Circular Letter: Summer 2009

The Apostles and the Priesthood (1 of 4)

When we enter a Catholic church, we enter not an empty building: the sanctuary lamp is burning indicating the sacramental presence of Jesus, which in faith we know—and perhaps even perceive—as a warm, inviting and loving presence. Jesus is here with us, God is present in His Church: “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of time” (Mt 28:20). When He ascended into heaven, Jesus did not leave us alone; He remains with us in His Church, built on the foundation of the Apostles (Eph 2:3). Here in the Church alone His sacrifice and His sacramental presence are perpetuated throughout the ages. The Church is a mystery of love, of communion with Jesus here and now, and in Him, with the Blessed Trinity. It is the assembly of all those who, reconciled with God by the sacrifice of the Cross, live as one family in communion with God and one another, a “people made one with the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 4).

Christ appointed the Apostles to be His first witnesses, to preach the Gospel and all they had experienced of His life and teachings. He sent them “to all nations” (Lk 24:47), “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8) to continue His mission, calling all people into this unity of His Church. But before they became Apostles (literally, those “sent”), they first had to be experts on Jesus.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life—the Life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the Eternal Life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship [communion] with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. (1 Jn 1:1-3).

At the Last Supper, Jesus ordained the Apostles as the first high priests of the New Covenant in His Blood, to administer the Sacraments He Himself had instituted, and to pass on this mission to worthy men as their successors. Through the Sacrament of Holy Orders they received the power to act in persona Christi, representing Christ as Head in relation to His Body. These first priests, and every priest in the line of their succession, offer and make present the Eucharistic sacrifice not simply in the name of Christ, but also imitating Christ the Head who offered Himself in sacrifice (cf. LG, 21). In fact, Christ instituted this ministerial priesthood primarily in view of the Eucharist, that He might remain always among us in the Eucharist. As the great Pope John Paul II insisted repeatedly, “the Eucharist ‘is the principal and central raison d’être of the Sacrament of priesthood, which effectively came into being at the moment of the institution of the Eucharist’” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 31; citing DC, 2). Only through the priest—who receives his mission and authority from the Apostles and, ultimately, from Christ Himself—Jesus, our life and joy, remains among us in His word and Sacraments.

Since the Eucharist is the “source and summit of the life of the Church”, we can say in a certain sense that without the Apostles and their successors, the college of bishops (and in an extended sense, every priest), there would be no Church. “[W]hat was handed on by the Apostles includes everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the People of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes” (Vatican II, Dei Verbum 8). It is only through fidelity to the teaching and praxis of the Apostles that “the historical and spiritual bond with Christ is preserved” (Pope Benedict XVI, Gen. Audience, May 10, 2006).

“Consequently, through Apostolic Succession it is Christ who reaches us: In the words of the Apostles and of their successors, it is He who speaks to us; through their hands it is He who acts in the Sacraments; in their gaze it is His gaze that embraces us and makes us feel loved and welcomed into the Heart of God” (Gen. Aud., May 10, 2006). When we follow our Bishops and priests, we can have confidence that it is “Christ Himself…the true ‘Shepherd and Bishop of our souls’ (1 Pet 2:25) whom we follow with deep trust, gratitude and joy” (ibid.).

What gratitude do we not owe then to the Apostles, those who were first to leave all things for the sake of Christ, to become His witnesses for the salvation of souls. From simple fishermen with all their weaknesses and character faults, these great men allowed Christ to transform them into instruments of His mercy and love. They were the first to hand down all that they had seen, all that they had heard; they are the foundation of the Church, in which we too can know and enter into a relationship of love with Jesus, that is, with God Himself! What gratitude do we not owe to all priests, who give up their own plans and dreams to become servants of Christ in the service of our salvation. As we begin this Year for Priests proclaimed by Pope Benedict, therefore, we wish to contemplate in the next few Circular Letters the life and mission of these first priests, the Apostles, that we may better understand and appreciate their special calling and God’s gift of the priesthood to His Church.

St. Peter, Prince of the Apostles

Pre-eminent among the Apostles, and yet at the same time the Apostle most known in the beginning for his human follies and impulsiveness, St. Peter is one of the first to be called by Christ. Jesus, while standing by the lake of Gennesaret near the boats of Simon and his partners, James and John, being pressed by the crowd, got into the boat of Simon and asked him to put out a little; then He sat down to teach from the boat (cf. Lk 5:1-5). Already from the beginning we see the predilection of the Apostle—Jesus preaches from the bark of Peter.

