Illustration by Tim Langenderfer
Rugged, outspoken Simon Peter contended with a hostile government and surrounding society. He also struggled to unify quarreling factions within the Church. In doing so he provided a model of inspired leadership for future generations. By Edward Cuddy
SIMON PETER is one of my favorite characters. Unfortunately, his public relations in Church circles leaves something to be desired. Once a year, the Holy Week liturgy spotlights Peterís personality in memorable detail: the day he vehemently vowed his undying loyalty to Jesus and then denied he ever knew the man. It had to be his worst day on earth.
While rereading the Acts of the Apostles recently, I was struck anew by Peterís leadership as our first pope, and the similarity between the Churchís problems then and today.
Peterís modern-day successor, Pope John Paul II, is a positive model for many who like his no-nonsense way of handling controversial issues and theologians; a negative model for others who lament his allegedly tightfisted, authoritarian rule.
For me, the composite portrait of Simon Peter that filters through Scripture depicts a coherent, maturing personality, one of the most captivating in biblical literature. He was uninhibited, outgoing, generous, quick-witted, colorful. He was also impulsive, clumsy and inclined to put his foot in his mouth. My kind of guy!
Familiar scenes include the stormy night Peter tried imitating Jesus by walking toward him on water. Then, frozen with fear, the apostle started sinking, gasping for help (Matthew 14:28-31).
Then there was Jesusí dazzling Transfiguration when Peter, like a kid in an amusement park, wanted to build huts and stick around indefinitely (Mark 9:2-8).
He balked at the Last Supper when Jesus tried to wash his feet, until warned it could cost him their friendship. "Master," he urged, "then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well" (John 13:9).
Even after the Crucifixion, when the fishermen spotted the risen Lord on the shore, it was Peter who splashed into the water, practically naked, and raced toward Jesus (John 21:1-14).
These episodes were vintage Peter, ever ready to throw caution to the wind and barge ahead into the unknown. He and Jesus were an odd couple of sortsóarguably, the strangest pair in the Gospels.
No other apostle was so unabashedly fond of the Lord. Yet nobody else provoked so many barbed remarks from Jesus: "Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me" (Matthew 16:23).
Running Short on Faith
The Gospels are punctuated with memorable put-downs when Peter ran short on faith. Yet thereís no hint he ever sulked in resentment after being chewed out. And thereís no suggestion Jesus ever had second thoughts about his handpicked successor.
Their personal collisions climaxed during the final hours of Jesusí earthly life after their last Passover together. Jesus had put a real damper on the festivities, predicting the Twelve would soon desert him. Nonsense, Peter told him.
His bravado drew Jesusí stinging retort: Peter would deny him three times. As if he hadnít shot off his mouth enough already, Peter blustered recklessly on: "Even though I should have to die with you, I will not deny you" (Matthew 26:35).
Bold words were soon followed by bungling deeds. At Gethsemane, Peter snoozed while Jesus prayed. Then came Judas with the captors, whereupon Peter went berserk, slashing off the ear of some lowly servantóa clumsy, foolhardy deed. All this climaxed hours later when people recognized him as one of Jesusí companions. Peter, scared to death, responded with frenzied denials, "I do not know the man" (Matthew 26:74). The cock crowed, sending him off weeping bitter tears.
During Jesusí final hours, both Peter and Judas failed miserably. For Judas, guilt became a deadly spiritual corrosive, driving him to self-destruction. For the resilient Peter, moral failure became the seed of moral courage, bracing him for the storms ahead.
Despite Peterís monumental blunders, he was still the leader Jesus wanted for his Church. After the Resurrection, Jesus asked Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" (John 21:15). Three times the question was asked, until Peter, getting a bit testy, blurted out, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you" (John 21:17). That settled it. The job was his.
Peterís blunt common sense surfaced on Pentecost, when crowds from many nations understood the apostles, despite language barriers. Cynics sneered that they were just full of new wine. Impossible, said the quick-witted Peter. It was too early in the morning for men to be woozy on drink (Acts 2:14-15).
Peter had found his voice. Gone were the sharp swings, from brash overconfidence to crippling fear. His spunk and spontaneity were more focused. So was his knack for getting to the point.
The high priest and his haughty cohorts who had orchestrated Jesusí execution dragged Peter and his band repeatedly before their religious council, the Sanhedrin. The lowly fisherman met the powerful religious establishment head-on when questioned about curing someone. Peter explained that "it was in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean whom you crucified" (Acts 4:10).
Would he obey their orders to stop his subversive teaching? "We must obey God rather than men," Peter retorted (Acts 5:29).
Fighting words these were, provoking demands for his blood. But cooler heads prevailed, and the leaders simply forbade further preaching, sending Peter and his men off with a good whipping. But the defiant band was soon back preaching in the Temple.
Controversy Splits the Community
In the years that were ahead, Peter would continue to brave the harassment of powerful rulersóreligious and secularóthrough arrests, imprisonment, torture and execution.
If the Sanhedrinís threats tested Peterís courage, internal Church divisions challenged his wisdom. The first great controversy splitting his community erupted over new converts. Should gentiles be admitted to the new community? If so, on what terms?
