Lenten Meditation with Priests of Rome 2017
Lenten Meditation with Priests of Rome 2017
The icon of Simon Peter as 'sifted through the sieve' On Thursday, 2 March , Pope Francis met with the priests of Rome in the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in their traditional meeting at the beginning of Lent. He offered them a meditation inspired by a passage from the Gospel of Luke: “Lord, ‘increase our faith!’” (17:5). A translation of the first part of the meditation was published in our 10 March issue. The following is a translation of the second and final portion of the Holy Father’s meditation, which he delivered in Italian.
This reflection on a faith that grows with the discernment of the moment becomes more concrete when we consider the icon of Simon Peter as “sifted through the sieve” (cf. Lk: 22:31), which the Lord had prepared in a paradigmatic way so that when Peter’s faith was tested he would confirm all of us who “love Christ without having seen him” (cf. 1 Pet 1:8).
Here we fully enter into the paradox that the one who is supposed to confirm us in faith is the same one whom the Lord often reproved for his “little faith”. The Lord usually gives us as examples people of great faith. With remarkable emphasis, he often praises the faith of simple people and of others who do not belong to the people of Israel — we can think of the Roman centurion (cf. Lk 7:9) and the Syro-Phoenician woman (cf. Mt 15:28) — while the disciples,— and Peter in particular — faith (Mt 14:31).
Keeping in mind that the Lord’s reflections on great faith and little faith have a pedagogical purpose and are meant to stimulate and solidify a desire to grow in faith, let us concentrate on a passage central to the life of Simon Peter, wherein Jesus tells him that He “has prayed” for his faith. It is the moment that precedes the Passion; the apostles have just discussed who among them is the traitor and who is the greatest. Jesus says to Simon:
“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Lk 22:31-32).
Let us carefully examine the terminology, since anything the Lord asks of the Father is worth preserving in the depth of our hearts. Let us consider that the Lord ‘prays’1 for Simon, but He is thinking of us. “To fail” is a translation of ekleipo — the root of ‘to eclipse’ — and is the very pliable image of a faith eclipsed by the scandal of the Passion. We call this experience ‘desolation’: something covers the light.
“To turn back” (epistrepsas) expresses the sense of ‘to convert’: to return to an earlier state of consolation after an experience of desolation and having been sifted through a sieve by the devil.
“To strengthen" (sterizon) faith is said in the sense of ‘to consolidate’ (histemi) it, so that from now on it will be ‘firmly set’ (cf. Lk 9:51): a faith that no wind of doctrine will be able to disturb (cf. Eph 4:14). A little later we shall reflect more on the meaning of “to be sifted through the sieve”. [But for now,] we can re-read the words of the Lord in this way:
“Simon, Simon ... I have prayed to the Father for you so that your faith does not remain eclipsed (by my disfigured face, which you have seen transfigured); and you, once you have come out of this experience of desolation which the devil has used to sift you through the sieve, confirm (with your tested faith) the faith of your brothers”.
Thus, we see that the faith of Simon Peter has a special characteristic: it is a tested faith, and with it he has a mission to confirm and consolidate the faith of his brothers: [that is,] our faith. The faith of Simon Peter is less than that of so many little ones among the faithful People of God. There is even that of pagans, like the Centurion, who have even greater faith at the moment they implore the Lord to heal a sick person in their family. Simon’s faith is more lethargic than that of Mary Magdalene and John. John believes merely at seeing the sign of the sudarium in the tomb; and he recognizes the Lord on the shore of the Sea of Galilee merely at hearing His words. Simon Peter has moments when his faith is very strong, as when he confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, but these moments of strength are often immediately succeeded by moments of serious error, extreme fragility, or total denial, as when he wants to distance the Lord from the cross, or when he sinks helplessly into the sea, or when he defends the Lord in the garden with his sword; not to mention the shameful moment of his three denials in the presence of the servants.