After finishing, Jesus asks Simon to “Put out into the deep and let your nets down for a catch” (5:4). Simon well knew that mid-morning was no time for fishing, nevertheless, he was open for and generous towards this captivating Rabbi saying, “Master we toiled all night and took nothing, but at Your word I will let down the nets” (5:5).

Revealing his previous interior doubts, after the miraculous catch Simon cries out, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (5:8) “Jesus replied by inviting him to trust and to be open to a project that would surpass all his expectations. ‘Do not be afraid; henceforth, you will be catching men’ (Lk 5:10)” (Gen. Aud., May 17, 2006). Simon said “yes” with courage and generosity to this new adventure, a bit more conscious of his limits, yet trusting in Jesus.

“You are the Christ”

Later, Jesus puts the question to His disciples, “Who do people say that I am? …Who do you say that I am?” (Mk 8:27, 29). It was Simon who spoke, as was so often the case, in the name of the Twelve: “You are the Christ” (Mk 8:29). His words, Jesus affirms, were not from “flesh and blood” but inspired by the Holy Spirit. It is on this occasion that Jesus gives “Simon Bar-Jona” a new name, Peter, “and on this rock I will build My Church” (Mt 16:17-18). Yet, despite the solemnity of the occasion and the grandeur of the proclamation, Peter still manages, so to speak, to put his foot in his mouth. His faith was still mingled with his all too human ideas of what the Christ was supposed to be. Immediately after this proclamation, Jesus reveals the coming rejection, suffering and passion of the “Son of man”; and Peter reasons with Him saying, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to You!” (Mt 16:22). Jesus turns sharply and rebukes him, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Mk 8:33).

Commenting on this scene, Pope Benedict writes, “Peter wanted as Messiah a ‘divine man’ who would fulfill the expectations of the people by imposing his power upon them all: we would also like the Lord to impose His power and transform the world instantly. Jesus presented Himself as a ‘human God,’ the Servant of God, who turned the crowd’s expectations upside down by taking a path of humility and suffering” (Gen Aud., May 17, 2006). Though already generously following Christ and growing in the school of divine love, Peter still had some sharp lessons to learn. The first of these was precisely to “follow”. Jesus was not to conform to Peter’s ideas of what the Master should be and do, it was Peter who needed to learn to put aside his pre-fixed ideas and let God lead, let God be God.

What Peter did not realize was that the school of divine love was also the school of the cross. “If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel’s will save it” (Mk 8:34-35). “This is the demanding rule of following Christ: one must be able, if necessary, to give up the whole world to save the true values, to save the soul, to save the presence of God in the world” (Gen. Aud., May 17, 2006). In every age the question is repeatedly asked, why does God allow evil, why do evil men always seem to triumph, why does God not act? Yet “God chooses a different way. God chooses the way of the transformation of hearts in suffering and humility” (ibid.). The world needs transformation, but this transformation must begin in my heart. Each of us needs to follow this way of continual conversion, of accepting God’s way. It is God’s plan that the world should be saved by suffering, beginning with the crucifixion of His own Son; it is up to us to have the courage and humility to “follow Jesus and not go before Him: it is He who shows the way” (ibid.), for He is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (Jn 14:6).

The Bread of Life

Another significant event whereby we come to know St. Peter better is the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves. The crowd, thinking this was the new “manna” of the triumphal Israel, sought to make Jesus king. But Jesus hid Himself from them, for His kingship was “not of this world” (Jn 18:36). The next day in Capernaum, in His Bread of Life discourse, “Jesus explained the miracle—not in the sense of a kingship over Israel with a worldly power in the way the crowds hoped, but in the sense of the gift of self: ‘The bread which I shall give is My flesh for the life of the world’ (Jn 6:51)” (Gen. Aud., May 24, 2006). Again, while the crowd was expecting power and glory, Jesus was announcing the Cross and the hiddeness of the Eucharistic sacrifice. For many, therefore, “this was a hard saying” (Jn 6:60) and they no longer followed Him. For the Twelve it was also certainly a “hard saying”, so Jesus asks, “Do you also wish to go away?” (Jn 6:67). Again it is Peter who speaks for all: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that You are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6:66-69).

