One of Israel’s most popular attractions is the Sea of Galilee (what Luke’s Gospel calls the Lake of Gennesaret). Having crossed the lake in the so-called “Jesus Boat,” modern pilgrims can dine on “St. Peter’s Fish.” That name obviously recalls the story we just heard of Peter’s great catch of fish [Luke 5:1-11]. Of course, the point of the story is not really fish but the great growth in people, which lies in store for the Church, whose essential mission is to evangelize the world – to put out into the deep water of the world and lower its nets over and over again for a catch.
For someone always identified by his profession as a fisherman, it is striking how in the Gospels Peter never seems to catch any fish on his own. The only fish we ever hear about him actually catching are the ones miraculously caught with Jesus’ help. Like Peter’s fishing, the Church’s mission to evangelize the world sometimes seems to be going nowhere and to suffer frustrating setbacks – some due to external opposition, some self-induced by our own faults and fundamental failures. Yet, despite Peter’s obvious frustration with his failures as a fisherman and the depressing tiredness that so commonly accompanies such frustration, frustration he and his successors in the Church’s ministry would undoubtedly experience frequently in the future, Peter found the faith, the confidence in Jesus, to respond with what turned out to be the right answer, “at your command I will lower the nets.”
No sooner had he done so, of course, than they caught a great number of fish, whereupon Peter fell at the knees of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” To our religiously impoverished, post-modern sensibility, that must certainly, under the circumstances, seem like an odd-sounding response indeed. If Peter were a modern politician, our scandal-driven, personality obsessed media would surely highlight what would be seen as a gaffe on Peter’s part, Peter once again saying the wrong thing at the wrong time – or perhaps speculating about what long-ago failing in Peter’s past he might be referring to that might yet derail him from the fast track to leadership in Jesus’ Church!
When Peter addressed Jesus as Lord, however, that was not just Peter being polite. It expressed Peter’s profoundly religious imagination and sensibility – his sudden recognition that he had come face-to-face with the awesome holiness of God. Peter reacted as any normal, awestruck, pre-modern person would react in the presence of holiness – not unlike Isaiah in today’s 1st reading [Isaiah 6:1-2a, 3-8], who naturally assumed that no one could survive something so awesome as seeing God directly.
Certainly, something so totally beyond our ordinary experience can cause one to respond in apparently contradictory ways – sailing out into the deep with Jesus one minute, then apparently pushing him away the next. That’s the way we are. People are complicated creatures, contradicting ourselves all the time, making mistakes and missing one opportunity after another. Far from frightening Peter away, however, Jesus’ intention was instead to bring him even closer – calling him from fisherman to disciple to apostle to pope, thus setting in motion the mission of the Church.
As members of his Church and beneficiaries of its mission, all of us too been invited to sail out into the deep water of the world with Jesus, who remains with us, present in his Church in a particular way in the ministry of Peter. It is obviously no accident that the ceremonial ring that the Pope wears has, for centuries, been called “the Fisherman's Ring,” and that the image portrayed on that ring is that of Saint Peter in a boat, fishing. It is precisely our communion with Peter which has sustained our community of faith over the centuries and which provides us, in both good times and bad, with whatever energies and resources for renewal and evangelization we may have.
Peter may be the Church’s fisherman-in-chief, but he is hardly its only fisherman. At the ordination of a priest, the ordaining bishop prays: in our weakness give us also the helpers that we need to exercise the priesthood that comes from the Apostles.
Obviously, the bishop here is speaking for himself as successor of the apostles. In so doing, however, he speaks for all of us, on behalf of the whole Church, acknowledging the Church’s need for fishermen in sufficient numbers.
We have all become increasingly familiar with the inevitable consequences when insufficient numbers step up to carry on the mission of the Church in this country – everywhere everyone having to make do with less.
In 1965, there were 58,000+ priests in the United States, almost all of them in active ministry; 50 years of population growth later, there were only 38,000+ priests in the US, with only 68% in active ministry. Fifty years ago, the average age of a priest in the US was 35. This year, half of all active priests will be at least 70 – including yours truly, who will be 71 next month.
Listening today to these incredibly inspiring stories of the commissioning of Peter the Apostle, and Isaiah the Prophet before him, listening too to Saint Paul’s powerful personal description of his own vocation story in his letter to the 1st-century Christian community in Corinth, we are challenged to be alert to God’s every invitation and to ask ourselves whether we or someone we know and who needs our encouragement – perhaps someone right here in this church this morning – may be someone the Lord is inviting, someone the Lord is depending upon to pick up part of Peter’s net, so that Jesus’ boat can arrive at last at its destined shore.
Homily for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, February 10, 2019.