We can distinguish three types of thought — each replete with sentiments2 — that are at work whenever Simon Peter’s faith is put to the test: some of these thoughts come to him out of his very mode of being; others are directly provoked by the devil (from the evil spirit); and a third type comes directly from the Lord and from the Father (from the good Spirit).
a) The two names and the desire to walk to Jesus on the water
First of all, let us look at how the Lord relates to the most human aspect of Simon Peter’s faith. I am speaking of that healthy dose of self-confidence that makes someone believe in himself and in others; in the capacity to be worthy of the sincere and faithful trust upon which every human friendship is based. There are two episodes in Simon Peter’s life where we can see a growth in faith that we could call sincere: ‘sincere’ in the sense of having no complications, in which a friendship grows, deepening the awareness of who each person is, without the shadow of doubt. One is the episode of the “two names”; the other is when Simon Peter asks the Lord to command him to [come out of the boat and] walk toward Him on the water.
Simon appears on the scene when his brother Andrew goes out to search for him and tells him: “We have found the Messiah” (Jn 1:41); and he follows his brother who takes him to Jesus. And there, the name change immediately takes place. This is because the Lord has chosen him for a mission, that of being the “Rock”: the solid foundation of faith upon which He will build His Church. We should note that, what the Lord does is more than change Simon’s name; indeed, He adds the name ‘Peter’.
This fact alone is already a cause of tension and growth. Peter will always move around the Lord as the “pivot point”, going about and feeling the weight and movement of his two names: Simon — the fisherman, the sinner, the friend — and Peter — the Rock on which to build, the one who holds the keys, the one who has the last word, the one who tends and feeds the sheep. I like to contemplate that Simon is the name Jesus used whenever they spoke and shared things as friends, and Peter is the name with which the Lord presents him, justifies him, defends him, and highlights him in a unique way as the man in whom he places his total trust, in the presence of others. Even though it is He himself who gives him the name ‘Pietra’, Je- sus still calls him Simon.
Simon Peter’s faith progresses and grows amid the tension of these two names, both of which turn on a fixed, central pivot point: Jesus.
Having two names decentralizes Peter. He cannot take either as his centre point. If he wanted ‘Simon’ to be his fixed point, he would have to say: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Lk 5:8). If he centred himself exclusively around the name of ‘Peter’ and forgot or covered up everything that was proper to Simon, it would become a stumbling block, as happened to him when “he was not conducting himself rightly according to the truth of the Gospel”, as Paul told him when he hid the fact that he had gone to eat with pagans (cf. Gal 2:11-14). In order to maintain both the names of Simon (fisherman and sinner) and Peter (Rock and key-keeper for others), he is obliged to decentre himself continuously so that he can turn solely around Christ, his one centre point.
The iconic moment of this decentralization, when it is put fully into action, is when Peter implores Jesus to command him to walk toward him on the water. At this point, Simon Peter reveals his character, his dream, and how much he is drawn to imitate Jesus. When Peter begins to sink as he takes his eyes off the Lord and sees the waves crashing around him, he shows his true fears and inner ghosts. When Simon Peter begs the Lord to save him and the latter extends His hand to help, he shows that he really knows who Jesus is for him: his Savior. And the Lord strengthens his faith, giving him what he wants and extending him a hand, ending with an affectionate and reassuring question: “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Mt 14:31).
In every instance when he places himself into a “tight” situation, Simon Peter, guided by his faith in Jesus, always discerns the hand that will save him. He does so with the certainty that, even when he doesn’t understand completely what Jesus is saying or doing, He will make him say: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68). Humanly speaking, the awareness of having “little faith”, together with the humility to allow oneself to be helped by someone who knows how and is able to help, constitutes that healthy dose of self-confidence in which is implanted the seed of that faith which exists “to strengthen others”, “to be built upon”, which is what Jesus wants of Simon Peter and from us who participate in the ministry. I would say that it is a faith that can be easily shared precisely because it is not too admirable. The faith of someone who had learned to walk on water without anxiety would be fascinating, but it would distance us. However, this good-friend kind of faith, mindful of its limitations and fully confiding in Jesus, elicits sympathy and — and this is its grace — it strengthens us!
b) Jesus’ prayer and the devil’s sieve
In the central passage from Luke that we have taken as our guide, we can see what produces the devil’s sieve in Simon Peter’s character and how Jesus prays that his weakness, even his sin, be transformed into grace not only for him but also for the whole community.
