Pandemic Letter 41: The Shoes of the Fisherman

David Suchet (better known as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot) introduces a YouTube History of St Peter, describing the life of the Fisherman, drawing on both Sacred Scripture, and on archaeological research as to the world in which St Peter lived.

The outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is followed by the Apostles speaking so that the diverse multilingual crowd of pilgrims from all parts of the then known world in Jerusalem for the Jewish Feast of Shavuot heard and understood the Apostles, each in their own language.

This is the reverse of what happened at the Tower of Babel, when there was a confusion of languages.  The miracle of pilgrims from so many different places being able to understand the preaching of the Apostles is a sign of the universality of the Gospel, and the desire of Jesus of Nazareth to bring his message to everyone.

Central to the explanation provided by St Peter at Pentecost is Jesus of Nazareth, and his death, resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God.

As explained by St Peter, Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, foretold in the Hebrew Bible.  St Peter’s address to the crowd, referring to the Psalms, to Isaiah, to Joel, demonstrates an educated person, quite capable of fearlessly communicating in a sophisticated way with the diverse crowd, and winning them over.  Elsewhere, Peter’s addresses refer to Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, Amos.  The religious elite of Jerusalem may have written Peter off as an uneducated commoner.  But Peter is no mere dumb fisherman from Galilee!  And Peter obeys God rather than men!

The Jewish Feast of Passover celebrates the Exodus from slavery and sin in Egypt.  So, Passover was an appropriate time for the death of Jesus of Nazareth, and the definitive redemption by God’s Son from slavery and sin, a redemption which was foreshadowed by the Exodus.

The Feast of Pentecost celebrates the continuation of that redemption from slavery and sin in the Church.  Pentecost celebrates the birth of the Church.

The only document in the New Testament almost certainly written by St Peter is the First Letter of St Peter (although St Mark’s Gospel was written by a disciple of St Peter who was influenced by him).  Some have disputed the authorship of 1 Peter on the basis that St Peter was an uneducated fisherman incapable of writing such a sophisticated document. The second letter of St Peter was written by St Peter, or, perhaps, more likely, posthumously by a disciple. 

Our Lord chose no dummy to be first of the Apostles. St Peter came from Galilee where arguably he was exposed not only to Jewish culture but also Greek and Roman culture.  Simon Peter’s very name suggests growing up he was exposed both to Jewish and Greek language and culture.

St Peter probably learned to read and write Hebrew as well as Aramaic, and possibly knew some Greek and Latin.  St Peter absorbed the Hebrew Bible which foreshadows Jesus of Nazareth.  It is evident, not only from 1 Peter, but also from Peter’s various expositions of the Christian faith recounted in Acts, that St Peter was thoroughly conversant with the Hebrew Bible. Like all the very first Christians St Peter was an observant Jew with a thorough knowledge of Jewish faith and practice.  From the time of the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles at Pentecost, Peter spent his life praying and preaching the Word of God.

St Luke’s Gospel, and the Acts of the Apostles, are a composite work.  They provide us with an account of the early Church, and of St Peter, the man who was to be the first Pope.  In Acts we find the earliest account of the Church.

Peter was a fisherman, a physically arduous occupation, requiring hours spent in a boat during the day and the night on the treacherous Sea of Galilee.  The nearest parallel of the Sea of Galilee, to my mind, is Lake Jindabyne whose tranquillity is bathed in sunlight at one moment, and at the next, is cold, choppy, unpredictable, angry, treacherous.

As the Church spread, Peter mixed with many different people, confronted many different problems, and developed, both intellectually and spiritually. so that well before his crucifixion in Rome between 64 and 67 AD, he was capable of writing what is acknowledged, even by cynical unbelieving scripture scholars, as 1 Peter.

St Peter was an accomplished communicator of the Christian message, both in speech and in writing, experienced in dealing with the challenges of the early Christian community.

Was the faith only for observant Jews? or for everybody?  St Paul’s universalist response was not peculiar to him. St Peter’s universalist response is exemplified in his dealing with the Roman centurion Cornelius. Jesus of Nazareth commissioned the Apostles to preach the Gospel to all nations, to all creation.  From the very beginning the Christian message was for all – for the Syro-Phoenician woman, a Samaritan, a centurion’s slave, a Gerasene demoniac, a leprous Samaritan, for Greeks.  As St Peter said, God shows no partiality, but everyone, no matter what their ethnic origin, who fears God, and does what is right is acceptable to him.

St Peter in 1 Peter moves effortlessly from a complete statement of the belief of early Christians to an exhortation to good living, and suffering with Christ, to a statement as to how authority is to be exercised in the Church:

“So, I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed. Tend the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock.”

If only bishops and priests had heeded this advice, the Church would not have been wounded by the division between East and West, by the Reformation, by the sexual abuse scandals of recent years.

