One of Israel’s most popular attractions is the Sea of Galilee (what Luke’s Gospel calls the Lake of Gennesaret). Having crossed in the so-called “Jesus Boat,” as I did in 1993 (photo), modern pilgrims can then dine on something called “St. Peter’s Fish,” a name that recalls the story we just heard of Peter’s great catch of fish. But, as that story itself suggests, the point was not really fish but the great growth in people that lay in store for the Church, whose essential mission is to evangelize the world – to put out into the deep water and lower its nets over and over again for a catch.
Like Peter’s fishing, however, the Church’s mission to evangelize the world sometimes seems to be going nowhere and to suffer frustrating setbacks. Certainly, that increasingly seems to be the case in our own country right now. Yet, despite his obvious frustration with his failures and the depressing tiredness that commonly accompanies frustration (“Master, we have worked all night and caught nothing”), Peter the fisherman found the faith, the confidence, 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. If Peter were a modern politician, our scandal-seeking, personality-driven media would surely highlight how Peter was once again saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Pundits would be gleefully speculating about what would derail Peter from the fast track to leadership in Jesus’ Church!
When Peter addressed Jesus as Lord, however, that was not Peter misspeaking. It expressed Peter’s profoundly religious sensibility – his sudden recognition that he had come face-to-face with the awesome holiness of God. Peter reacted as any normal, pre-modern person would react in the presence of holiness – not unlike Isaiah in today’s 1st reading, 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 with Jesus one minute, then apparently pushing him away the next. We humans are complicated creatures, contradicting ourselves all the time. 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 that Church and beneficiaries of its mission, we have, all of us, been invited to sail out into the deep water of the world with Jesus, present in his Church in a particular way in the ministry of Peter. It is obviously no accident that the Pope’s ceremonial ring has, for centuries, been called “the Fisherman's Ring,” and that the image portrayed on it is that of Saint Peter in a boat - fishing. It is precisely our union with Peter which has sustained our community of faith over the centuries and which provides us today 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.
Thus, 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. In speaking thus for himself as successor of the apostles, the bishop speaks also for all of us, on behalf of the whole Church, acknowledging the Church’s need for fishermen in sufficient numbers to meet the world needs.
We are all increasingly familiar with the inevitable consequences when insufficient numbers step up to carry on the mission of the Church – everywhere everyone having to make do with less.
We have fewer Catholics in this country today, as a percentage of population, but we also have far fewer resources than we once did to serve them. In 1965, there were about 58,000 priests in the United States, almost all of them in active ministry; almost 60 years later, there are about 35,000 priests in the US, with only 68 percent in active ministry. Fifty years ago, the average age of a priest in the US was 35. Fifty years later, half of all active priests are already 70 – including yours truly, who will be 74 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 what we too can do, what God may be asking of us - and if there is someone whom we know (perhaps right here in this church this morning) whom 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, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, February 6, 2022.
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