no, dead silence! Not one hand clap. I don’t need it, but you kind of expect it. Do you know why? Because I spoke to them about the lack of obedience among religious to the Vicar of Christ and the Holy See. Let us pray, that the laity too, where many are torn between their faith and the false prophets all around them, on say rearing a normal family today.

Humane Vitae in 1968, divided the Catholic Church (I hope not in half) but ready to sunder millions of confused Catholics, further confused by those who should be their teachers in God, that they should not interfere with the life process. Obedience to the Vicar of Christ among all Catholics is the single greatest need in the Catholic Church today- baring none. Let us pray that God in His mercy will enlighten those who have the faith to see that that faith will last only if it is built on the foundation that is Peter.

If Peter, who had sinned, who was humiliated, a Peter who was repented, a Peter who loved Christ, and a Peter who had a love for His master shed His blood. The Church of the future will be only as strong, and please God it will be very strong, as the faith of every Catholic is firm in Peter’s primacy.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Copyright © 1999 by Inter Mirifica

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