Tag Archives: Peter the apostle

Church Leaders

Keep Peter and the rest of the apostles in mind when thinking about church leaders. Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles  continues Peter’s  experience in Joppa, at the house of Simon the Tanner. Joppa, you recall, was the seaport where Jonah began his perilous journey into the gentile world.

Immediately after Pentecost, Peter and the others proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus in Jerusalem, performing miracles and bravely withstanding persecution by Jewish leadership. The gospel is then proclaimed in Samaria and Galilee. Near Joppa, Peter heals Aeneas, a paralyzed man in bed for eight years and raises Tabitha from the dead. (Acts 9,31-43)

In Joppa, the tired apostle goes to sleep on the roof of Simon the Tanner’s house overlooking the vast sea where he has a disturbing vision. Instead of his usual  kosher food  a gentile banquet is poured out before him, and as a good Jew Peter pushes it away.  Three times the vision invites the puzzled apostle to eat before vanishing.

Then, messengers appear at the door from Cornelius, a gentile soldier stationed in Caesaria Maritima, the main Roman headquarters just up the coast, asking Peter to come and speak about “the things that had happened.” It’s a gentile banquet that Peter is invited to attend in his dream.

“I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but every nation is acceptable to him,” Peter says, and he goes to Caesaria to instruct and baptize Cornelius and all his household.

Did Peter truly understand where his visit to Cornelius would lead? Was the simple fisherman, who spoke Aramaic with a Galilean accent, who felt the pull of home, family and fishing boats, ever comfortable in a gentile world? Later, he traveled to Antioch in Syria and then to Rome, where he was killed in the Neronian persecution in the 60’s. Was he ever as confident in a gentile world as he was in his own? Was he ever completely comfortable at a gentile banquet?

Portraits of Peter in Rome usually portray him as a church leader firmly in charge of the church, holding the keys of authority tightly in hand. Clearly, he is a rock.

I saw another image of Peter years ago in the Cloisters Museum in New York. He’s softer, reflective, more experienced, not completely sure of himself. There’s a consciousness of failure in his face. He seems to be listening for the voice of the Shepherd, hoping to hear it.

Church leaders never fully understand the mysterious ship they’re called to steer. They have to listen for the Shepherd’s voice.

The Feast of St. Mark

May 25th is the Feast of St. Mark, author of one of the gospels. We can forget real people wrote the gospels, but the medieval portrait above shows the evangelist real enough as he adjusts his spectacles and pours over a book, surely his gospel. A lion looks up at him, the powerful voice of God.

He’s an old man, his eyes are going,  He has to be old if he’s a disciple of Peter, as tradition claims. Mark’s gospel appears shortly before or after the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. If he’s the author of the gospel, as it’s said,  he’s in his 70s at least.

He may have written his account in Rome, where he came with Peter, who calls Mark in his 1st Letter “my son.”  In 64 AD, the Christians of the city experienced a vicious persecution at the hands of the Emperor Nero. Peter and Paul died in that persecution. For years afterwards, Christian survivors were still asking themselves, no doubt, why it happened.

They say Mark wrote his gospel in answer to that dreadful experience. He would have heard Peter’s witness to Jesus many times; he knows his story.

Mark was not just a stenographer repeating Peter’s eyewitness account; he’s adapted the apostle’s story, adding material and insights of his own. For a long time Mark’s gospel was neglected, but scholars today admire it for its simplicity and masterful story telling. It’s the first gospel written and Matthew and Luke derive much of their material from it.

I like the wonderful commentary: The Gospel of Mark, in the Sacra Pagina series from Liturgical Press, by John Donohue,SJ and Daniel Harrington, SJ (Collegeville, Min. 2002). A great guide to this gospel and its rich message.

It offers a unique wisdom. It does not flinch before the mystery of suffering. We can’t understand it. There’s a darkness about this gospel that makes it applicable to times like ours. We’re disciples of Jesus.We must follow him, no matter what.

