Rethinking Peter: Fisherman and Chief

Today is the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter. A feast for a chair? What a Catholic thing.

Of course, this feast does not celebrate a literal chair but rather the person of St. Peter as chief of the Apostles whose ministry lives on in the ministry of the Pope. Pope Francis is the one who currently occupies this chair, this office, of Peter as the “servant of the servants of God.”

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Altar of the Chair in St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome. 

Growing up, I remember being taught how remarkable it was that Jesus chose the people he did to be his apostles. Isn’t it really something that Jesus would give a chance to someone as lowly, uneducated, and otherwise looked-down-upon as a fisherman? What an unlikely candidate to lead the Church!

One of the greatest graces of my time so far in the Holy Land has been seeing how many things I thought I knew turned on their heads.

Last week, our group took a trip to Capernaum and to the house of Peter. It is true that Peter was a fisherman, and we know that he owned his own boat. If that’s true, Peter was anything but lowly and poor. Fisherman in the first century worked hard to be able to build their own boats, something that required an economic prowess to be able build enough of a business and save enough money to build the boat, and then to be able going about gathering materials from all over the region to make it a reality. A fishing boat from the time of Peter was recently discovered along the shore of the Sea of Galilee and scientists have identified 12 types of wood from trees found in Galilee and as far away as Judea and Lebanon.

What’s remarkable about the fact that Jesus chose Peter is not that he was a dumpy fisherman, since he wasn’t, but that Peter was a sinful man. Jesus, the Word made flesh and splendor of the Father, decided to entrust his mission to a bunch of sinful idiots. Think about that for a second.

From Saint Leo the Great in today’s Office of Readings:

“Out of the whole world one man, Peter, is chosen to preside at the calling of all nations, and to be set over all the apostles and all the fathers of the Church.”

Out of all the apostles, it was one man, Peter, who was “the first to confess his faith in the Lord” and is “first in rank among the apostles.”

What’s remarkable is that Peter, in his sinfulness, is able to see in Christ and affirm to his brothers that Jesus is the “Christ, the son of the living God” (Mt. 16:18) and recognizes that Jesus is the one who has the “words of everlasting life.”(Jn 6:68)

This is the essential role of Peter which continues through the centuries until today in the person of the Holy Father, whose power and authority in turn is given to bishops as his coworkers in the vineyard of God: to point the way to Christ, to preserve the faith of the Church, and to proclaim to every nation, in every age, in the midst of every conflict and joy that Christ indeed is the Son of God, the one with the words of everlasting life.

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“The great height of the Church,” says St. Leo, “is to penetrate the heavens” and “shall rise on the firm foundation of [Peter’s] faith.” He goes on, “The gates of hell shall not silence this confession of faith; the chains of death shall not bind it. Its words are the words of life.”

Today let’s pray for Pope Francis, for all bishops, priests, and deacons that they might share faithfully in the ministry of the Church, built and growing upon the rock of Peter’s faith.