Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Popes’ Message, ‘Be Not Afraid,’ Fosters Hope

By FATHER PAUL A. BURKE, Special Contributor | Published July 21, 2005

Published: July 21, 2005

Many people throughout the world have seen Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ.” While the movie looks at the last hours in the life of Jesus, we also got a rare glimpse into the lives of the disciples. Peter especially stands out. He was one of the first disciples to be called by the Lord to follow Him. All of the evangelists record the call of Peter. Luke is the account that deserves special focus.

After Jesus had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” Simon said in reply, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets.” When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come to help them. They came and filled both boats so that they were in danger of sinking. When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” For astonishment at the catch of fish they had made seized him and those with him, and likewise James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners of Simon. Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid: from now on you will be catching men.” When they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed Him (Luke 5:1-11).

The scene of the Gospel is the Sea of Galilee. Peter and his companions were simple fishermen. They knew the sea well. It was their livelihood. It had been a long night and no fish had been caught.

Jesus tells Peter to lower his nets again. Years of experience had taught Peter not to fight the odds. His skeptical nature prompted him to eye Jesus with some skepticism. While acknowledging that they had caught nothing the previous night, Peter obeys the Lord and does as he is commanded.

And Peter got much more than he expected; his nets were almost breaking with the catch of fish. Gospel commentators tell us that there were one hundred fifty three different fish, symbolic of the diversity of the nations constituting the Church.

Peter regrets his doubt and tells Jesus to “depart from me for I am a sinful man.” He realizes his sinful humanity. Jesus sees into his heart and recognizes his humility and sincerity. He tells him “Be not afraid.” From now on he will be a fisher of men. Peter and his companions leave everything and follow the Lord.

In “The Passion of the Christ” we saw the many flashbacks of the great apostle. When Jesus foretold his suffering and death, Peter was the first to say that he would not abandon the Lord. Jesus knows it to be otherwise; not only once but three times, he would deny the Lord. In the movie, he wept like a child as he said to Mary that he had denied the Lord. He was afraid and confused.

In the midst of the Lord’s Passion, Peter thought that it was the end. His world had fallen apart. He forgot the allusions that Jesus had made about the Resurrection and the joy he had felt on Mount Tabor when Jesus was transfigured before him. And so he ran thinking that he was now a wanted man.

While his faith is at a low point, the prayers of the Lord are with him: “I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32).

Peter is given the divine command to strengthen his brothers. No longer is he known as Simon; he is now called Peter meaning “rock.” And Jesus says to him: “You are rock, and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Whatever you declare bound on earth shall be bound in heaven. Whatever you declare loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven.” To him is given the power of the keys, both in the spiritual and temporal realm.

Jesus placed a lot of confidence in Peter. Throughout the Gospels, we see Peter as the one who acts as the spokesman per se of the disciples. The Peter who denied Jesus three times in his hour of agony is the same Peter who would later be asked by Jesus three times: “Do you love me?” Then he is able to lead the Lord’s flock.

There is no doubt that Peter was reminded in his own life of his own unworthiness; that he was a simple fisherman. There is a legend that circulates to this day that became the inspiration for another movie called “Quo Vadis.” In the outskirts of Rome, on the Via Appia is a church called Domine Quo Vadis. The church commemorates the legend that tells us that while St. Peter was traveling down the Via Appia fleeing the Emperor Nero’s persecution in Rome, he met Christ going in the opposite direction. Peter fell on his knees and said, “Lord, where are you going? Domine quo vadis?” Jesus stopped and looked towards Rome saying, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” Then He paused and said, “Quo vadis, Pietre? Where are you going, Peter?” Peter wept bitterly and turned back to Rome ultimately to face his own crucifixion. Again, we may recall the scene of Peter in “The Passion of the Christ” as he wept after denying Jesus, “I have denied him, Mother.” This is the same man whom Jesus chose to be the “rock” of the Church.

In reflecting on Peter and the papacy throughout the centuries, we realize that it is a history of saints and sinners alike. Although we are distanced from this history in terms of time, we also realize that we are not distanced in space. Any visit to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome unites the past and the present. Here the mortal remains of St. Peter lie and many of the beloved popes who followed him, including our beloved Pope John Paul the Great.

Significantly, on the day of his installation as the Supreme Pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI chose to begin in prayer in the crypt of St. Peter’s Basilica at the tomb of the apostle in preparation to walk in the “shoes of the fisherman.”

Peter’s ministry as the Vicar of Christ is bound up with his confession of faith: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16). Pope John Paul the Great alluded to this in his own inaugural homily at the Mass beginning his papal ministry in 1978 when he said: “In those same words is the faith of the Church. In those same words is the new truth, indeed, the ultimate and definitive truth about man, the son of the living God— ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’”

Pope John Paul II’s first message to the world was “Be not afraid…Do not be afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power…Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ!”

Those same sentiments were echoed by Pope Benedict XVI in his first homily as Supreme Pontiff: “At this point, my mind goes back to Oct. 22, 1978, when Pope John Paul II began his ministry here in St. Peter’s Square. His words on that occasion constantly echo in my ears: ‘Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ!’” He continued, “If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation.”

As never before do we need to take these words to heart. The 20th century was one marked by fear. We saw this in two world wars. We witnessed it in the horrors of the Holocaust. We continue to grapple with it in the constant threats that exist in the world against humanity in its vulnerability. Fear cripples the human person; it turns people in on themselves. It breeds suspicion and contempt. It leads to man’s inhumanity to man. We saw in “The Passion of the Christ” that Jesus feared His impending crucifixion. Peter feared the crowds. Judas feared himself. In the case of Judas, fear led to his own self-destruction. For Peter, it eventually led to transformation, and in the case of Jesus, it led to the fullness of eternal life.

Our cause of rejoicing is that if we open ourselves to Christ, our weakness will be transformed into strength. God chooses the weak to confound the strong. His power shines through our human weakness. Despite our human frailty, God can use us as His instruments. Peter was fully aware of this, as was Pope John Paul the Great and Pope Benedict XVI. The challenge is that we must be aware of this. We must not run from the challenge as Peter was doing when he fled Rome along the Appian Way. We must keep our eyes focused firmly on Christ. We are to open the doors of our hearts to Him. He tells us “Be not afraid!” The Successors of St. Peter tell us: “Be not afraid!” Let their words resound in our hearts and let us make Peter’s profession of faith our own: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”


Father Paul Burke is the chaplain at Our Lady of Mercy High School, Fairburn.