Let us concentrate on the word “sieve” (siniazo: to sift grain), which evokes the movement of spirits, thanks to which, in the end, one can discern between what comes from the good Spirit and what comes from the bad spirit. In this sense, the one who sifts — the one who lays claim to the power to sift — is the evil spirit. The Lord does not impede him, but, taking advantage of the challenge, directs His prayer to the Father, asking Him to strengthen Simon Peter's heart. Jesus prays that Peter “not fall into temptation”. The Lord did everything he could to protect his own during the Passion. Nevertheless, He cannot prevent each one from being tempted by the devil who attacks the weakest part of each one. In this sort of trial — which God does not directly cause, but neither does He impede it — Paul tells us that the Lord sees to it that we are not tempted beyond our strength (cf. 1 Cor 10:13).
The fact that the Lord explicitly says that He is praying for Simon is extremely important, because the devil’s most insidious temptation is to make us feel — in the midst of some particular trial — that Jesus has abandoned us, that He has left us alone in some way and has failed to help us as He should. The Lord himself experienced and overcame this temptation, first in the garden and then on the cross, by commending himself to the Father when He felt abandoned. It is precisely in this moment of faith that we need to be strengthened and confirmed with care in a special way. We find the very strength we need precisely in the fact that the Lord foresaw what would happen to Simon Peter and assured him that He had prayed for him, that his faith not fail.
This “eclipse” of faith in the face of the scandal of the Passion is one of the things the Lord prayed about in a particular way. The Lord asks us to pray always and with persistence; He includes us in His prayer and teaches us to beg that we “not fall into temptation and to be delivered from evil”, because our flesh is weak; He also shows us that there are demons that cannot be conquered except through prayer and penance and, on certain occasions, He reveals that He himself prays in a special way. This is one of those occasions.
Just as He took upon himself the humble task of washing His disciples’ feet, just as He took care to console His friends after the Resurrection, in the same way, with this prayer for the strength of Simon Peter’s faith, He also strengthens the faith of all of us: this is something the Lord takes upon himself personally. We must never forget: it is to this prayer — the prayer the Lord once made and continues to make as He “is at the right hand of God, and indeed intercedes for us” (cf. Rom 8:34) — that we must turn in order to strengthen our faith.
If the lesson given to Simon Peter — that he allow his feet to be washed — confirmed the Lord’s attitude of service and fixed it in the memory of the Church as a fundamental fact, this lesson, given in the same context, must also become the icon of the tested and “sifted” faith for which the Lord prays. As priests who take part in the Petrine ministry and, as such, also participate in the same mission: not only must we wash the feet of our brethren as we do on Holy Thursday, but we must also confirm them in their faith, just as the Lord prayed for ours.
If in the trials that arise in our own flesh the Lord encourages us and strengthens us, often working many miracles and healings through us, in these temptations that come directly from the devil, the Lord uses a more complex strategy. We see that there are some demons He drives away directly without further ado; others He neutralizes, making them keep silent; others He makes speak, asking their name, such as the one called “Legion”; to others He quotes copiously from Scripture, submitting himself to a long process, as in the case of. the temptation in the desert. The Lord defeats this demon — who tempts Peter at the beginning of the Lord’s Passion — by praying not that he leave his friend in peace, but that the “sieve” become a source of strength for the benefit of others.
Here we have some wonderful lessons about growth in faith. One is in regard to the scandal of the suffering of the Innocent One and the innocent. This touches us more deeply than we think; it touches both those who provoke suffering and those who pretend, not to see it. It behooves us to listen to what the Lord says precisely at the moment when he is about to take the scandal of the Passion upon himself; namely, He prays that the faith of the one He appoints as vicar may not fail, and He prays that He may confirm all of us in faith. An eclipse of a faith troubled by the Passion is not something each of us can resolve and overcome individually.