You gave St. Mark the privilege of proclaiming your gospel. May we profit by his wisdom and follow Christ more faithfully. Grant this, through Christ, your Son.

24th Sunday B: Taking Up Our Cross

To listen to this week’s homily, select the audio file below:

It’s good to pay attention to the places Jesus goes to in Mark’s Gospel, because places throw light on what Jesus says and does. In today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel, (Mark 8, 27-38) Jesus and his disciples leave the region around the Sea of Galilee– where most of his ministry took place – and travel to the villages of Caesarea Philippi about 25 miles to the north. They’re on their way to Jerusalem.

Caesarea Philippi and its surroundings were at the foot of Mount Hermon where the water sources for the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee were located. Water was a key resource in Palestine then as now. Controlling the water meant controlling everything. At that time the Romans were in control. Names tell us that: Caesarea-Caesar, the Roman Emperor. Philippi-Philip, son of Herod the Great, who was Caesar’s ally in that part of Palestine.

This was Roman territory; rich shrines to Roman and Greek gods were everywhere reminding everybody.

As he does often in Mark’s gospel, Jesus uses what’s at hand to teach. Here in this place of Roman power he asks, “Who do people say that I am?”

John the Baptist, who stood up to King Herod: Elijah, the fearless prophet who stood up to King Ahab and his notorius wife, Jezebel, the disciples say
Peter, speaking for them all says: ““You are the Christ.” You are more powerful than the prophets, more powerful than those honored here at Caesarea Philippi. You are the Messiah come to lead Israel to its high place above the nations.

But then Jesus tells Peter he is a Messiah who will suffer, who will be rejected by the leaders of his own people, who will suffer death and rise again. He’s a Messiah who seems, not powerful, but powerless.

Peter doesn’t like that. “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “ Turning around, and looking at his disciples, Jesus rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan, you are someone who thinks like human beings and not like God.

Thinking like human beings, not like God. What does that mean? Jesus goes on to say says it’s thinking we’re powerful and we’re not, aiming for power that we can never hold on to. It means denying the cross in one’s life. It’s not only Peter Jesus accuses of thinking like human beings and not like God, it’s his disciples and all of us.
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me,” Jesus says.

The cross, so difficult to understand and accept! Each of us has to take up our cross, if we wish to follow Jesus. Each of us has a cross to take up. We may not like it, but it’s the cross that’s personally mine. It could be sickness, disappointment, rejection, maybe it’s simply day after day getting nowhere. It could be the cross that comes from the times and circumstances we live in. We may not like that either. We would like to go back to another time, or go forward to a better time. But the cross is where we are.

When we take up our cross and follow Jesus, it becomes his cross too. He promises that. He helps us carry it. He bears the burden of it. With him at our side, we don’t die; he raises us up.

The journey that Jesus took with his disciples to Caesarea Philippi in Mark’s Gospel was a journey to prepare them for what awaited them further, in Jerusalem. Peter and the others didn’t understand him; neither do we. The journey we make with Jesus ends, not with a hold on human power, but holding on to the power of God, which is given to us through Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Spy Wednesday

Matthew 26,14-25

Gospels offer little information about the twelve disciples of Jesus. Peter is best known among them, since Jesus gave him a special role and also lived in his house in Capernaum. Then, there’s Judas.

Matthew’s Gospel gives more information about him than any other New Testament source and so it’s read on “Spy Wednesday,” the day in Holy Week that recalls Judas’ offer to the rulers to hand Jesus over for thirty pieces of silver.

“Surely it is not I?” the disciples say one after the other when Jesus announces someone will betray him. And we say so too, as we watch Judas being pointed out. With Peter also we say we will not deny him.

But the readings for these days caution us that there’s a communion of sinners as well as a communion of saints. We’re also sinful disciples. We are never far from the disciples who once sat at table with Jesus. We come as sinners to the Easter Triduum, which begins the evening of Holy Thursday and ends on Easter Sunday. God shows great mercy; we hope for the forgiveness and new life that Jesus gave his disciples who left him the night before he died.

