On the ancient Appian Way south of Rome, there is a small church with a Latin name: Domine quo vadis (“Lord, where are you going?”). It commemorates a legend beloved of preachers since St. Ambrose, who used it in a sermon in the Milan cathedral. The legend says that during the persecution of Christians by the Emperor Nero in 64, Peter fled Rome. As he hurried along under the cover of darkness, he encountered a man walking in the opposite direction.
“Where are you going?” Peter asked.
“I am going to Rome,” the traveler replied, “to be crucified afresh.”
Peter recognized the voice at once. It was Jesus, returning to suffer death again, because His followers were suffering there. Conscience-stricken, Peter turned back toward the city, whereupon his companion vanished.When Nero’s officials arrested him the next day, Peter insisted that they crucify him upside down. He wanted to die like his Master, but felt unworthy to do so in just the same way.
The popularity of this legend is understandable. It goes straight to the heart: to the weakness that is in each of us, but also to our longing for one last chance to live up to the highest and best within us.
The man whose weakness and loyalty the story illustrates was born in Bethsaida, a fishing town on the east bank of the Jordan River just above the Sea of Galilee. His father, Jonah (in English, John), was a fisherman who had named his son Simon. Together with his brother Andrew, Simon became a fisherman like his father. Luke’s Gospel tells us that the brothers shared the fishing business with Zebedee and his two sons, James and John (Lk 5:10). Simon was married, and his mother-in-law, whom the Gospels tell us was cured one day by Jesus, lived in Capernaum.
Modern excavations at Capernaum have discovered fish hooks and remains of a small ancient church with graffiti invocations of Peter. Luke’s Gospel tells us that Simon and Andrew, with their partners James and John, were the first four disciples of Jesus. In keeping with the custom of the day, according to which a Jewish rabbi had five disciples, Jesus soon called a fifth, Levi, know to us as Matthew.
The Gospels show us two sides of Peter. He could be impulsive and hot-tempered, but also fearful. Peter used a sword to cut off the ear of one of those who came to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Olives. Peter boasted that though all others might betray the Lord, he would never do so — only to deny, within hours, that he even knew Jesus. Moments later he shed bitter tears of repentance at his weakness.
Peter’s spiritual journey starts on a day when he is busy fishing with his partners. Jesus appears with a large crowd and asks to borrow Peter’s boat, from which Jesus could preach and be seen and heard on the shore. When Jesus finishes speaking, He invites Peter to put out into the deep water and let down his net for a catch. Peter knew it was futile; he and his partners had been hard at it all night and caught nothing. Peter still did not know Jesus, but something about this man made it impossible for Peter to refuse Him. We know the sequel: a catch so large that the net was in danger of breaking, and they had to call to their partners in the other boat to come and help them.
Peter’s reaction was that of everyone in Holy Scripture who encounters the Lord: a sense of his own unworthiness. Throwing himself down at the feet of Jesus, with the fish flopping all around him in the boat, Peter blurts out: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Jesus tells Peter that he is being called to something far greater that this unexpected catch of fish: “I will make you a fisher of men.” With his partners, Peter leaves his boat — his livelihood — and becomes Christ’s disciple.
The next stage on Peter’s spiritual journey comes when Jesus asks His disciples: “Who do men say that I am?” They reply: “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Not satisfied with this general answer, Jesus asks another question: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers in the name of all: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus responds by giving Simon a new name: Peter. In Jesus’ Aramaic language, “Peter” means “rock.” Calling this impulsive man “Rock” was something like calling a 300-pound heavyweight “Slim.” St. Augustine says that the rock on which Jesus said He would build His Church was not Peter himself, but Peter’s faith.
Peter’s concept of the Messiah was common among Jews of his day: a person of might and power who would oust the hated Roman occupiers in Palestine and inaugurate an age of peace and prosperity. But Jesus’ role, as He explained it, was radically different. Hence, He tells Peter and the other disciples they must not publicize His true identity — that would raise false expectations. He was headed not for worldly success but for death at the hands of the leaders of His own people. Peter, impulsive as always, protests loudly: “God forbid that any such thing ever happen to you!” Jesus rebukes Peter harshly: “Get out of my sight, you Satan! You are trying to make me trip and fall. You are not judging by God’s standards but by man’s.”