Another important lesson for us is that when the Lord puts us to the test, He never does so on the basis of our weakest part. This is typical of the devil who capitalizes on our sins and looks for our weakest point, ferociously assailing it and throwing himself at the weakest in this world. Therefore, the Father’s infinite and unconditional mercy for the littlest ones and for sinners, and the compassion and boundless forgiveness that Jesus shows even to the point of giving His life for sinners, are not given only because God is good, but also because they are the fruit of God’s ultimate judgment on evil so as to uproot it from its connection with the fragility of the flesh. In the final analysis, evil is not tied to the fragility and limitations of the flesh. For this reason, the Word became flesh without any fear and testifies that He can live perfectly in the bosom of the Holy Family and grow under the protection of two humble creatures, namely Joseph and the Virgin Mary, His mother.
Evil has its origin in an act of spiritual pride that is born from the arrogance of a perfect creature, namely Lucifer. Adam and Eve are then stained by it, but precisely in their “desire to become like gods”, not in their fragility. In the case of Simon Peter, the Lord fears neither his fragility as a sinful man nor his fear of walking on water in the middle of a storm. Rather, He fears the [disciples’] discussion about who is the greatest among them.
It is in this context that Jesus tells Simon Peter that the devil has asked for permission to sift him. We can imagine that the sifting began precisely during the discussion about who would betray Jesus, which then led to the discussion about who was the greatest among them. The entire passage that follows the institution of the Eucharist in Luke’s Gospel is a sieve: discussions, predictions of betrayal, the offering of swords (cf. 22:23-38). Simon Peter’s faith is sifted through the tensions among the desire to be loyal, to defend Jesus, and that of being the greatest, denial, cowardice, and the feeling of being the worst of all. The Lord prays that Satan not obscure Simon’s faith at the moment when he looks at himself either to make himself great, to deride himself, or to remain uneasy and perplexed.
If Peter offers us a formulation about these things, it is the “tested faith” he speaks of in his First Letter when he warns not to be surprised by ordeals, as if they were something strange (cf. 4:12), but that one must resist the devil and remain “firm in the faith” (cf. 5:9). Peter defines himself as a “witness of the sufferings of Christ” (5:1), and writes his letters seeking to “stir up sincere minds” (cf. 2 Pet 3:1) (eilikrine dianoian: a judgment enlightened by a ray of sunlight), which would be the grace that counteracts the “eclipse” of faith.
Progress in faith, therefore, occurs thanks to the sieve: that is, by passing through temptations and trials. Simon Peter’s entire life can be viewed as progress in faith thanks to the Lord staying by his side and teaching him to discern, within his own heart, that which comes from the Father and that which comes from the devil.
c) The Lord who puts to the test, making faith grow from good to better, and the ever-present temptations
Finally, we move to the encounter on the Sea of Galilee. This is a further step by which the Lord puts Simon Peter to the test by making him grow from good to better. The love of personal friendship is strengthened as that which “feeds” the flock and strengthens their faith (cf. Jn 21:15-19).
Read in this context of the trials of Simon Peter’s faith which serve to strengthen our own faith, we can see how this episode involves a very special trial for the Lord. It is generally said that the Lord questioned Simon Peter three times because Simon Peter had denied Him three times. It could be that this weakness was present in Simon Peter’s soul (or in that of the one who reads his story) and that the dialogue serves to heal him. But we could also believe that the Lord healed this denial with the look that made Simon Peter weep so bitterly (cf. Lk 22:62). In this question-and-answer sequence, we can see the Lord’s way of proceeding: He begins with something good — which everyone recognized and which made Simon Peter happy — “Do you love me more than these?” (Jn 21:15) — and then He confirms it and simplifies it into simply: “Do you love me?” (v. 16), which removes any desire for grandeur and rivalry — and finally finishing with: “Do you love me as a friend?” (cf. v. 17), which is what Simon Peter desired most and which was evidently most dear to Jesus’ heart. If it is truly the love of friendship, then there is no reason for any type of reproach or correction in this love: friendship is friendship and it is the highest value that corrects and improves all the rest, without any need to speak of the “why”.