22nd Sunday

Don’t miss the way the Prophet Jeremiah talks to God in our first reading today and the way Peter the Apostle in our gospel gets the message of Jesus all wrong. They’re examples of what faith in God is really like. Without people like them, we might think faith is a ticket to a wonderful life and endless sweet dreams.

Jeremiah is fed up with God:

“You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped;

you were too strong for me, and you triumphed.

All the day I am an object of laughter;

everyone mocks me.”

The lonely prophet lived in hard times when Babylonian armies were sacking Jerusalem and everyone was calling him a deceiver because of a message they didn’t want to hear– God was going to let his holy city be completely destroyed and his people led away in chains.

The message sours the prophet’s mouth and breaks his heart. He feels like a fool.  Yet listen to him:

“I say to myself, I will not mention him,

I will speak in his name no more.

But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart,

imprisoned in my bones;

I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.”

He’s faithful to God no matter what.

Peter, a believer,  gets the message of Jesus wrong. He can’t accept the prediction of the Cross, but wants success instead.

Yet God works with this apostle whose faith is so imperfect and  prizes this prophet whose faith is so tried. Since our faith may be like theirs, let’s hope God will work with us.  “We believe; help our unbelief.”

Tuesday Night at the Mission

Praying from the Gospel of Matthew: Chapters 1-16

Matthew’s gospel gives important information about the origin and birth of Jesus Christ, so it’s an important gospel to read in Advent. We’re also going to read it most Sundays this coming year.

Matthew’s gospel is the Church’s first Catechism, the most popular gospel read in the early Church.

Where and when was it written?

It was written probably around 90 AD scholars suggest, and they offer three possible places: Antioch in Syria, Sepphoris near Nazareth and Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. When the gospel was written, these cities had become centers for Jewish leaders who had fled from Jerusalem after the destruction of the city and its temple in 70 AD.  From these cities, they were trying to rebuild Judaism after the tragedy of 70 AD.

In their efforts to rebuild they came into conflict with the followers of Jesus Christ who saw him as the new hope for his people and for all the world. The Gospel of Matthew reflects the deep conflict between these two groups. The sharp critique of the scribes and pharisees in the 23rd chapter of Matthew is an example of the contentious spirit that must have existed on both sides.

Galilee and Judea

Matthew’s gospel focuses on two places of Jesus’ life and ministry: Galilee and Judea. He was raised in Nazareth of Galilee. Joseph tells the story of his origins there. After his baptism by John, Jesus spent some years in Capernaum, along the Sea of Galilee; he called others to follow him, and taught and performed great wonders in that region.  Matthew’s gospel recalls the origins and ministry of Jesus in Galilee in the first 16 chapters of his gospel. His sources are the tax-collectors and fishermen who followed Jesus during this period. Peter speaks for them all as he calls Jesus “the Messiah, Son of the Living God.” (Chapter 16)

In the remaining chapters, Matthew’s gospel recalls Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, to Judea, where he will die and rise again. Afterwards, he sends his followers into the whole world to preach and baptize.

In Jesus’ time in Galilee, Herod Antipas (4 BC-39 AD), son of the infamous Herod the Great, who put the children of Bethlehem to death at the time of Jesus’ birth, ruled the region from his newly-built capital of Tiberias, only a few miles from Capernaum. His influence is important in the Gospel of Mattew even though he is mentioned only a few times in the New Testament. He ordered John the Baptist beheaded and later wondered if Jesus might be John come back from the dead. Jesus called him “that Fox.”

Later in Jerusalem, Herod came to celebrate the Passover and Pontius Pilate sent Jesus to him before passing the death sentence, but Jesus wouldn’t say a word to him. One interesting connection to Herod: Johanna, wife of Herod’s steward Cusa, was a follower of Jesus who stood with Mary and the other women at his cross.

