Simon, son of John, do you love me? | A Homily on the Feast of SS. Peter & Paul
“God loves me… And John the Apostle writes: ‘Let us love God, then, since God loved us first.’
—As if this were not enough, Jesus comes to each one of us, in spite of our patent wretchedness, to ask us, as he asked Peter: ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these others?…’
—This is the moment to reply: ‘Lord, you know all things, you know that I love you!’ adding, with humility, ‘Help me to love you more. Increase my love!’ “
ST. JOSEMARIA ESCRIVA
The Forge, no. 497
It is said that over the course of a marriage, spouses begin to resemble each other, at least in the way that they think and act. This is so, in part because of love, and in part because of familiarity. Their identities remain in tact, but each personality conforms to the other. On the day of his ordination, the priest loses his identity, only to find it again in Christ. He becomes personally identified with Christ as he is made an alter Christus. This is not a resemblance born of simple familiarity, but a conformity of identity with the God who is Love.
In a sense, a priest’s life begins where most people’s lives should end up: conformity in love. The rest of his priestly life is simply an unfolding of the treasures of wisdom, knowledge, love, and sacrifice that that conformity brings to his soul. And these treasures are unpacked, or realized, by the priest to the extent that he identifies himself with Christ in all things.
When a priest celebrates the anniversary of his ordination he looks again at Christ as though for the first time, especially Christ crucified, and asks questions similar to those that spouses might ask on the occasion of a wedding anniversary: Who are we to each other? Am I all of the things I promised I would be? But the priest goes a step further: Am I you?
If we look at the personal histories of Saints Peter and Paul, we find questions of identity everywhere. When Peter first met Jesus, the Lord gave him a new identity: You, Simon, shall be called Peter, Rock. But before Jesus solemnly gave him that new name and title, Simon first had to confess the identity of Jesus: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” In confessing Christ’s identity, Peter confessed his own. For as we hear in the Gospel on this Vigil of Saints Peter and Paul, the Lord wanted nothing less from Peter than perfect conformity with himself: Another will bind you (as they did me) and take you where you would not go.
Until the priest first answers the Lord’s question, “Who do you say that I am?” he can never answer the question: “Who am I?” If the priest does not take the time to answer these questions, his actions, words, thoughts, fears, and desires will answer for him. This is why Saint Peter felt so distressed at being asked even a third time if he loved our Lord: My actions have spoken for me. How can I be sure that I will never betray Jesus again?
St. Peter had been afraid of his identification with Jesus. On the night of his betrayal, he denied that he knew the identity of Jesus, and so he denied himself, his priestly identity. It is perhaps the same in the life of any priest. We tend to back away from Christ when the conformity becomes too exacting. We seem to be losing ourselves in the identity of Another. Yet it should make us rejoice to confess: “I live, now not I, but Christ lives within me.” Instead, it might frighten us. We deny that we know “the Man”: Christ’s identity and our own.
Yet, if we look back over our years of priesthood, and if we observe the type of infidelity that St. Peter was guilty of, we will find Our Lord asking us only one question—which answers all others. Spouses might ask it of each other in a special way on their anniversary: Do you love me? Do you love me more than all others? This is no interrogation—not Where were you on the night I was betrayed? Where were you when I needed you? But, Do you love me?
This is the painful, but gentle interview that answers who we are to Jesus and who Jesus is to us. It is the question that touches each of us most deeply: Both the questioner and he who answers reveal themselves to each other. Christ shows that He wants Peter to love Him, and Peter shows that he wants to love Jesus, even if he feels too poor and unworthy to do so.
If Peter wonders how he could ever love the Lord again, Jesus answers, If you love me, keep my commandments, that is, always respond to me as you do now: “Yes, Lord.” For the priest, Jesus is the one to whom he never says “no,” but always “yes.” And His command is: Feed my sheep. Keep nothing for yourself, but give all to my flock. And so St. Peter would have neither silver nor gold to give, but would henceforth give to others his only possession: Jesus Christ.
In this, St. Peter was conformed to Christ. For in the days of His flesh, Christ Jesus was the poorest man in the universe, having stripped Himself of the glory of His Divinity. A more complete and perfect poverty cannot be imagined. And it is precisely our imitation of this divine poverty that enables a priest to be overtaken, overcome, and consumed by the love of Christ. When the priest has no more of “himself” to offer, no silver or gold, when his pockets are empty, then as another poor Christ he can give the world the only thing it really needs: the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
In the eyes of the world, the priest is a man of paradoxes and contradictions, precisely because he stands before the world as a vessel at once empty and full. In St. Paul’s words: We are treated as deceivers, as unknown, as dead men, as punished, as sorrowful, as poor; and yet we are truthful, well-known, fully alive, chastened, joyful, enriching many with the riches of Christ—and this because we live no longer, but Christ lives within us. Our human emptiness, our earthen vessel, has been filled with the treasures of the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from Him, with whom we are identified not merely by a resemblance born of familiarity, but by a conformity of love.