Steeped in the Jewish exclusionist tradition, Peter was slow to welcome outsiders. But a vision telling him that nothing God made was "profane" convinced him that ancient taboos against mixing with gentiles were obsolete (Acts 11:1-18).
For the resilient Peter, moral
failure became the seed of moral courage, bracing him for the storms ahead.
Die-hard conservatives were infuriated by his ensuing behavioróbaptizing gentiles, hobnobbing with the "uncircumcised." Even if pagans were eligible for Baptism, the critics insisted, they must be subjected to the burdensome law of Moses, including circumcision.
The battle lines were drawn at the Council of Jerusalem. The lively debate, recorded in Acts 15, suggests Peterís growing maturity. Often the first to sound off, he now listened as opponents aired their objections.
Finally, Peter rose. He was the first pope ever to address a Church council. He reminded them that God himself had given the Holy Spirit to gentiles, "just as he did us." Peterís persuasive power, backed by arguments from Paul and others, carried the day, uniting the community behind a humane relaxation of the rigorous laws.
Peterís heroic resistance once had stymied powerful rulers out to destroy the Church, and later his tact and wisdom held it together. His actions went beyond the problems of his day, providing future generations with an enduring model of skilled leadershipóa bracing tonic, perhaps, for the stresses in todayís Church.
The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin said, "We are a Church polarized," writes Paul Wilkes in an article called "The Popemakers" for The New York Times Magazine.
From Simon Peter to John Paul II, conflict, even among loyal Catholics, has been inevitable due to diversity. Weíve struggled, not always successfully, to balance faith and reason, continuity and change, authority and freedom.
Many liberal critics say Pope John Paul IIís papacy has veered too far toward the authoritarian side at the expense of the Churchís more humane, rational and collegial traditions. Many conservative defenders say the opposite: Thereís too much freedom.
Relating Peterís past to our present is tricky business, of course. Documentary evidence is sparse and our biases are large. Yet if history is any guide to the present, or sacred Scripture to Christian living, then Peterís leadership might shed light on todayís challenges.
In steering his storm-tossed ship through the turbulent seas of his day, Peter emerged as a first-class leader. When preaching Christís resurrection to skeptical crowds, he presented many convincing arguments: "Those who accepted his message were baptized" (Acts 2:41).
Intensive reflection on experienceóhis own and othersíóenabled him to move beyond his own Mosaic mind-set to forge the cosmopolitan theology which prevailed at Jerusalem.
Archbishop John R. Quinn says that in liberating converts from the Mosaic Law, Peter signaled a major change down an uncharted path, requiring "immense courage, vision and sacrifice," reports the National Catholic Reporter.
Signs of Sensitivity
Most striking was Peterís concern for afflicted consciences. He knew firsthand the torment of guilt after his Good Friday denials: How painful it had been for him, how destructive for Judas.
His exquisite sensitivity surfaced early during his pentecostal preaching after finding listeners troubled over their role in Jesusí murder. They had acted out of ignorance, he consoled them.
At the Council of Jerusalem, Peter showed compassion when he said, "Why, then, are you now putting God to the test by placing on the shoulders of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?" (Acts 15:10). The Councilís final message to gentile converts was "not to place on you any burden" beyond a few moderate rules restricting diet and "unlawful marriage."
Peter apparently sensed what Catholic theology has long recognized: Spiritual dangers lurk in overly rigid moral rules. The late Karl Rahner referred to this as "ironbound legalism." It overburdens Christians, prompting them to cast off religion altogether.
Many alienated Catholics have too often experienced the Church in the form of threatening prohibitions, fear and guilt. Peterís pastoral stance conjures up the richer, healing side of the Churchís spiritual discipline that liberates people from scrupulosity and the harsh demands of overweening conscience.
Modern theology owes much to St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787). Brimming with good humor, Liguori exerted enormous influence as bishop, preacher, confessor, musician, writer and founder of the Redemptorist Order.
Although strongly opposed to moral laxity, he challenged the Jansenist-tinged rigorism of his day. He stressed the importance of circumstance and flexibility in applying moral laws, while anchoring the moral life not in fear, but in the soulís loving response to a merciful God.
Even though he was bruised by accusations of heresy, Liguoriís theology took hold in seminaries in the 19th century. He was proclaimed patron saint of moral theologians in 1950. Even the saintly John Vianney, the Curé of Ars, modified his rigorism under Liguoriís influence.
The pastoral tradition poignantly expressed in Peterís ministry and systematically developed in Liguoriís theology lives on today in world-renowned theologian and prolific writer Bernard Häring. This Redemptorist trained seminarians at Romeís Academia Alfonsiana and has been a leader of progressive moralists during and after Vatican II.
In My Witness for the Church, Häring writes about liberating people "from a legalism and moralism which produced a senseless scrupulosity and neurotic anxiety...which alienated many from the Church...." For Häring, an "over-emphasis on too rigorously interpreted sexual norms," emanating from the Vatican, has been a stumbling block that causes much pain for many good Christians and undermines the Churchís credibility as a teacher of morals.