Writing in 1968, long before the sexual scandals that have challenged the confidence of so many in the holiness of the Church, Joseph Ratzinger, in his classic, Introduction to Christianity, wrote:

The Church is not called ‘holy’ in the Creed because her members, collectively and individually, are holy, sinless…The holiness of the Church consists in that power of sanctification which God exerts in her in spite of human sinfulness…The new covenant no longer rests on the reciprocal keeping of the agreement; it is granted by God as grace that abides even in the face of man’s faithlessness.  It is the expression of God’s love, which will not let itself be defeated by man’s incapacity but always remains well disposed towards him, welcomes him again and again, precisely because he is sinful, turns to him, sanctifies him, and loves him.

Because of the Lord’s devotion, nevermore to be revoked, the Church is the institution sanctified by him forever, an institution in which the holiness of the Lord becomes more present amongst men.  …This holiness expresses itself precisely as mingling with sinners whom Jesus drew into his vicinity; as mingling to the point where he himself is made ‘to be sin’ and bore the curse of the law in execution as a criminal – complete community of fate with the lost.  He has drawn sin to himself, made it his lot, and so revealed what true ‘holiness’ is:  not separation, but union; not judgment, but redeeming love. 

Is the Church not simply the continuation of God’s deliberate plunge into human wretchedness?  Is she not simply the continuation of Jesus’ habit of sitting at table with sinners, of his mingling with the misery of sin to the point where he actually seems to sink under its weight?  Is there not revealed in the unholy holiness of the Church, as opposed to man’s expectation of purity, God’s true holiness, which is love, love that does not keep its distance in a sort of aristocratic, untouchable purity, but mixes with the dirt of the world, in order thus to overcome it?  Can, therefore, the holiness of the Church be anything else but the bearing with one another that comes, of course, from the fact that all of us are borne up by Christ? 

Similarly, Joseph Ratzinger comments on the universality, or catholicity of the Church:

The concrete unity of the common faith testifying to itself in the Word and of the common table of Jesus Christ is an essential part of the sign that the Church is to erect in the world.  Only if she is, ‘catholic’, that is, visibly one in spite of all her variety, does she correspond to the demand of the Creed.  In a world torn apart, she is to be the sign and means of unity:  she is to bridge nations, races, and classes and unite them.

Ratzinger’s biographer, Peter Seewald, quotes Ratzinger:

True believers do not attach great importance to the reorganisation of Church forms.  They live by what the Church always is.  If we want to know what it really is, we must go to them.  For the Church is not mainly where it is organised, reformed and ruled, but among those who simply believe and receive the gift of faith in the church that becomes their life. 

The confident magisterial St Peter of 1 Peter is far from the Peter we find in the Gospels.  As Jesus walks on water, He invites Peter to “Come”.  And so Peter does, but seeing the wind, Peter is afraid and begins to sink, crying out “Lord, save me”.  Jesus immediately reaches out His hand and catches Peter. In St Mark’s Gospel Jesus says “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.”

From the Gospel of Luke, we know St Peter was married. We know he fished in partnership with James and John.  We know his was a precarious living as a fisherman, sometimes catching nothing.  We know Peter was aware of his own sinfulness.  We know Jesus called Peter to be a fisher of men.  We know that Peter was called to a life of personal hardship, even death, like his Master.  We know that Peter recognised Jesus to be the Messiah, and that Jesus made clear to Peter Jesus’ future death and resurrection.  We know that Jesus’ divinity was disclosed to Peter at the Transfiguration.  We know that Peter sliced off the ear of the high priest’s slave, Malchus.  We know that Peter denied Jesus three times, but repented, was converted, and went on to strengthen his brothers in Christ.

The example of St Peter should give us great confidence, even if we have strayed far from God.  St Peter’s confidence derives from Jesus’ words:

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you lose on earth shall be lost in heaven.”

These “keys” represent the authority given to St Peter to govern the Church and include the power to forgive sins, and to make doctrinal as well as disciplinary pronouncements. Peter and his successors, the Bishops of Rome, are thus the sign of unity of the whole Church.

After his resurrection, Jesus, having heard Peter’s thrice repeated affirmation of love, says: “Feed my sheep.”  Surely JRR Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, is correct in reading this as a reference to the Eucharist.

The primacy of the papacy in the early Church is reflected in Pope St Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians, written in the last decade of the first century.  In this letter Pope Clement intervenes in the affairs of the Corinthian Church to correct abuses.  Similarly, as Gerald Walsh SJ has commented, the Letters of St Ignatius of Antioch, written about 100 AD, on St Ignatius’ way to martyrdom in Rome, include not only an insistence on the hierarchy of bishops, priests and deacons, and the primacy of the see of Rome, but a clear conception of the Church as catholic. Papal primacy goes back to the beginnings of the Church.

Peter is not all that different from each of us with all our doubts and uncertainties, our cowardice. Shortly after Peter’s great expression of faith – “You are the Christ” – Jesus is compelled to reprimand Peter – “Get behind me Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men.”

