Most Rev. Fulton Sheen
This article was specially written by Most Rev. Fulton Sheen, Bishop of Rochester for the English edition of L’Osservatore Romano.
Christ and Peter
Psychology reveals that the human body, when it reaches a certain growth, begins to be conscious of itself. A moment comes when the child no longer says: “Baby wants”… but “I want”.
The Church as the Body of Christ revealed its heavenly consciousness when Christ complained to Paul who persecuted the Church: “Why do you persecute Me”. The earthly consciousness of that same Mystical Body was reached in Peter, the only person in all Scripture with whom God so associated Himself as to say “we”. The occasion was the paying of the tax. The Lord, as if he were putting His arm around Peter, said “In order that WE may not scandalize”. What a unity of the headship of heaven and earth! What a conscious unity of the Body of Christ, Christ and Peter.
The Pope’s Burden
But this intuitive awareness of headship in Peter and his present successor, Paul VI, makes each Pontiff also the most vulnerable man in all the world. To be vulnerable is to be accessible to every attack, worry and anxiety which happens to the Church in every area of the earth. As Paul VI told me: “I often find, in my letters and reports when I read them at night, a thorn. When I go to bed they have woven themselves together into a crown of thorns”. This unshielded and exposed personality makes the Pontiff like a solitary tree on a mountain top, exposed to all the blasts of the four winds. The father and mother of a family suffer for their children; the priest bears the wounds of his parishioners, but into that chalice held by the Vicar of Christ seeps all the sorrows, such as those caused by disciples: “some walk with Him no more”, or who leave the Eucharistic Banquet and “go out into the night”. It is in these moments the Pastoral heart is most pierced.
“Is it so, O Christ in heaven, that the highest suffer most…. That the mark of rank in nature is capacity for pain, That the anguish of the inner makes the sweetness of the strain?”
The agony in Gethsemane in some way becomes the agony of the Pontificate and to both there is dipped a common cup which the Father gives.
For that reason, it is not just our theology, our tradition and our faith which makes us pledge our loyalty to him; it is also our sympathy, a compassion so great that the world, if it looked closely, might see but one common tear falling down pontifical checks.
It is his Voice to which we listen—for there is something special in it, as there was in the voice of Peter. St. Luke who recounts the scene in the outer court of Annas and Caiphas, as well as the scene of Peter knocking at the door of John Mark, makes Peter twice identifiable by his Voice. In both instances, it was a servant who recognized the Voice and each one refused to be negated in certitude that it was the Voice of Peter, for both “constantly reaffirmed”.
The background of the story is Peter’s miraculous escape from prison when his life was threatened by King Herod. He goes to the house of John Mark where the faithful of the Church are gathered in prayer. Present were John Mark, his mother, Mary; and her brother-in-law, Barnabas, and the servant Rhoda.
Rhoda answered the knocking; she recognized Peter’s voice who called to her, but did not open the door. Rather she ran and told everyone that Peter was at the door. Their response was twofold: either she was “mad” or else it was an apparition. A practical man, probably Barnabas, suggested that they give up liturgy for service and go and see if it was Peter.
Peter’s Voice Today
Does not this scene fit our modern times, when those who should be foremost in recognizing the voice of Peter, like the liturgical center of John Mark, and the disciples like Barnabas, are slow to do so, whereas the simple laity not only recognize it but insist upon its authenticity.
Now, as then, there are those in the house of John Mark who think that the voice is all apparition, that it is something out of the past, unreal and mythical or of another world.
Then there are those who when the simple people insist that it is the Voice of Peter, say that they are “crazy” or “mad”, and need to have their theological heads examined.
These two kinds of incredulity were manifested toward the Divinity of Our Lord. When the disciples were rowing in the darkness of a storm Jesus came walking on the waters, but they thought that He was a “ghost”. At another time because of His zeal, His own relatives thought Him “mad”.
But while the inner circle in the house of John Mark dialogued about the unsecularity of the voice and abused the simple for believing in it, Peter “continued knocking”.
The quality of Peter’s character is persistence. He was a fisherman and he knew patience and hope. But here it happens that he who knocks is the doorkeeper—the one who has the keys and is trying, as it were, TO GET INTO HIS CHURCH AND TO HIS PEOPLE. That knocking is no different from the knock of the Apocalypse where Christ affirms: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock”.
The Voice of Christ
That Voice is no different than the Voice of Christ: “He that heareth you, heareth Me”. And if we heed it not, do we not fall back into that anonymous authority of “they”—”They say”, “They no longer believe that”—Who are “They”? In the Holy Father, the Voice is personal and with joy we heed it echoing from Peter the day the Eucharist was announced: “Lord, to whom shall we go. Thou alone hast the Words of Eternal Life”.
Thou art Peter
We reaffirm our allegiance to the Voice of Peter in Paul VI, for we know that we share in Christ’s prayer for His Church only to the extent that we are united with Peter. In order to get the full flavor of the words of Our Lord, we use the second person singular:
“Simon, Simon, Satan demanded to have you (the plural i.e. that is you My disciples, My Church), that he might sift you (again the plural) like wheat. But I have prayed for thee (singular—i.e. for Peter) that thy faith fail not; and when thou have turned back to Me (after My Resurrection) that thou (Peter) shall strengthen thy brethren”.
In these days when Satan has been given a long rope, we want above all things to share in the PRAYER OF CHRIST for the preservation of faith. But we know that we can do this only through our union with Peter. To Peter, and now to Paul VI, we look for the never failing faith, for the assurance that neither the pillars of the Church, nor its inferior parts will ever be severed from the Church’s structure. With Ambrose we repeat: “Where Peter is, there is the Church”. God grant that we will not keep him “knocking”.
Weekly Edition in English
11 April 1968, page 7