29th January 1989, Veneration of Saint Peter's Chains
In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
At this time of year the Church remembers the fetters, the imprisonment of Saint Peter. We think of him usually either as the Apostle who always spoke in the name of all his brothers; or else, as the one who having boasted of his readiness to die with Christ, when he saw Christ judged and condemned in an iniquitous way, renounced Him three times.
And it is this latter event which the Church has singled out in memory of his imprisonment and of his faithfulness, because these two events hold together. When Christ met Peter on the shore of the lake after his denial of Him, he asked Him three times a question about love: «Peter! Dost thou love Me more than these?» – those disciples who have not betrayed Him. Why «more than these»? How could he be expected to love Christ more than the other Apostles, when there was all the evidence that he had renounced Him? True, every other Apostle had tried to escape the condemnation which was upon Christ; they had fled. But Peter had openly renounced Him. Why is it that he is asked whether he loves more than these? Peter did not remember it at that moment; but we can read in the Gospel that Christ says that he to whom more is forgiven loves more, out of a deeper gratitude, out of a deeper joy; out of a deeper wonder love flares in the heart of him who is forgiven; and the more there is to be forgiven, the deeper the gratitude, the more exulting the joy, the warmer, the more complete the love.
And Peter stood there, forgiven; Christ did not judge him, He did not reject him, He did not ask him, «Have you repented of your denial?» Because Peter was there, among the others, because Peter was one of His own but with a broken heart, with a searing memory of betrayal – he was received.
This is the love of which Saint Paul speaks in his Epistle to the Corinthians. What does he say about it? That love is patient, that love is kind, that loves envies no one, never is boastful, never is conceited, never is brutal, never is selfish; that love is not quick to take offence (how true of Christ!); that love keeps no score of wrongs: and here we see Christ receiving Peter as one of His own beloved disciples, in spite of his denial! Love does not gloat over other people's sins but delights in their truth; there is nothing love cannot face – no limits to its faith, to its hope, it endures forever; it never ceases, is never defeated.
This was Christ's love, but this is also the love He expected from Peter when He said, «Dost thou love Me more than these?» Begin, begin with gratitude, begin with wonder, begin with a hesitant exultation; because Peter could have only one answer: «How can that be?» And Christ's answer would have been: «Simply, because it is: this is the evidence; it is not a reason, it is a fact.»
The first question is asked in words which in Greek mean: «Dost thou possess that serene certainty of love, that love which is all-embracing, as vast as the sky, as quiet and as perfect?»
But the second question and the third were couched in other words: «Dost thou love Me as a friend loves his friend?» And here again, Peter might have remembered, as we may remember indeed when we are confronted with a challenge – Peter could have remembered another word from the Gospel: «No one has greater love than he who lays down his life for his friends.» At the same time Christ said to His disciples, «I no longer call you servants, I call you friends, because the servant does not know the will of his Master, and I have told you all.» Christ so loved His disciples, and Peter therefore could believe that he was forgiven, that he was loved, by a friend who was ready to lay down His life for His friend.
But wasn't that also a call and a challenge? Did not that mean: «If you say that you are a friend to Me you must be prepared to lay down your life for Me, to sacrifice it for Me.» And this is where today's memory of the imprisonment of Peter, of his readiness to be, as Saint Paul puts it, a bondsman, a prisoner of Christ, but also a prisoner of the enemies of Christ to the point of death, reminds us of his response to this call. Yes, Peter understood, from now on he understood what it meant to be a friend, and he understood what it meant to love with that complete, surrendered love that believes against all evidence, that has faith against all possibilities, that is never shaken even by material evidence, that endures, never ceases, never diminishes, conquers all evil. This is why this passage is appointed to today's event; yes, Peter understood, and one day he died upon the cross, like his Master, for His Master, as a response to His love.
Isn't that a message which we all can receive with awe and with gratitude, because each of us has something with which to reproach him or herself with regard to God, with regard to those who surround us. Let us remember Peter, and let us also remember this passage of the thirteenth chapter of the Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians. Let us meditate on them. And let us, in an act of sacrificial love, reach to the exultation of victorious love! Amen.