Today is the Solemnity of Saint Peter & Paul. Happy feast day! To help us prayerfully celebrate this day, here’s a beautifully written and very personal reflection on the life and legacy of Saint Peter by Jessica Schaub. Jessica is a staff member at Saint Peter in Eaton Rapids where she and her family are also happy parishioners. It wasn’t always so, however, as Jessica now recalls:
After twelve years at a parish I loved, our family moved and entered into an entirely new place: St. Peter Parish in Eaton Rapids. I didn’t want to leave our beautiful St. Therese in Lansing, but moving out of the city necessitated many changes, the most difficult for me being a new parish, a new priest, and a new community. Walking hand in hand into this strange new place, my husband and I and our four kiddos opened the doors of a new chapter in our lives. I tried not to cry on the way to Mass that morning, but I did. I tried to be positive about the change, but I wasn’t. As we entered St. Peter Parish, my heart was in turmoil, but my husband held my hand as we walked into the narthex. We had made the choice together to leave St. Therese in North Lansing, but St. Therese had become my hero. A tiny, young woman with a heart for Jesus. She perfectly modeled for me a life of humble service. What would St. Peter and life in this parish bring?
I remembered a story about St. Peter passed down through pious tradition of him fleeing Rome because of the persecutions of the Christians. On the road, Peter encountered Christ walking toward Rome. “Quo Vadis?” Peter asked. “Where are you going?” Jesus answered sadly, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” I imagine that Peter remembered the crucifixion and how he had fled and denied Jesus. He turned around and walked back to Rome, where he was indeed crucified.
I was confident that walking into St. Peter Parish would not end in pain or anything remotely like a crucifixion. This was where I was being called to go. This was the parish Jesus had led my family to join. I wanted to turn back and return to what I knew and the people I loved at St. Therese. But my husband winked at me as we walked into St. Peter Parish. In that tiny gesture, he said that he understood my loss and that I was afraid that I wouldn’t find here what I had at St. Therese. In that wink, I knew I was loved and that no matter where I went, that love would always be with me.
If St. Therese had been, and continues to be, a hero of my faith, surely St. Peter, who walked and talked with Jesus would be worth knowing. I decided to get to know St. Peter, not only the man himself, but the people of the parish. As I have learned about St. Peter, he is truly a reflection of every man.
Based on what I read in scripture, St. Peter was an overzealous, insightful, very protective man whom Our Lord chose as a rock for the Church. Jesus granted Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven and pulled him from the waters when his faith failed. Simon Peter declared that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, and a moment later, Jesus rebuked him. Peter denied knowing Jesus three times, and then ran madly to the tomb at the first whisper of Christ’s resurrection. He went on to lead our early Church, teaching with confidence and bringing thousands into the faith through Baptism. It is St. Peter’s extreme nature that I find most appealing.
St. Peter, the Overzealous.
If one is good, five must be better. It’s a natural human response to want more of the good. At the Last Supper, Jesus demonstrated extraordinary humility when he washed the feet of his Apostles. As Peter watched Jesus, he shook his head. It wasn’t right that the Son of Man, the Messiah, should do something so menial. Peter certainly wasn’t about to let Jesus wash his feet; he loved the Lord too much to humiliate him like that. But Jesus said, “If I don’t wash your feet, you have no part with me.” In true Peter fashion, he pleaded, “Lord! Not only my feet but my hands and head.”
I imagine Jesus chuckled at this request. Peter, thinking more is better, learned that Jesus will certainly fill our cup to overflowing. It happens in the little moments and in tiny gestures. By pouring water on our heads in the Sacrament of Baptism, we are washed of Original Sin: a small gesture with great results. In the act of service, we are baptized with humility and reminded that by being the last, we are first. Jesus came as a servant for all. We are called to do the same. More isn’t always better. Sometimes just a small wink of encouragement is perfection. At Mass during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we are not given a handful of consecrated hosts. One is sufficient. One is everything we need. That one is truly Jesus.
St. Peter, the Insightful.
Sometimes ideas simply click. I might try to take credit for them, but I can’t. The whisperings of the Holy Spirit reveals truth. Remaining open to the Spirit and living within the Spirit is what Jesus modeled. Peter had a moment like that. Christ asked his apostles, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Mt. 16:13) People expected him to be John the Baptist, recently assassinated, Jeremiah who lived centuries before, or one of the prophets. All ridiculous ideas. How could Jesus possibly be any of those? Yet Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus was the one that the Jewish people had been waiting for, and yet they couldn’t see it. He was the anointed one. The Son of Man. And Peter declared what we all know to be true. Someone had to be the first to speak the truth. Because Peter recognized Jesus, he was declared the rock on which the church would be built. His name changed from Simon to Peter, and with that change, his entire life was set on a new course. But Peter was still a man who did not think like God.
St. Peter, the Protector.
In the very next paragraph in Matthew 16, Jesus predicts his Passion. He lays out the entire plan: “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, chief priests and the scribes, be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Mt 16:21) Peter was appalled by this notion and pulled Jesus aside and rebuked him. Can you believe it? He actually rebuked Our Lord! “God forbid, Lord!” he pleaded. But God wouldn’t forbid it. Jesus had to suffer greatly at the hands of his own people to be glorified, to re-open the gates of heaven to all who believe. Jesus’s words to Peter likely stung him badly: “Get behind me Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
Matthew 16:13-28 lays out the human response to Christianity. Who is Jesus? Not just a teacher or a prophet, but God himself. What is he here to accomplish? Lead us to the truth, suffer an excruciating death which will redeem those who follow him. I don’t have to like that truth–St. Peter certainly didn’t–but I must accept that truth and make it real in my own life–St. Peter certainly did. It is in the suffering of Our Lord that he forged the way to return to God. As a human soul, I am also called to offer my sufferings to God as a means of scourging my sins to be cleansed and ready for heaven. That is not a natural human response. That requires a mustard seed of faith and perseverance and the gifts of the Spirit that infuse my soul.
Quo Vadis? St. Peter wasn’t expecting to meet the Messiah, but he did. When Jesus asked him to follow, he hesitated knowing that he was a sinful man. Quo Vadis? He stepped out of the boat and took a few steps on water before his doubt pulled him under. He made mistakes, he said the wrong thing, but he loved our Lord. Now I must ask myself, Quo Vadis?
Peter was a man first, and a saint only because he loved Christ well. I experience that love at St. Peter Parish, despite my humanity, my weaknesses and my imperfections. I have friends who have become family. There is great love in St. Peter Parish because there was great love in St. Peter the man. Now, as I walk into the church, the sanctuary and the people are familiar. I know them and they know me. Every time I approach the altar and the tabernacle, I genuflect, much like a wink to Jesus telling him I love him and no matter where I go, I know his love follows me. Quo Vadis? Toward Christ, with Christ, and because of Christ.