Every Catholic – for the one sufficient reason that he is a Catholic – should feel and cherish a special devotion to St. Peter; should love to dwell upon his life, from its first rough training by the Sea of Galilee to the far rougher discipline, by which the hands of pagan persecutors gave the last touch to his lifelong preparation for his eternal crown.
What a life it was! As Peter stood, on the day of his martyrdom, on the frowning height of the dark Janiculum, what a life lay behind him in the retrospect! Thus far had he come from his Eastern home, to look down on Rome, and die for Jesus. Far away now, was lonely Palestine, but so clear to his mental vision, that his dying thoughts might set themselves to the well-remembered music of the waves of Galilee, that had attuned the dreams of his boyhood, and had mingled with the aspirations of his youth. How, at such an hour, he would recall the day, that had risen just like other days that had left no memory, but which had been to him a day, such as day had never been before, when He, the Master, Whom the Heavenly Father revealed to be Christ, the Son of the living God, came and took refuge in his boat from the pressure of the multitude! How the happy days flew by, when his heart burned within him, with the personal presence of Him, Whom he loved more than the others; how the headship of the Church had been conferred on him; and how, in a way that to him seemed natural – so natural had the supernatural become to him – the prophecy was about to be fulfilled, and that, at last, he was about to receive the final installment of the legacy which Christ had left to His followers – the hatred of the world!
To speak at such a length, s would befit the theme, of the historic glories of St. Peter; to celebrate his triumph, whose, in a manner, may every triumph of the Church be said to be; to draw a picture of that apostolic life; and to do this, worthily - would be a task, for a longer time that this, and for another hand than mine.
Fortunately, however, there is no special need to do so, to-day. The panegyric of a saint, above all, of such a saint as Peter, is not as the panegyric of other men. It is not so much on the glories of a life, that belongs altogether to the past, we have to dwell, as on the characteristics of a life that still continues to belong to the present; and, and the fruit we should propose to ourselves to derive from this festival of St. Peter, is, not that of a barren admiration for glories which we may not emulate, but the fruit of a more perfect knowledge of those saintly characteristics which, the humblest, in his own measure, should seek to attain. I shall, therefore, strive to put before you to-day, a few of what seem to me to be the special features of St. Peter's character, as it is revealed to us in the Holy Gospels.
It is a remarkable, perhaps I should say rather, significant, fact that almost the only picture of character, as such, given in the Gospel, is given in the case of St. Peter. The sayings and doings of others are recorded, but, in an isolated sort of way, as if it were no object of the Evangelist to reveal the man, when recording his word or his work. But, in the case of Peter, it is far otherwise. There is, in what is told of him, what I will venture to call a dramatic keeping, so that, after reading a few passages, when another occurs, even if no name were given, we would be at once inclined to say, "That must have been Peter." Thus, when we read in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, that a "certain disciple" cut off the ear of the servant of the High Priest, I think, when we find in John that this disciple was Peter, we receive this information not so much in the light of a new truth, as of the proof of a foregone conclusion.
The characteristics of St. Peter, to which I would call your attention, are three: (1) his practical earnestness, (2) his faith, and (3) his love. And, what I have called, the keeping of his character, is evident from the fact that, his earnestness was just such as would have naturally disposed him to faith, and his earnestness and faith together, both naturally and supernaturally, resulted in love.
First, then, his practical earnestness. It is visible in everything we read of him; visible in his putting himself forward, on every solemn occasion, to give the right answer at the right time; visible in his first refusal to let Christ wash his feet, and his later entreaty that He would wash his hands and his head; visible in his bringing our Lore aside, and rebuking Him for saying that He was about to suffer; but, visible most of all, and in a way that commends itself to us as an example, in his reception of truth. Some people hold a truth, as it were, at arm’s length, and look at it; others receive it with their intellect only; others, again with their intellect and their imagination; a few receive it, besides, with some portion, though not all, of their will. Peter received it with his whole moral and intellectual nature. It was to him, not merely a truth, but a fruitful one – not merely, a proposition to be received as an addition to knowledge, but also, and at once, as a foundation for practice. I shall just give one instance: it is his calling. Jesus performs a miracle. Peter believes in him; but what does he do? Does he merely profess his faith? No; in that warm, earnest nature, truth had borne a harvest at its very planting, and Peter cried out, not, as might have been expected, “I believe,” but, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord,” thus showing that he has advanced, at one bound, from faith to the deepest principle that underlies sanctity – personal humility. Here, then, is a lesson to us in our meditations on the truths of faith – not to rest in mere speculation, however sublime, but to translate it at once into a practical resolution.
