Once Peter repented of his human weakness, he would be strengthened by the power of Christ’s grace and thus enabled to confirm his brothers
" You must strengthen your brothers" was the theme of the Holy Father's catechesis at the weekly General Audience on Wednesday, 2 December. The Pope returned to the subject of the Petrine ministry as part of his general treatment of the role of Bishops in the Church. Today's talk was the 46th in the series and was given by the Holy Father in Italian.
1. At the Last Supper Jesus said something to Peter that deserves special consideration. Doubtlessly it refers to the dramatic situation at that time, but it has a fundamental value for the Church of all times, inasmuch as it belongs to the patrimony of the last exhortations and teachings given by Jesus to the disciples during his earthly life.
In foretelling the triple denial which Peter will make out of fear during the passion, Jesus also predicts that he will overcome the crisis of that night: "Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers" (Lk 22: 31 -32).
With these words Jesus guarantees Simon a special prayer for the perseverance of his faith; but he also announces the mission entrusted to him of strengthening his brothers in the faith.
The authenticity of Jesus' words is seen not only in Luke's care in collecting positive information and setting it out in a critically sound narrative, as can be seen in the prologue of his Gospel, but also in the type of paradox which this information implies: Jesus laments Simon Peter's weakness and at the same time entrusts him with the mission of strengthening the others. The paradox shows the grandeur of grace at work in human beings—Peter in this case—far beyond the possibilities afforded by their talents, virtues or merits. It also shows Jesus' awareness and firmness in choosing Peter. The evangelist Luke, wise and attentive to the meaning of words and things, does not hesitate to record that messianic paradox.
The kingdom is already present in the Church
2. The context in which Jesus' words to Peter at the Last Supper are found is also very significant. He had just said to the Apostles: "It is you who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer a kingdom on you, just as my Father has conferred one on me" (Lk 22:28-29). The Greek verb diatithemai ( = to prepare, arrange) has a strong meaning, i.e. to arrange in a causative way, and speaks of the reality of the messianic kingdom established by the heavenly Father and shared with the Apostles. Jesus' words doubtlessly refer to the eschatological dimension of the kingdom, when the Apostles will be called to "judge the 12 tribes of Israel" (Lk 22:30). However, they also have a value for its present phase, for the time of the Church here on earth. And this is a time of trial. Jesus, therefore, assures Simon Peter of his prayer so that in this trial the prince of this world will not prevail: "Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat" (Lk 22:31). Christ's prayer is particularly necessary for Peter in view of the trial awaiting him and in view of the task Jesus entrusts to him. It is to this task that the words "strengthen your brothers" (Lk 22:32) refer.
3. The perspective in which Peter's responsibility—like the Church's whole mission—must be considered is therefore both historical and eschatological. It is a responsibility in the Church and for the Church in history, where there are trials to overcome, changes to face, cultural, social and religious situations in which to work: everything, however, in relation to the kingdom of heaven, already prepared and conferred by the Father as the terminus of the entire historical journey and of all personal and social experiences. The "kingdom" transcends the Church in her earthly pilgrimage; it transcends her duties and her powers. It also transcends Peter and the Apostolic College, and therefore, their successors in the episcopacy. Nevertheless, it is already in the Church, already at work and developing in its historical phase and the earthly situation of its existence; so in the Church there is more than an institution and societal structure. There is the presence of the Holy Spirit, the essence of the new law according to St Augustine (cf. De spiritu et littera, 21 ) and St Thomas Aquinas (cf. Summa Theol., I-II, q. 106, a. 1). This presence, however, does not exclude, but rather demands on the ministerial level the visible, the institutional, the hierarchical.
The whole New Testament, preserved and preached by the Church, is a function of grace, of the kingdom of heaven. The Petrine ministry is situated in this perspective. Jesus announces to Simon Peter this task of service following the professions of faith he made as the spokesman of the Twelve: faith in Christ, the Son of the living God (cf. Mt 16:16), and in the words which foretold the Eucharist (cf. Jn 6:68). On the road to Caesarea Philippi Jesus publicly approved of Simon's profession of faith, called him the fundamental rock of the Church and promised to give him the keys to the kingdom of heaven, with the power of binding and loosing. In that context it is understood that the evangelist particularly highlights the aspect of mission and power concerning the faith, although other aspects are included, as we will see in the next catechesis.