Pope Benedict XVI comments on this scene:
Peter wanted as Messiah a “divine man”, who fulfilled people’s expectations, imposing his force upon everyone. We also want the Lord to impose his force and transform the world immediately; yet Jesus presented himself as the “human” God, who overturned the expectations of the multitude by following the path of humility and suffering. It is the great alternative, which we also must learn again: to favor our own expectations [and] reject Jesus; or to accept Jesus in the truth of his mission and lay aside [our] too human expectations.
Benedict calls this Peter’s second call. Like Peter, we “expect God to be strong in the world,” the pope says,
and that he transform the world immediately, according to our ideas and the needs we see. God opts for another way. God chooses the way of the transformation of hearts in suffering and humility. And we, like Peter, must always be converted again. We must follow Jesus and not precede him . . . . And we must have the courage and humility to follow Jesus, as he is: the way, the truth, and the life.
We all know the story of Peter’s betrayal of the Lord the night before He died. Jesus predicts this at the Last Supper, but Peter protests at once: “Even if I have to die with you, I will not deny you” (Mk 14:31). Within hours, Peter would stand by a fire and three times deny that he even knew the Lord. Luke says that after this third denial, “the Lord turned and looked at Peter. [And] Peter went out and wept bitterly.” It was an instance of utter and abject failure. Peter never forgot it.
Peter’s failure and his tears of repentance immediately thereafter are the background for our understanding of what Benedict calls Peter’s third call, which comes after Jesus’ resurrection. Peter and his companions have gone back to their old trade of fishing. Once again, they work hard all night and catch nothing. At dawn they see a man standing on shore. “Have you caught anything?” the man calls out. The question is one that expects the answer “no”: “You haven’t caught anything, have you?” Jesus was having fun with them. Not once in the Gospels is there any record of Peter and his friends catching a single fish without Jesus’ help.
“Cast your net on the starboard side,” Jesus calls out, “and you will find something.” They do so, and instantly the net is so heavy with fish that they cannot haul it in. One of those in the boat tells Peter: “It is the Lord.” It is the unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved,” as he is called in John’s Gospel. As the boat nears shore, towing the heavy net, Peter, impulsive as ever, jumps into the water to be the first to greet the Lord. Once ashore, he finds a charcoal fire with fish on it, and bread. Knowing that they would be hungry after their long night’s labor, Jesus has made breakfast for them.
Did Peter recall the other charcoal fire that night in Jerusalem, where he stood warming himself? We cannot know. It is clear, however, that he was soon remembering what he had done at that other charcoal fire. Jesus’ thrice-repeated question, “Do you love me?” reminds Peter all too vividly of how he had done exactly what Jesus had warned he would only hours before — and what Peter had immediately boasted he would never do. Three times Peter had denied that he knew his Master, even as Jesus was on trial for His life in a nearby room.
“Peter was distressed,” the Gospel says, because Jesus asked His question a third time. Of course he was distressed! The memory of that threefold denial was painful. Peter’s thrice repeated assurance of love is his rehabilitation. In response to each pledge of love, Jesus assigns Peter responsibility: to feed Jesus’ sheep. It is noteworthy, however, that the flock entrusted to Peter’s care remains the Lord’s: “my lambs . . . my sheep.” Jesus Himself is “the chief shepherd,” as we read in the First Letter of Peter (5:4).
We often think of Peter as weak before the resurrection, but afterward — especially after the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost — as strong. The reality is more complex. Peter retains to the end of his life something of his old weakness. Though remaining faithful to the Lord was sometimes easy for Peter, there were also times when it was difficult. That was true for Peter, and for every one of Peter’s successors. That is why we pray for the pope at every Mass.
Which of us does not feel weak at times? We have made so many good resolutions — some we have kept, many we have not. We have so many dreams, hopes, plans. We want so much, yet we settle for so little. If this is your story, then you have a friend in heaven: Simon Peter.
Jesus does not ask us to be strong. He does not ask us to be pioneers or leaders. He asks of us only what He asked of Peter: that we follow Him. That is not always easy. If we know our weakness, however, we have an advantage over those who think they are strong. Then we will trust, as we try to follow our Master and Lord, not in any strength of our own, but only and always in the strength of Jesus Christ.