Sunday, March 24, 2013

"Simon, strengthen your brothers"

Like the other Passion accounts, Saint Luke's account of the Passion, which we heard at Mass this Palm Sunday morning, contains Jesus' prediction of Peter's denial, but precedes it uniquely with Jesus' special instruction to Peter: "Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers" [Luke 22:31-32].

There are several "commissionings" of Peter in the Gospels - from Jesus's call to Peter to become a "fisher of men" in Luke 5, to his promise to Peter of the power of the keys in Matthew 16, to the final conferral of the primacy with the command to "feed my sheep" in John 21. The latter two especially tend to get the most attention, but they all go together and are all part of one overall commisioning of Peter as leader of the apostles and of his successors as popes for the Church.
There is a progression in the "commissionings" of Peter - from evangelizer in Luke 5 to chief teacher and governor of the Church in Matthew 16, to principal pastor in John 20. The commissioning in Luke 22 (easily passed over in all the other words and actions of the passion narrative) represents, I think, another take on "feed my sheep." It too highlights Peter's shepherding mission. Ultimately, caring for the evangelized entails keeping them so, which then becomes the challenge of ongoing pastoral care in the life of the Church and the mission of the "new evangelization."

In this time of heightened interest in the Petrine ministry, thanks to the election of a new pope, Jesus' Last Supper words to Peter - in the context of Peter's imminent denial of Jesus - take on a special significance. For the Pope does not simply govern the Church. He shepherds her - and her members - as they experience weakness induced by the multiple temptations and stresses of contemporary life.

Commenting on this text at a Jubilee Year celebration for the Roman Curia on February 22, 2000, Blessed Pope John Paul II said "the Petrine ministry is not founded on human abilities and strengths, but on the prayer of Christ who implores the Father that Simon's faith 'may not fail'."

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