By this point, Peter had already seen various miracles of Jesus and also humbly accepted the Lord’s harsh rebuke concerning the necessity of the cross. And so, with all his generosity and enthusiasm Peter was ready to accept these hard words about giving His flesh, not because he understood them, but because they were spoken by Jesus. His faith was “not faith in something, it was faith in Someone: in Him, Christ” (Gen. Aud., May 24, 2006). His heart was now open and he was willing to follow, instead of taking the lead himself. Yet for all his good will and generosity, Peter had yet more lessons to learn. His faith was not yet mature, not ready to stand the test. At the Last Supper, having ascertained from John that it was Judas who would betray the Master (cf. Jn 13:24-26), Peter confidently proclaims, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for You!” (Jn 13:37). While sincerely loving Jesus and believing in Him, when it came right down to it, Peter still trusted himself, and hence was an easy prey to temptation: “I do not know the man!” (Mt 26:72).

The school of faith is not a triumphal march but a journey marked daily by suffering and love, trials and faithfulness. Peter, who promised absolute fidelity, knew the bitterness and humiliation of denial: the arrogant man learns the costly lesson of humility. Peter, too, must learn that he is weak and in need of forgiveness. Once his attitude changes and he understands the truth of his weak heart of a believing sinner, he weeps in a fit of liberating repentance. After this weeping he is finally ready for his mission. (Gen. Aud., May 24, 2006)

After His Resurrection but before His Ascension Jesus appeared to teach Peter a further lesson. Following another miraculous catch of fish well into the morning hours, Peter throws himself into the water with his usual impetuousness and hastens to meet the Lord (cf. Jn 21:1-17). Twice Jesus asks him, “Simon, son of John, do you love (agapas) Me”, using that form of love in the Greek which means with a total, self-less and unconditional love. Twice Peter answers saying to the effect, “Lord, I love (fileo) You” meaning with the love of friendship, a real but still imperfect love. Finally Jesus, condescending and accepting Peter’s weakness, asks him, “Do you love (fileis) Me”—with the love of friendship? And Peter, saddened yet humbly accepting his limitations, affirms, “Lord, You know everything, You know that I love (fileo) You!” Peter is now ready to begin his mission: “Feed My sheep!”

Pope Benedict observes, “From the naïve enthusiasm of initial acceptance, passing through the sorrowful experience of denial and the weeping of conversion, Peter succeeded in entrusting himself to that Jesus who adapted Himself to his poor capacity of love. And in this way he [Peter] shows us the way, notwithstanding all of our weakness. We know that Jesus adapts Himself to this weakness of ours” (Gen. Aud., May 24, 2006). Jesus does not expect us to be Saints in order to follow Him: He wants us to follow Him, unconditionally and wholly open for His Spirit, in order to make Saints of us. “Without Me, you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). When we continually acknowledge and accept our littleness, yet at the same time place our trust wholly in Jesus, then He can work with us and do great things in and through us. This is the “little way” already found by St. Peter and re-awakened in our own times by St. Therese of Lisieux.

The Mission of Peter

Jesus had already outlined for Peter his mission, “You are Rock, and on this rock I shall build my Church” (cf. Mt 16:18). At the Last Supper, while predicting Peter’s fall, Jesus at the same time further clarified what this mission entailed: “…but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Lk 22:32). Peter’s faith, which grew by stages and was finally confirmed at Pentecost, would be the foundation of the faith of the Church. He had learned to accept his own weakness and limitations, while at the same time putting his trust entirely in Jesus and His condescending mercy.

Through his own trials and even failures, he gained the capacity to strengthen and encourage others in their faith and trials. From experience he could teach the way of humility and perseverance under the weight of the cross, of loving repentance and continual conversion, of distrust of self and confidence in God. He writes with paternal wisdom: “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time He may exalt you. Cast all your anxieties on Him, for He cares about you. Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, establish, and strengthen you” (1 Pet 5:6-10).

