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Portrait of St Peter

by Philip Trower

I don't know about you, but I have always found St Peter one of the more endearing, if not the most endearing, of all the main figures in Holy Scripture.

By endearing I mean a particular kind of loveableness which one wouldn't necessarily apply to everyone one loves, or even loves most. One's mother, for instance. But it is real enough all the same, and it is partly to highlight this quality in the prince of the apostles that I have written this sketch. It makes him so easy to feel at ease with.

He doesn't have a brilliant mind like St Paul. He is not a natural leader like King David, and he is not a visionary like St John. He is a homely person. He has a house, a wife, even a living-in mother-in-law and to support them and himself a small fishing business in partnership with his father and brother and two friends. He has a naturally affectionate and humble heart. Almost the first words we hear from him are "Depart from me for I am a sinful man."

He must of course have been physically robust and had plenty of natural courage. He couldn't have survived the storms on Lake Galilee year by year if he hadn't. But at the same time he was impetuous and impulsive. We never see him lose his temper or do or say anything mean. But when things go wrong he quickly loses his head and panics. At other times he is carried away by enthusiasm into proposing or doing something without considering the possible consequences. We are all familiar with the examples. 'Lord bid me come to you on the waters,' rapidly followed by ' Lord save me' as he starts to sink.

Also characteristic are sudden outbursts of generosity or enthusiasm. For example at the Transfiguration his request to build booths for Our Lord, Moses and Elias to shelter in. Then there is his outcry when Our Lord is washing his feet before the Last Supper. 'Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head.'

But these outbursts are not always well judged. When Our Lord predicts his Passion, St Peter cries "Never, Lord," and gets rebuked for his pains. 'Get behind me Satan.'

At the same time, to complete our portrait, we must also remember how unlike he would have been to a man of his type today. He is a devout 1st century practicing Jew, steeped in the national and religious culture of his people, keeping all its religious feasts and fasts, and accepting with respect both the high-priestly authority of the Sadduceean ruling class and the religious authority of the Scribes and Pharisees. In this he would of course have been no different from the other apostles.

We best see what this implied in the incident where Our Lord has been warning his disciples about the dangers of riches and they exclaim; 'Who then can be saved?' They naively assume that the rich, powerful and learned must automatically be top people in every sense; spiritually as well as temporarily.

Taking all this into account we are left with the question: "In choosing this simple endearing soul and calling him the 'rock' on which he is going to build his Church, what was and is God saying to us?" It's almost as though he were being ironical.

I think St Paul gives us the clue in his first epistle to the Corinthians. There he tells his new Greek converts that God has not called them to become members of his Church because they are so good, gifted or well-born, but for the very opposite reasons. It's because they are none of these things. Then the world will be able to see that it must be he God who is working through them when they change from leading corrupt disorderly lives to virtuous and even heroic ones.

There was of course never anything corrupt or disorderly about St Peter's life as we know. But up till Pentecost, he was not only impulsive and given to rapid changes of mood, as I have just recalled. He also tended to be easily overawed by people with stronger characters. There is a notable absence in him of what most people would see as natural leadership qualities.

All this, of course, shows itself most conspicuously during the events leading up to the Passion. When his Master is arrested, his immediate reaction is to draw a sword and cut off the servant of the high priest's ear. But once he gets to the high priest's palace he lingers at the door timidly watching from a distance, while St John who is more knowing and socially sophisticated, pushes ahead inside. St John is acquainted with members of the high-priestly household.

Then comes the predicted downfall. The cock crows; the Lord turns to look at Peter and he goes out and weeps bitterly. But he doesn't despair. Since he describes himself at the end his first epistle as 'a witness to the sufferings of Christ' it seems reasonable to suppose that after his fall he followed the crowds to Calvary and witnessed Our Lord's crucifixion and death even if he did not join |Our Lady and St John at the foot of the cross.

What saves him is his loving uncorrupted heart. Unlike the tragic Judas, he is not interested in money, power, or attracting other people's admiration and applause. He has never seen Our Lord as a means of getting ahead in this world or advancing any this-worldly interests. Until he meets Our Lord, he is content with his life. And once having met him nothing else matters.

Meanwhile, right up to the end of St John's Gospel he remains the simple impetuous Peter we have known from the beginning, as we see in St John's account of the post-Resurrection appearance beside the lake of Galilee when the apostles are out fishing and they suddenly notice Our Lord on the shore cooking breakfast for them. As soon as Peter realizes who it is he jumps into the water and swims to land while the others follow in the boat.

Then come the Ascension and Pentecost and we witness the almost instant transformation of the homely fisherman into the prince of the apostles. It is not a total change. Grace builds on nature. The endearing side is still there. But the change is enough to make one realise that only grace could have achieved it.