A very readable explanation of the Church is provided by Bishop Fulton Sheen in the last chapter of his Life of Christ. Not insignificantly, Bishop Fulton Sheen has been declared Venerable, and may be on his way to beatification, if not canonisation.

According to Bishop Fulton Sheen, Jesus told the Apostles there are seven main features of this new Body, this Mystical Body, the Church:

1     To be a member of His new Body persons have to be born into it, not by human birth, but reborn in the Spirit in the waters of Baptism which make us adopted children of God.

2     The unity between the new Body and Christ is through sharing His life:

“You have only to live on in Me, and I will live in you.  I am the Vine, You are its branches.”

3     Christ’s new Body is small at first, but like the mustard seed will grow from simplicity to complexity till the consummation of the world.

4     As Christ receives life from the Father, so the Church, the Body of Christ, receives life from Him:

“That they too may be one in us, as thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee.”

5     There is only one Body:

“There will be one fold, and one shepherd.”

6     Christ’s Body, the Church, manifests itself at Pentecost, after Jesus has gone:

“He will not come to you unless I do go.”

7     Christ’s Body is hated by the world as He was. Anything worldly, the world loves. But what is Divine, the world hates:

“Because I have singled you out from the midst of the world the world hates you.”

The nucleus of this Mystical Body are the Apostles. The Holy Spirit gives life to the Mystical Body, the Church.  Christ teaches, governs, and sanctifies through His Mystical Body, the Church. The Church is called a Mystical Body because it is not physical like a human body, nor moral like a bridge club, but heavenly and spiritual.  The Mystical Body is Christ’s prolonged self.

That the Mystical Body is Christ’s prolonged self is illustrated in the appearance of Jesus to St Paul before his conversion:

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

To which Saul replies:
“Who art Thou, Lord?”
To which Jesus replies:
I am Jesus Whom Saul persecutes.”

Christ is living now! He is teaching, governing, sanctifying now. The New Testament, which is Christ’s word, came out of the Church, not the Church which came out of the New Testament.

As Bishop Fulton Sheen comments:

Christ is living now!  He is teaching now, governing now, sanctifying now – as He did in Judea and Galilea.  His Mystical Body or the Church existed throughout the Roman Empire before a single one of the Gospels had been written.  It was the New Testament that came out of the Church, not the Church which came out of the New Testament.  This Body had the four distinctive marks of life: it had unity, because vivified by…the Spirit, the gift of Pentecost.  As unity in doctrine and authority is the centripetal force which keeps the life of the Church one, catholicity is the centrifugal force which enables her to expand and absorb, redeem humanity without distinction of race or colour.  The third note of the Church is holiness, which means that it endures on condition that it keeps itself healthy, pure, and free from the disease of heresy and schism.   This holiness is not in each member but rather in the whole Church.  And because the Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church, it can be the Divine instrument for the sanctification of souls.  The sunlight is not polluted because its rays pass through a dirty window; neither do the sacraments lose their power to sanctify because the human instruments of those sacraments may be stained.   Finally, there is the work of apostolicity.  In biology, ‘Omne vivum ex vivo’ or ‘All life comes from life’, so too the Mystical Body of Christ is apostolic, because historically it took its roots in Christ and not from a man separated by centuries from Him.  That is why the infant Church met to choose a successor of Judas who had to be a witness at the Resurrection and a companion of the Apostles…Thus the Christ Who ‘emptied’ Himself in the Incarnation now had His ‘fullness’ at Pentecost.  The kenosis or humiliation is one facet of His Being; the pleroma or His continued life in his Bride, Spouse, Mystical Body or Church is the other.   As the emptying of the light and heat of the sun cries out for the filling of the earth with its radiant energy, so the downward course of His love finds its completion in … His ‘fullness’ – the Church. 

Many think they would have believed in Him if they had lived in His day.  But actually, there would have been no great advantage.  Those who do not see Him as Divine, living in his Mystical Body today, would not have seen Him as Divine living in His physical Body. 

Pentecost is an opportunity to be close to the Holy Father, whoever he maybe, to see in the person of the Holy Father, the successor of St Peter.  This perspective is quite different from that of those who do not see Peter with the eyes of faith, who do not see Peter as the possessor of the Keys, he who feeds Christ’s flock with the Word and with the Eucharist, which are both Jesus himself, not a remote historical figure, but really present in His Mystical Body, the Church, living and active.

We pray for whoever stands in the shoes of the Fisherman, for the present Holy Father, Pope Francis, for his person and intentions.  We seek to be united with him.  We call the Pope, the Holy Father, because that is what his office demands – holiness and fatherliness.  The word “Pope” derives from the more familiar “Papa”.  That is how we regard him who stands in the shoes of the Fisherman.

Michael McAuley
Pentecost 2022