Häring has pleaded with the pope for more flexibility in certain moral issues, in line with Liguoriís theological principles.
In recent years, some members of the hierarchy have more openly expressed similar concerns over a stringent moralism thatís allegedly clogging the Churchís moral arteries. Cardinal Bernardin voiced the frustrations of his Chicago priests, claiming they "tell me over and over again the teaching and discipline of the Church is not as flexible as it should be," notes Paul Wilkes in "The Popemakers."
Wilkes also quotes Belgiumís Cardinal Godfried Danneels, who is more blunt in his criticism of the current "authoritarian line," calling for a more "pastoral" leadership to make "Catholicism radical in its love...and compassionónot in its unbending adherence to laws."
Strong Resemblance Noted
Defenders of our present popeís vigorous restoration can more readily relate to Simon Peterís pastoral style than Häringís particular version of it, with its criticism of Peterís current successor. But Peterís ministry provides plenty of grist for the mills of pro-John Paul II traditionalists.
In these days, with papal authority under fire from many quarters, Peterís life testifies to a Church authority divinely empowered to guide people in religious matters.
Jesus knew what he was doing when he handed over the keys to Simon Peter, a rambunctious, loud-mouthed fisherman.
His unique leadership among the apostles, visible right after Christís ascension, became even more pronounced in the turbulent days following Pentecost.
To enter Peterís world is to replenish oneís sense of the sacred, obscured in the fog of contemporary secularismóGodís presence in the Church, the forgiveness of sin, the power of divine grace. The zeal and reckless abandon with which he defied powerful violence-prone rulers in order to preach Christís resurrection is a standing challenge to those who dismiss the event as a scientific impossibility or an ennobling myth.
Peterís rugged strength bears more than a passing resemblance to Pope John Paul IIís robust leadership. Peter reached out to gentiles, rebelled against powerful authorities, preached Christís divine mission to those who supported his execution.
Pope John Paul II has shown ecumenical gusto for other religions and steely opposition to Nazi and Communist dictators who ruled his Polish homeland. And he has persistently preached unpalatable doctrines to resistant listeners.
Our popeís steadfast positions on sexual morality are matched by his unflinching support for peace and justice. He has relentlessly opposed the death penalty, wars and the profit-driven arms race, and the evils of both capitalism and Communism.
Although there is controversy swirling about the pope in his own Church, Jewish biographer Tad Szulc writes in Pope John Paul II that "John Paul II carries a universal moral authority no other spiritual figure can match."
A different perspective comes from Bill Reel, religion editor of the New York Daily News and self-proclaimed less-than-good-Catholic when it comes to birth control. He writes, "I love the pope....As difficult as the teachings are that he upholds, I appreciate the fact that there is at least one guy out there who is saying sex isnít for recreation. And thank God the pope is anti-abortion. There ought to be one such person left. If the pope ever came out for free love and abortion, then we might as well write everything off. He stands for something....He stands for holiness...for devout practices."
Amid the current "sexual decadence," Reel almost longs for the days when the "old monsignor" warned that "youíll go blind if you play with yourself...because the reaction against that nonsense is worse than the nonsense."
The "polarized" Church lamented by Bernardin is not necessarily bad news. Conflict and division are vital for all communities. Without them society stagnates and individuals tend toward servile conformity.
Years before he became John Paul II, professor Karol Wojtyla recognized this when he wrote The Acting Person: "The structure of a human community is correct only if it admits the presence of a justified opposition...required by the common good."
In the book Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence, psychotherapist Rollo May warns that "There is no escape from...[the] dialectical conflict" besetting every society. "The only choice is whether one will live it through constructively and with zest and dignity, or waste his energy" protesting a universe "not organized to his liking."
In the final analysis, I think Simon Peterís life is a bright lantern for Catholics trying to work through todayís conflicts constructively, and with zest and dignity. He took charge of a Church engulfed in conflict, preserving it against powerful rulers bent on stamping it out, taming the inner divisions that were threatening to tear it apart.
Consider also the sordid conflicts that have scarred the historical landscapes of nearly every religion, including Catholicism: the intolerance and anti-Semitism, the persecution of heretics and infidels, the wars spawned by religious rivalries. How much of it might have been avoided had we genuinely assimilated Peterís ecumenical insight discovered en route to Jerusalem? "In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him" (Acts 10:34-35).
Beyond Peterís skills as a leader lay the magnetic humanity of the man. He was colorful, comical, spontaneous, capable of colossal moral failure yet resilient to the point of heroism, brimming with enthusiasm for life and for Christ.
By human standards, he seemed like an unlikely leader when Jesus picked him out of a crowd. But Jesus knew what he was doing when he handed over the keys to the rambunctious, loud-mouthed fisherman.
Simon Peter, with all his complexity, became, I think, a pope for all seasonsóespecially our own.
Edward Cuddy is chairman of the department of history and government at Daemen College in Amherst, New York, and author of numerous published articles. He and his wife are parents of six daughters.