Like his father, Herod the Great, Herod Antipas loved to build, and his splendid Greco-Roman city of Tiberias arose from 20 and 27 AD, while Jesus lived in Nazareth. It was a typical Roman city, with a Roman gate, stadium, spacious squares with marble statues, a grand palace with a golden roof and a large synagogue. To pay for it, and other big building projects in Galilee –Sepphoris, Caesaria Maritima– Herod sent his tax-collectors into the cities and towns of Galilee–places like Capernaum and Nazareth– to squeeze the fishermen and farmers for whatever they could get.

Herod was intent on exploiting the rich resources of Galilee and building up its economic potential, but for that  he needed money. Herod and his tax collectors weren’t popular among the people.

Highlights of the Gospel of Matthew

The highpoint of Matthew’s Gospel is found in chapter 16. At Caesaria Philippi  Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” “Some say you are John the Baptist, some say you are Elijah,” they answer. “Who do you say that I am?” he asks them. Peter answers “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Peter’s strong confession would be fiercely disputed by the  Jewish authorities from Tiberias in the year 90, and others before them during the time of Jesus himself.

We recognized some of their objections. Jesus came from nearby, inconspicuous Nazareth where his own neighbors rejected him.   Did he really rise from the dead? Rumors were that his disciples stole his body from the tomb. Perhaps he resembled Elijah, or John the Baptist, or one of the prophets, but he could be a false prophet too.

The Jewish authorities would also question the credentials of the chief followers of Jesus– uneducated fishermen and unpopular tax-collectors. How could they be authentic teachers in Israel?

Modern scriptural studies, by pointing out the real life situations that influenced the creation of our gospels, help us  understand them better. Our gospels  didn’t drop down from heaven, they came from people struggling over the questions Jesus asked  Peter: “Who do people say that I am?” “Who do you say that I am?” The gospels were written to answer his critics then;  even now,  we can appreciate these old disputes.

For example, Matthew’s gospel speaks to questions about the origins of Jesus, born of a virgin and conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Matthew’s gospel begins with a genealogy tracing Jesus back the David. He is a son of David. Joseph attests to his davidic origins, inspired by an angel. He testifies to Mary’s virginity. He guards the Child and Mary against the powers of darkness

Matthew’s Jesus speaks to the crowds from a mountain, like Moses, not just in a synagogue like the Pharisees. The gospel is filled with Old Testament references and miracles backing up his claims. Matthew’s gospel challenges the story that after his resurrection his body was stolen by his own disciples.

Matthew’s witnesses are ordinary people like Joseph, the just man, Peter, the fisherman, and Matthew, the tax-collector. “Flesh and blood” hasn’t revealed Jesus to them, but the Father in heaven. He has made them his star witnesses.

Did the Christians Lose in Galilee?

I think the followers of Jesus lost the battle with the new Jewish establishment in Galilee at the end of the 1st century, and many moved on to other places. Only some  remained in Galilee. The final words of Jesus to his eleven disciples in Matthew’s gospel seem to indicate a call to other places.

“The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.  When they saw him they worshipped, but they doubted. Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”  Mt 28, 16-20

Our church is ever on the move, but  we are empowered to go with it to wherever the Spirit leads.

Here are two biographies of leading characters in Matthew’s gospel: Joseph and Peter.

Joseph, the Foster Father of Jesus http://www.cptryon.org/holylives/nt/joseph/index.html

Peter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” http://www.cptryon.org/holylives/nt/peter/index.html

Easter Readings

In the weeks following Easter, the Catholic church in its readings focuses on the witness of Peter the Apostle, leader of Jesus’ disciples and a key eyewitness to his resurrection. He speaks in the first readings at Mass from the Acts of the Apostles, which report what he said to the people in Jerusalem after Jesus’ resurrection.

