Peter and the Papacy according to Chesterton
G.K. Chesterton wrote: "When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society, He chose for its cornerstone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob, a coward — in a word, a man. And upon this rock He has built His Church, and the gates of Hell have not prevailed against it. All the empires and the kingdoms have failed, because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men. But this one thing, the historic Christian Church, was founded on a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible".
The epithets that Chesterton applies with reference to Peter, the first Vicar of Christ on earth, may seem to us irreverent or scarcely conciliatory, especially if we compare them to the complimentary epithet he gives John. Yet in fact even the "mystic John" had his failings. We know that he was short-tempered (as his nickname "Son of Thunder" implies), and also somewhat vain, as is shown by his shameless request to sit next to Christ in heaven, using — as if this were not enough — his Mother as an intermediary.
However, in his description of Peter Chesterton heightens the tone to ensure that we reflect on a reality that in the eyes of unbelievers or, in general, of anyone who aspires to understand the Church with merely human parameters, turns out in fact to be scandalous: namely, that the Church was founded on weak men or, to be more precise, that the Church was founded taking their weakness into account.
This makes the Church distinct from all the human institutions that exist in the world founded without taking this weakness into account; and without taking it into account they are inexorably condemned to extinction. Christ wanted his Church to be founded on the weakness of human nature; and he wanted her to be presided over by a weak man, just like any one of us. The experience of history shows us that there have been several popes who fit Chesterton's epithets. However, it shows us above all that many of those weak men who Christ placed at the helm of the Church were, on the contrary, holy men of exemplary virtue and beacons of light for the faithful to whom they passed on the faith they themselves had received. And they were not such because they were without sin, free from original sin, but because divine grace had had an effect on the dust from which they were made; because they gave all they had, as the frail men they were, and Christ rewarded their unconditional dedication by gracing them with the signs of holiness.
There is a most beautiful passage in John's Gospel on which Benedict XVI has commented and in which the Risen Jesus appears to Peter on the shores of the Sea of Tiberias. We may imagine this episode as the encounter of two friends who are aware of the wound opened in their relationship by Peter's repeated denial on the night of the Passion, but are sincerely ready to staunch it, are ready to receive and offer forgiveness so that this wound — caused by Peter's weakness — may be transformed — once it has healed, into the leaven of an even greater friendship.
Peter knows that when his friend was most in need of him he betrayed him out of cowardice or merely out of the anxiety to survive, denying him three times after promising him unconditional fidelity.
For his part, moreover, Jesus knows that the betrayal was a consequence of his friend's weakness, ultimately a consequence of human nature wounded by original sin. He also knows that his friend is mortified and disheartened by his own lack of courage and he never wants this weakness to recur.
Therefore Jesus, ready to forget past failings, asks him pointblank: "Do you love me?". Jesus asks him this using the verb agapao, which means loving without reserve, with a complete, intense, sometimes superhuman, gift of self.
And Peter answered him in the affirmative but using the verb fileo which expresses the tender and devoted, fragile but enthusiastic love proper to weak human beings.
Jesus calls Peter into question three times, just as his friend had denied him three times, but the third time he uses the verb fileo. It is an emotionally charged moment, because Jesus realizes that he cannot demand of his friend something that is not part of frail human nature; and, forgetting the superhuman needs, he humbles himself, adapts and conforms himself, to embrace Peter's weakness. He does so because he realizes that in his human love that causes him to stumble and fall and yet pick himself up ready to continue without wavering, there is a dynamism superior even to that of a proud love which believes itself to be proof against every difficulty.
And he accepts this filial love which Peter offers him, knowing that divine grace will perfect it, transforming it into full love, into a complete gift of self.
This passage seems to me fundamental to fully understanding the ministry of Peter. The man chosen as the rock of the Church gives Christ the whole of his humanity with his weakness and faults; and Christ embraces his gesture with the action of a quite special grace.
Indeed, this loving embrace that undergirds the Petrine ministry is in fact scandalous. Our epoch would like the Catholic faith to be a pure "spiritualism" of untainted by sin, an ideology of supermen that may be rejected or combated through another ideology or a contrary body of teaching, composed in turn by supermen. However the Catholic faith is exactly the opposite: God's intervention in history is brought about through the presence of a tangible and vulnerable body such as that of any other person; Christ's presence with his followers is perpetuated through the sacraments, which require closeness and also contact. If it is to act, the supreme gift of grace requires the mediation of our frail nature. And this incarnation of faith finds its most subversive and shocking expression in Apostolic Succession and in the institution of the papacy, which is the most extreme consequence of the Mystery of the Incarnation and the most disconcerting confutation of "spiritualism".
We Catholics recognize in a weak man as Christ's Vicar on earth. We recognize a frail man, just like any one of us, a sinner like any one of us but full of filial love, the reality through which the love of God is poured out, in a freely-given, fatherly manner, upon each one of us. This is our faith: the faith that takes our weakness into account, the faith that acts through grace using as means our frail human nature. It is this loving embrace that makes the Church indestructible, and this explains why the gates of hell have not prevailed against her.