The second characteristic is his faith. Peter it is who, in circumstances where faith was hard, made it, at once supremely easy and eminently rational, by placing it on its real foundation by the words, “Lord, to whom shall we go but to Thee?” He it was who, when the question was proposed by Christ, “Whom do you say that I am?” – question which the Church has been answering ever since – Peter it was who, instinctively anticipating the office for which Christ had predestined him: Peter, acting by anticipation as Pope, and in a way that his successors have ever since imitated, putting aside the vain opinions of men, declared, in words so trenchant that they read like the decree of a Council, “Thou art Christ, the son of the living God.” Now, as then, Peter is the doctor of the Church. As our present Holy Father once beautifully expressed it, “Simon dies, but Peter lives for ever.” We should ask him to-day to obtain for us firmness of faith, remembering, with salutary fear, that faith may be weakened, may be lessened, nay, may be even lost. And we should learn, too, from Peter’s faith, and the glorious privileges in which it resulted, to deprecate that silly fear – and I can only call it silly – that some people, nowadays, seem to entertain, lest Peter’s impetuosity should carry him too far; who seem to think, too, that “flesh and blood” should at least modify those truths which, not “flesh and blood,” but the Heavenly Father, has revealed to him.
The third characteristic of St. Peter is his love. No once can fail to be struck with the ardent personal affection he bore to our Blessed Lord, an affection, which I may call passionate in its nature and its manifestations; an affection that expressed itself, in season and out of season, wisely and often unwisely, but, even when unwisely, with an unwisdom that gives the strongest proof of its depth and its sincerity. Surely, there is not a more striking scene in the Gospel than that where, when our Lord had declared that He was about to go to Jerusalem to suffer and to die, Peter, to use the extraordinary language of the sacred text, “took Him and began to rebuke Him, and say to Him, Lord, far be it from Thee; this shall not be unto Thee.” The others had heard the announcement as well, but on ho heart of all did the idea of Jesus suffering, strike with such a pang as on the living heart of Peter. Surely, such love must have been grateful to the Sacred Heart of Jesus; and though He reproved him for his earthly notions, yet, the whole passage, as it reads, reproof and all, however it may detract from Peter’s theological appreciation of the Passion, ads as much and more, to our estimate of his intense personal affection for our Blessed Lord. But, the best proof of Peter’s love is found in the thrice-repeated question of our Lord Himself, “Peter, son of John, lovest thou Me more than these?” and, when Peter offered his heart to the inspection of Jesus, it was, on that supreme and super-eminent love which His all-seeing eye discovered there, that He funded the jurisdiction which He gave him over the universal Church.
It may seem an ungracious thing, on such a day as this, to make even the faintest allusion to Peter’s fall. But feeling that he, in the glory of heaven, would wish nothing better than that we should learn a lesson from that portion of his life, that bears most likeness to our own, and feeling, too, that Peter’s fall throws great light on Peter’s natural character, and on the operation of grace in his sanctification, I shall briefly remark that, from this fall, we may derive a lesson which, those especially whose state binds them to perfection, should learn thoroughly and at once. It is, that a merely natural virtue is, often, a greater obstacle to perfection, than even a predominant passion; firs and obviously, because it has a tendency to beget self-confidence, which is the surest symptom of a speedy fall; but besides, because the exercise of a natural virtue, that belongs to our disposition, comes so easy to us, and is, in fact, so pleasant, that a man is apt, unless he takes special care, to rest in the natural virtue, without ever adverting to the necessi9ty of raising it to the supernatural, and may thus be, all his life long, losing innumerable opportunities of supernatural merit’; lastly, shall I add, because we are exceedingly apt to make a natural virtue that comes easy to us, cover a multitude of sins against other virtues which we find more difficult.
The best honor we can pay to St. Peter, as indeed to any saint, is to imitate those things in him that made his sanctity; and remember, St. Peter is a saint, not precisely because he was raised to the highest dignity on earth, but because he believed, he practiced, and he loved: and these things the humblest of us may do, according to the measure of the grace which God is ready to bestow.
It is eighteen hundred years since Peter died. The curious traveler, or the pious pilgrim, can stand to-day upon the place of his martyrdom; can see some things which Peter saw when he looked his last on earth, but can see more than these. There are the blue outlines of the Alban hills in the soft distance, the bare Campagna stretching between, so lonely and so desolate, that it well might seem the sepulcher of the buried greatness of pagan Rome. But the city lies below – how changed! The Cross is on the summit of the Capitol, and at its foot the Mammertine Prison is, one, one of the most sacred spots even in Rome; and, above the countless domes of the sacred city, rises the one that has well been called a miracle, that throws its vast span over the tomb of Peter, in that grandest temple that man has ever raised in memory of a martyr, to the honor of the martyr’s God. In that temple just now, Christ is being once gain set up, now, doubtless, as of old, for the ruin and the resurrection of many; and, it would not be well that I should conclude, without reminding you to pray, through the intercession of St. Peter, that, as the Spirit of God is casting truth into the seed-field of this our time, so may the grace of God assist its growth, and the infinite mercy of God preside over the gathering of the harvest. Amen.