In the office of readings Peter’s 1st Letter is read. Peter speaks from Rome to the gentile churches along the Black Sea, according to Raymond Brown in his interesting commentary in “An Introduction to the New Testament.” The churches the apostles writes to were founded from Jerusalem, from the pilgrims Peter spoke to immediately after Jesus’ resurrection.

Now, years later, Peter reaches out to these churches whose founders had asked for baptism in Jerusalem; he reminds them what that sign meant–they received “ a new birth, unto hope which draws its life from the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.”

The churches are suffering “many trials” and the apostle tells them they are being tested like gold in the fire.

Brown thinks the trials may come from a lack of acceptance these believers are experiencing from their neighbors who misinterpret their beliefs and ostracize  them because they seem so out of step with the culture and thinking of the times.

Peter reminds them of the dignity they have as God’s people; like the Jews journeying out of Egypt they should not forget their destiny.

Maybe we’re not too far from the situation of those Christians from Pontus and Cappadocia today. We need reminding about who we are.

I wish there were a better way to bring the wealth of our liturgical readings to ordinary people.

St. Peter’s Basilica Rome November 15

Tradition says that Peter, whom Jesus made the rock on whom he built his church, came to Rome and died there during a persecution by the Emperor Nero about 64 AD. He was buried in a cemetery on Vatican Hill after being crucified nearby. Tradition also says the apostle was crucified with his head to the ground, because he saw himself unworthy of dying like Jesus.

The Emperor Constantine built a majestic church over the apostle’s grave in the 4th century, one of the first he built for the Christians of the city.

From the beginning Christians honored the apostle’s grave and esteem for him grew as Christianity grew. He was an apostle of Jesus, along with Paul who also died in the same persecution. Like Romulus and Remus, twin founders of the city, they are considered twin founders of the Roman church.

Besides being honored at the Vatican, Peter is honored elsewhere in the city.  His seizure and imprisonment are recalled at the Church of St.Peter in Chains near the Coliseum and at the Mamertime Prison in the Roman Forum. The small Quo Vadis  chapel along the Via Antica recalls the poignant legend of the apostle fleeing from prison, only to meet Jesus going into the city to join his followers condemned by Nero. Turning back, Peter followed  his Lord to martyrdom on Vatican Hill.

Christians cherish his memory. The popes resided at the Lateran from the 4th to the 14th century but moved to the Vatican, not only because the Lateran area had become unsafe, but also to be near Peter’s grave on Vatican hill, where great numbers of Christian pilgrims congregated.

What draws so many to Peter?

He was ordinary enough. Paul boasted that he was a citizen of Tarsus, no mean city. Peter came from Capernaum, an unimportant fishing village along the Sea of Galilee.

Paul had a fine educational and religious training.  A fluent teacher and trained scholar, he dealt with the religious establishment of his day and spoke its language. Peter was unpolished, with little formal education; he spoke like a Galilean peasant. Whatever religious knowledge he had before he met Jesus came from the local rabbis in his synagogue. He was a fisherman at home on the sea.

Why did Jesus make him first among his followers?  It wasn’t brains or talents that won him the place.  Nor his loyalty. The simple explanation may be that God chooses the weak things of this world.

We know more about Peter than about any of the other early disciples of Jesus. He was a Jew who moved to Capernaum from Bethsaida, another village along the Sea of Galilee, where he fished with others. Historians say that fishing then offered a good enough living. Archeologists today think they can point out in Capernaum’s ancient ruins the house where Peter lived, along with his wife, his mother-in-law and whoever else belonged to his family.

He was forthright, direct and practical, not afraid to speak up or tell you what was on his mind. He wasn’t afraid  to draw a sword or face prison. He saw his own faults and acknowledged them. An observant Jew, but not a professional religious man.

He met Jesus on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, when he stopped at the Jordan River to hear John the Baptist preaching. His brother Andrew brought him to Jesus, after John had pointed him out.