The Angels in the Life of St. Peter

As the first Pope of the nascent Church, Peter certainly needed more than the common share of divine assistance. It is widely held that those who have a special mission in the Church receive special protection and guidance from the holy angels. The Acts of the Apostles bears witness to at least two occasions when Peter received the explicit assistance of the holy angels to fulfill his mission. (Though the Bible does not make the presence and aid of the angels explicit in other incidences, St. Thomas Aquinas affirms that the good angels cooperate in all our good works—cf. Summa Theo. I, 114, 3 ad 3.) On the first occasion, Peter had a vision of unclean animals and was told to “Kill and eat” (cf. Acts 10 – 11). At the same time an angel had appeared to a Gentile in another city, telling him to send for Peter and to hear what he had to say. While it was against the Jewish law to eat of unclean animals or to associate with men of other nations, Peter finally came to understand that the vision signified the new law of Christ which embraced all men and all peoples. Through the angel, he was enlightened in the way and law of Christ and could mediate this light to the Church.

On another occasion, Peter had been taken prisoner by Herod, who wished to kill him in order to please the Jews (cf. Acts 12:1 ff.). “But earnest prayer for him was made to God by the Church” (v. 5). As he lay chained between two soldiers in prison, an angel appeared to him, struck his side and told him to get up. If we picture the scene, we can imagine St. Peter stretched out by both arms in cruciform when the angel struck him on his side. Put in this way, it is hard not to recognize here an image of Christ on the Cross who was struck by the soldier’s lance. From Jesus’ side there flowed out Blood and water, images of the Eucharist and Baptism, indicating the birth of the Church. In the Old Testament Eve, the Bride, was taken from the side of Adam and Noah was commanded to make a door in the side of the arc for the animals to enter and find safety; these were prefigurements of the Bride of Christ and the arc of the Church (cf. St. Augustine, cited in Catena Aurea on Jn 19:34). So now in the New Testament, Peter as Apostle and Vicar of Christ becomes an image of Christ for the early Church. Every Apostle and every priest is by his ordination profoundly identified “with the heart of Christ the Bridegroom who gives His life for His Bride” (Benedict XVI, SCar, 24). And the truer he is to his vocation, the more perfectly is he conformed to Christ. “In the priest, Christ relives His Passion for the sake of souls” (John Paul II, Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday, 1986). Peter had certainly expected imminent martyrdom and had accepted it rather than deny Christ, dying to himself already in his will. In this way he was conformed to the death of Christ interiorly, which the angel helps to picture also exteriorly by striking him on the side. But then, the angel frees him and he is given back to the early Christians as a symbol of the Resurrection.

Praying for Priests

We have seen that the angels were intimately involved in the life of St. Peter. They helped him to mirror in his own life the life of Christ, which is the deepest vocation of every priest: to be Christ for the Church. The priest, having been ontologically “identified” with Christ through his ordination, not only acts in persona Christi while administering the Sacraments, but also is called to be Christ at all times for others, to be Christ who loved His own and gave Himself “unto the end” (Jn 13:1). In these difficult times, Bishops and priests will be called upon to be ever more faithful witnesses to Christ and the Gospel of life. Therefore, we want to pray for all priests, especially in this Year for Priests, that they may grow in holiness and in the image of Jesus Christ. We want to ask St. Peter to intercede for them that they may not be discouraged by their weaknesses, but find in Jesus the source of renewed strength and joy. Let us pray to St. Jean Vianney for our priests, in gratitude for their gift and vocation. For as the holy Cure of Ars once said, “The priesthood is the love of the Heart of Jesus”, and “The priest is not a priest for himself, he is a priest for you.” He sanctifies himself, that we may be sanctified.

Like Pope John Paul II, we also “entrust [the] priesthood to the Virgin Mary, the Mother of priests, to whom Jean Marie Vianney ceaselessly had recourse with tender affection and total confidence. … ‘Jesus Christ,’ [the Saint] said, ‘having given us all that He could give us, also wishes to make us heirs of what is most precious to Him, His holy Mother’” (Letter for Holy Thursday, 1986). Echoing this thought, Pope Benedict entrusts this whole Year for Priests “to the Most Holy Virgin… I ask her to awaken in the heart of every priest a generous and renewed commitment to the ideal of complete self-oblation to Christ and the Church which inspired the thoughts and actions of the saintly Cure of Ars” (Letter: Year for Priests, June 16, 2009). May this be a year of joyful hope and gratitude for the gift of the priesthood, a year of grace and renewal for priests and, through them, for the whole Church.

This meditation on the Apostles and the ones to follow are largely based on the Catechesis of Pope Benedict on the lives of the Apostles in the Wednesday General Audiences, from March 17 to November 22, 2006. They may be found on the Vatican Website. They may also be purchased in book form from Our Sunday Visitor.

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