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Peter Strengthens His Brothers in Faith

by Pope Saint John Paul II

Descriptive Title

Pope John Paul II General Audience Address December 2, 1992

Description

Pope John Paul II's General Audience Address of December 2, 1992, in which he focuses on the mission of Peter to strengthen his brothers in Faith.

Publisher & Date

Vatican, December 2, 1992

Vision Book Cover Prints

At the Last Supper Jesus said something to Peter that deserves special consideration. Doubtlessly it refers to the dramatic situation at that time, but it has a fundamental value for the Church of all times, inasmuch as it belongs to the patrimony of the last exhortations and teachings which Jesus gave to the disciples during his earthly life.

In foretelling the triple denial which Peter would make out of fear during the passion, Jesus also predicted that he would overcome the crisis of that night: "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" (Lk 22:31-32).

With these words Jesus guaranteed Simon a special prayer for the perseverance of his faith, but he also announced the mission entrusted to him of strengthening his brothers in the faith.

The authenticity of Jesus' words is seen not only in Luke's care in collecting positive information and setting it out in a critically sound narrative, as can be seen in the prologue of his Gospel, but also in the type of paradox which this information implies. Jesus lamented Simon Peter's weakness and at the same time entrusted him with the mission of strengthening the others. The paradox shows the grandeur of grace at work in human beings–Peter in this case–far beyond the possibilities afforded by their talents, virtues or merits. It also shows Jesus' awareness and firmness in choosing Peter. The evangelist Luke, wise and attentive to the meaning of words and things, did not hesitate to record that messianic paradox.

The context in which Jesus' words to Peter at the Last Supper are found is also very significant. He had just said to the apostles: "It is you who have stood by me in my trials, and I confer a kingdom on you, just as my Father has conferred one on me" (Lk 22:28-29). The Greek verb diatithemai (to prepare, arrange) has a strong meaning–to arrange in a causative way–and speaks of the reality of the messianic kingdom established by the heavenly Father and shared with the apostles. Jesus' words doubtlessly refer to the eschatological dimension of the kingdom, when the apostles will be called to "judge the twelve tribes of Israel" (Lk 22:30). However, they also have a value for its present phase, for the time of the Church here on earth, and this is a time of trial. Therefore, Jesus assured Simon Peter of his prayer so that in this trial the prince of this world would not prevail: "Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat" (Lk 22:31). Christ's prayer is especially necessary for Peter in view of the trial awaiting him and in view of the task Jesus entrusted to him. The words "strengthen your brothers" refer to this task (Lk 22:32).

The perspective in which Peter's responsibility–like the Church's whole mission--must be considered is therefore both historical and eschatological. It is a responsibility in the Church and for the Church in history, where there are trials to overcome, changes to face, cultural, social and religious situations in which to work. However, everything is in relation to the kingdom of heaven, already prepared and conferred by the Father as the terminus of the entire historical journey and of all personal and social experiences. The "kingdom" transcends the Church in her earthly pilgrimage; it transcends her duties and her powers. It also transcends Peter and the apostolic college, and therefore, their successors in the episcopacy. Nevertheless, it is already in the Church, already at work and developing in its historical phase and the earthly situation of its existence. In the Church there is more than an institutional and societal structure. There is the presence of the Holy Spirit, the essence of the new law according to St. Augustine [1] and St. Thomas Aquinas [2] . However, this presence does not exclude, but rather demands on the ministerial level the visible, the institutional, the hierarchical.

The whole New Testament, preserved and preached by the Church, is a function of grace, of the kingdom of heaven. The Petrine ministry is situated in this perspective. Jesus announced to Simon Peter this task of service following the professions of faith he made as the spokesman of the Twelve: faith in Christ, the Son of the living God (cf. Mt 16:16), and in the words which foretold the Eucharist (cf. Jn 6:68). On the road to Caesarea Philippi, Jesus publicly approved of Simon's profession of faith, called him the fundamental rock of the Church and promised to give him the keys to the kingdom of heaven, with the power of binding and loosing. In that context it is understood that the evangelist especially highlights the aspect of mission and power concerning the faith, although other aspects are included, as we will see in the next catechesis.