4. It is interesting to note that the evangelist, although speaking of the human frailty of Peter who was not sheltered from difficulties and was tempted like the other Apostles, nevertheless emphasizes that he is the beneficiary of a special prayer for his perserverance in the faith: "I have prayed for you". Peter was not preserved from his denial, but after experiencing his own weakness, he was strengthened in the faith by virtue of Jesus' prayer so that he could fulfil the mission of strengthening his brothers. This mission cannot be explained on the basis of purely human considerations.
The Apostle Peter, the only one to deny his Master—three times!—was always Jesus' chosen one, charged with strengthening his companions. The human pretensions to fidelity that Peter professed failed, but grace triumphed.
The experience of falling enabled Peter to learn that he cannot put his trust in his own strength or any other human factor, but only in Christ. It also enables us to see Peter's mission and very power in light of the grace of election. What Jesus promises and entrusts to him comes from heaven and belongs—must belong—to the kingdom of heaven.
The Church will have to face many trials
5. Peter's service to the kingdom, according to the evangelist, consists primarily in strengthening his brothers, in helping them to keep the faith and develop it. It is interesting to point out that this mission is to be exercised in trial. Jesus is well aware of the difficulties in the historical phase of the Church, called to follow the way of the cross that he took. Peter's role, as head of the Apostles, will be to support his "brothers" and the whole Church in faith. Since faith is not maintained without struggle, Peter must help the faithful in their struggle to overcome whatever would take away or lessen their faith. The experience of the first Christian communities is reflected in Luke's text; he was well aware of how that historical situation of persecution, temptation and struggle is explained in Christ's words to the Apostles and principally to Peter.
6. The basic elements of the Petrine mission are found in those words. First of all, that of strengthening his brothers by expounding the faith, exhorting to faith, all the measures necessary for the development of the faith. This activity is addressed to those whom Jesus, speaking to Peter, calls "your brothers": in context the expression applies first of all to the other Apostles, but it does not rule out a wider sense embracing all the members of the Christian community (cf. Acts 1:15). It suggests the purpose of Peter's mission as the one who strengthens and supports faith: fraternal community in virtue of the faith.
Again: Peter—and like him all his successors and heads of the Church—has the mission of encouraging the faithful to put all their trust in Christ and the power of his grace, which Peter personally experienced. This is what Innocent III wrote in the Letter Apostolicae Sedis primatus (12 November 1199), citing the text of Luke 22:32 and commenting on it as follows: "The Lord clearly intimates that Peter's successors will never at any time deviate from the Catholic faith, but will instead recall the others and strengthen the hesitant" (DS 775). That medieval Pope felt that Jesus' statement to Simon Peter was confirmed by the experience of 1,000 years.
A special grace is at work in Peter's successors
7. The mission Jesus entrusted to Peter concerns the Church down through the centuries and human generations. That mandate, "Strengthen your brothers", means: teach the faith in every age, in different circumstances and amidst all the many difficulties and contradictions which preaching the faith will encounter in history, by teaching instil courage in the faithful; you yourself experienced that the power of my grace is greater than human weakness; therefore spread the message of faith, preach sound doctrine, reunite the "brethren", putting your trust in the prayer that I promised you; in virtue of my grace, try to help non-believers accept the faith and to comfort those who are in doubt, this is your mission, this is the reason for the mandate I entrust to you.
These words of the evangelist Luke (22:31-33) are very significant for all who exercise the menus Petrinum in the Church; they continually remind them of the kind of original paradox that Christ himself placed in them, with the certitude that in their ministry, as in Peter's, a special grace is at work which supports man's human weakness and allows him to "strengthen his brothers": "I have prayed"—Jesus' words to Peter, which re-echo in his ever poor, humble successors—"I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you turned back, you must strengthen your brothers" (Lk 22:32).
L'Osservatore Romano December 9, 1992