The gospels say that he was a friend of Jesus as well as a disciple. Peter welcomed him to his house in Capernaum.  He became Jesus’ companion as he preached in Galilee and journeyed to Jerusalem. He witnessed his miracles, heard his teaching and was intimately involved in the events of his death and resurrection. When Jesus was arrested, Peter denied three times that he knew him and fled into the night.

Peter saw and heard what Jesus did. He was an eyewitness. After he rose from the dead, Jesus chose him again to shepherd his flock, even though Peter had denied him.

As an eyewitness, he was the first to testify at Pentecost that Jesus had risen from the dead and was indeed the promised Messiah. The Jewish authorities in Jerusalem dismissed him and the rest of the disciples as unlearned men. From Jerusalem, Peter went to the coastal cities of Joffa and Caesarea, then to the main Syrian city of Antioch, and finally to Rome with his message.

When he reached the capital of the empire, he was probably in his 60s. Scientists who examined bones found at his gravesite underneath St. Peter’s in the late 1940s said they belonged to a man of rugged build about that age.

We don’t know what precisely brought Peter to Rome sometime in the 60s AD. Probably it had something to do with the Jewish-Christian controversies going on at the time in the city.  Some twenty years earlier, the Emperor Claudius expelled Jewish dissidents–likely Jewish Christians– because of bitter disturbances in the synagogues of the city. Paul’s letters tell of similar disputes in places where he traveled.

There were about 60,000 Jews in Rome then, among a population of almost one million. Did Peter come to mediate between various Jewish factions? Was he invited as a peacemaker who valued his Jewish roots, yet saw that God had revealed something new in Jesus of Nazareth? Did some who heard him speak in Jerusalem at Pentecost while on pilgrimage from Rome persuade him to come to his people here and tell them what he saw and heard?

From what we know of Peter it was not an easy mission. Not only was he older now, but he was always more at home in his own land, among his own people, than he was in gentile cities. He was limited in his ability to speak their language and understand their customs. He would always be a simple man.

Most likely, he planned to return home before too long, or go to another place where he was needed. We don’t know how long he was there. But he was an apostle, one sent by Jesus to the whole world, and so he would speak of what he had seen and heard, as he had done many times before.

In Rome his memoirs were gathered by Mark and later formalized in one of the gospels. He also wrote a letter from here to other churches he had known, urging them in the face of persecution and alienation to hold fast to the hope they had as God’s people. (1 Peter)

But then, a fire swept through Rome in the early morning of July 19, 64 AD. Peter was among those  identified as Christians caught in Nero’s dragnet and blamed for starting it. Probably his executioners  never knew or cared who he was when they brought him to the Vatican hill and crucified him– one of the ways the Romans executed foreigners.

Some Christian women possibly arranged to bury him in a shallow grave in a cemetery nearby. Women often made sure even those condemned as criminals were buried. As time passed they put up a simple monument to mark the place and Christians came to honor him there. Around the year 200, a Roman priest named Gaius, writes that he has seen the gravesite and can take others to it.

A little over a hundred years later, the Emperor Constantine ordered a massive church built over the apostle’s grave; its main altar situated exactly above the grave itself. The emperor, they say, carried twelve loads of dirt to the building site to honor the twelve apostles.

By the 15th century, Constantine’s church was near collapse, so the popes of the time began building another in its place, which took over a hundred years to build. This is the church we enter today, honoring Peter, the fisherman from Galilee and a disciple of Jesus.

Website:  http://www.stpetersbasilica.org/


The Bones of St. Peter, ,John Evangelist Walsh,  Garden City, NY  1982

An Introduction to the New Testament, Raymond Brown, NY, NY  1997  pp 705-725

From Apostles to Bishops, Francis Sullivan, SJ, Mawah, NJ  2001

Antioch and Rome, Raymond Brown and John Meier, Ramsy, NJ  1982

The Petrine Ministry, Walter Kasper,ed.  Ramsey, NJ 2006