It is interesting to note that the evangelist, although speaking of the human frailty of Peter who was not sheltered from difficulties and was tempted like the other apostles, emphasizes that he was the beneficiary of a special prayer for his perseverance in the faith: "I have prayed for you." Peter was not preserved from his denial, but after experiencing his own weakness, he was strengthened in faith by virtue of Jesus' prayer so that he could fulfill the mission of strengthening his brothers. This mission cannot be explained on the basis of purely human considerations.

The Apostle Peter, the only one to deny his Master--three times!--was always Jesus' chosen one, charged with strengthening his companions. The human pretensions to fidelity that Peter professed failed, but grace triumphed.

The experience of falling enabled Peter to learn that he could not put his trust in his own strength or any other human factor, but only in Christ. It also enables us to see Peter's mission and power in light of the grace of election. What Jesus promised and entrusted to him comes from heaven and belongs--must belong--to the kingdom of heaven.

According to the evangelist, Peter's service to the kingdom consists primarily in strengthening his brothers, in helping them to keep the faith and develop it. It is interesting to point out that this mission is to be exercised in trial. Jesus was well aware of the difficulties in the historical phase of the Church, called to follow the way of the cross that he took. Peter's role, as head of the apostles, would be to support his "brothers" and the whole Church in faith. Since faith is not maintained without struggle, Peter must help the faithful in their struggle to overcome whatever would take away or lessen their faith. The experience of the first Christian communities is reflected in Luke's text. He was well aware of how that historical situation of persecution, temptation and struggle is explained in Christ's words to the apostles and principally to Peter.

The basic elements of the Petrine mission are found in those words: first of all, that of strengthening his brothers by expounding the faith, exhorting to faith, as well as all the measures necessary for the development of the faith. This activity is addressed to those whom Jesus, speaking to Peter, calls "your brothers." In context the expression applies first of all to the other apostles, but it does not rule out a wider sense embracing all the members of the Christian community (cf. Acts 1:15). It suggests the purpose of Peter's mission as the one who strengthens and supports faith: fraternal community in virtue of the faith.

Peter, and like him all his successors and heads of the Church, has the mission of encouraging the faithful to put all their trust in Christ and the power of his grace, which Peter personally experienced. This is what Innocent III wrote in the Letter Apostolicae Sedis Primatus (November 12, 1199), citing the text of Luke 22:32 and commenting on it as follows: "The Lord clearly intimates that Peter's successors will never at any time deviate from the Catholic faith, but will instead recall the others and strengthen the hesitant" (DS 775). That medieval Pope felt that Jesus' statement to Simon Peter was confirmed by the experience of 1,000 years.

The mission Jesus entrusted to Peter concerns the Church down through the centuries and human generations. That mandate "strengthen your brothers" means: teach the faith in every age, in different circumstances and amid all the difficulties and contradictions which preaching the faith will encounter in history; by teaching instill courage in the faithful; you yourself experienced that the power of my grace is greater than human weakness; therefore spread the message of faith, preach sound doctrine, reunite the "brethren," putting your trust in the prayer that I promised you; in virtue of my grace, try to help non-believers accept the faith and to comfort those who are in doubt. This is your mission, this is the reason for the mandate I entrust to you.

These words of the evangelist Luke (22:31-33) are very significant for all who exercise the munus Petrinum in the Church. They continually remind them of the kind of original paradox that Christ himself placed in them, with the certitude that in their ministry, as in Peter's, a special grace is at work which supports human weakness and allows him to "strengthen his brothers." "I have prayed"–Jesus' words to Peter, which re-echo in his ever poor, humble successors--"I have prayed that your own faith may not fail, and once you turned back, you must strengthen your brothers" (Lk 22:32).

[1] cf. De spiritu et littera, 21

[2] cf. Summa Theol., I-II, q. 106, a. 1

© Libreria Editrice Vaticana 2014

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