From now on, not only is St Peter continually at the front of the stage. Whenever he speaks, and he is usually the chief spokesman, no one questions his authority and there is a serene magisterial certainty both about what he says and the way he says it which at the same time has nothing self-assertive or domineering about it.

Quite soon too, instructed by a special revelation from God he becomes the first of the apostles to carry the faith to the Gentiles. I am referring to the conversion of the centurion Cornelius and his household.

Subsequently we learn from St Paul that he and Peter later came to an agreement that Peter would concentrate on the Jewish converts, while he, Paul, would devote himself to Gentiles. But there was nothing exclusive about this. Peter continued to spread the faith among Gentiles as well as Jews down to the end of his life.

After Pentecost we only know of one relapse into the old St Peter easily overawed by more strong-willed people. We could call it his 'What will the neighbours think' syndrome. This was when he was visiting Antioch and detached himself from the Gentile converts to eat only with the Judeo-Christians so as not to scandalise them.

The incident is not described in Acts. St Luke was too tactful. We only know about it from St Paul's Epistle to the Galatians. St Paul also tells us about the severe rebuke he gave St Peter for back-tracking on what he had agreed to earlier at the Council of Jerusalem. But there is no evidence that St Peter resented this.

Once St Peter ceases to appear in Acts, which is about a third of the way through, we do not hear his voice again until many years later he writes his two epistles. Both are judged to have been written towards the end of his life, even the last year of it, to communities in Asia Minor needing encouragement to persevere in a hostile environment. These apart, we only hear an echo of his voice in the Gospel of St Mark in so far as it reflects his catechesis. By this time he had been living in Rome for ten or more years.

There is a touching admission in the second epistle that he finds some of things St Paul says are hard to understand. Nevertheless there is no indication then or later that, however much he may admire St Paul, he is in any way in awe of him or under his thumb. There is a serene acceptance of the position his beloved master has given him which he exercises in his own quiet decisive way; a way so amazingly different from anything that could have been expected before the transformation at Pentecost.

After his epistles we do not hear his voice again except in so far as actions are said to be like words, the loudest being his having insisted on being crucified upside down, so as not to seem to be letting himself be put on the same level as his Master, his last and most stunning act of loving humility.

However that is not all we can say about the final years. Rome has a number of sites associated with him, apart from St Peters, which help us to picture his final years. Chief among them are the churches Santa Prisca on the Aventine and Santa Pudenziana on the via Urbana, the Mamertine prison at the foot of the Capitol hill, several of the catacombs, and the church of Quo Vadis on the Appian way.

Santa Prisca is named after an early convert of St Peter, martyred while still young, and nearby is the site of what is believed to have been the house of Aquila and Priscilla, who appear in Acts at Corinth as refugees from a persecution of Jews under the emperor Claudius. St Peter is held to have lived with them and exercised his ministry from their house on first coming to Rome.

Santa Pudenziana stands on the site of the palace of Senator Pudens, another convert of St Peter. According to tradition St Peter lived here for the greater part of his time in Rome, conducting his apostolate and ruling his community with the help of the senator's family and their associates. If the traditions are right it was a kind of first ever mini-Vatican. The senator is said to have given St Peter the curule chair which is preserved in St Peters above the altar in the apse behind the high altar. Several of his offspring died as martyrs.

The Mamertine prison carved out of the rock at the foot of the Capitol was a kind of state prison where both St Peter and St Paul were incarcerated during the persecution of Nero (965-66). Hollowed out of the rock at the foot of the Capitol where it meets the Forum, it leaves an unforgettable impression of what conditions in a Roman prison could be like.

Several of the catacombs also have well grounded associations with St Peter and St Paul both while they were alive and after their deaths.

All these traditions are not of course on the same level as facts recorded in Holy Scripture. But, when not based on archeological evidence or written records, they were accepted by fathers and doctors of the Church like St Ambrose and St Jerome readily enough.

Finally we have the Church of Quo Vadis, commemorating the spot where Our Lord is said to have appeared to St Peter when he was running away from Rome during a persecution. The story is well known. When St Peter asked where he was going Our Lord replied: 'To Rome to be crucified again', whereupon St Peter recovered himself turned round and went back to the city, his duty and his eventual death.

It has always seemed to me the most moving of all the traditions about St Peter in Rome, giving us the glimpse it does of the old St Peter reappearing briefly for the last time before being transcended for good and all under the influence of grace.
It also beautifully captures the unique nature of the relationship between Our Lord and his first Vicar, as well as the deep love underlying it.

All human relationships are of course unique. But only a few are unique in kind. Here we are looking at the relationship between the Incarnate Son of God and the one time Galilean fisherman on whom, despite his weaknesses and littleness, he has conferred the highest office on earth.

"Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me more than these others.?"
" Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."
"Feed my lambs."

This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reproduced with the publisher's kind permission. www.thewandererpress.com

Copyright © Philip Trower 2015

Version: 14th September 2015

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