Perhaps the greatest temptation the devil puts before Simon Peter is this: to put into his head that he is not worthy of being Jesus’ friend because he has betrayed Him. But the Lord is faithful. Always. And He renews His fidelity again and again. “If we are faithless he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself’ (2 Tim 2:13), as Saint Paul says to Timothy, his son in the faith. Friendship possesses this grace: such that one friend who is more faithful than another can strengthen the faithfulness of the other who lacks it. And no one has more power to make his friends faithful than Jesus. It is in this faith — Simon Peter’s faith in Jesus as a faithful friend — that he is confirmed and sent to confirm all of us. It is precisely in this sense that we can interpret the threefold mission of feeding the sheep and the lambs. Considering everything that pastoral care entails, reinforcing the faith of others in Jesus — who loves us as friends — is absolutely essential. Peter refers to this love in his First Letter: it is a faith in Jesus whom, he says, “you love, even though you have not seen him; and now, without seeing him, you believe in him”. This faith makes us exult “with inexpressible and glorious joy”, confident of having reached “the goal of (our) faith: the salvation of souls” (cf. 1 Pet 1:7- 9).
Nevertheless, a new temptation arises, this time against his best friend: the temptation of wanting to pry into the relationship between Jesus and John, the Beloved Disciple. The Lord corrects him seriously on this point: “What is that to you? Follow me!” (Jn 21:22).
* * *
We see that temptation is ever present in the life of Simon Peter. He shows us in the first person how to grow in faith by confessing Jesus and being open to be put to the test. He also shows us how sin itself can factor into a growth in faith. Peter committed the worst of sins — denying the Lord — and he was made Pope nonetheless. It is important for a priest to know how to insert his own temptations and sins into Jesus’ prayer that our faith not fail but rather mature and serve to reinforce the faith of those whom He has entrusted to us.
I like to repeat that a priest or a bishop who does not feel he is a sinner, who does not confess, who is closed off within himself, makes no progress in the faith.
But we must take care that confession and the discernment of one’s personal temptations include and take into account the pastoral intention the Lord has for them.
A young man once recounted that while he was recovering in Fr Pepe’s Hogar de Cristo in Buenos Aires, his mind began to play games with him by telling him that he shouldn’t stay there, and he was struggling with this temptation. He said that Fr Pepe helped him tremendously. But one day he told Fr Pepe he couldn’t take it anymore, that he missed his family, his wife and two kids, and that he wanted to get out. “Then the priest asked me”, he said, “‘when you were going around and getting high and selling drugs, did you miss your family? Did you ever think of them?’ I shook my head ‘no’ in silence”, the man said, “and the priest, without saying anything to me, gave me a slap on the shoulder and said, ‘Okay. That’s enough’. As if he were telling me: take a look at what is happening to you and what you are saying. ‘Thank heavens you miss them now’”.
The young man said that the priest was great. He said things right to his face. And this helped him to go on fighting, because it was he who had to assert his own will.
I tell you this story to show you that what helps faith grow is to consider together our sins, our desire for the good of others, the help that we receive and the help that we ought to give. There is no need to separate them: there is no use in feeling perfect when we carry out our ministry, and when we sin, in justifying ourselves by the fact that we are just like everyone else. These two things must be joined together: when we strengthen the faith of others, we do so as sinners. And when we sin, we confess what we really are — priests — emphasizing that we have a responsibility toward the people, that we are not like everyone else. These two things are brought together well if we place ourselves before others — our sheep — and especially the poorest. This is what Jesus does when He asks Simon Peter if he loves Him, but tells him nothing about the pain and the joy that this love causes him. He makes him look at his brothers in this way: feed my sheep; strengthen the faith of your brethren. As if to tell him — as the young man at Hogar de Cristo was told: "Be thankful that you miss them now”.
“Be thankful if you feel you have little faith” means that you are loving your brothers. “Be thankful if you feel you are a sinner and unworthy of the ministry” means you recognize that if you accomplish anything, it is because Jesus is praying for you, and without Him you can do nothing” (cf. Jn 15:5).
Our parents and grandparents always told us that faith increases by making acts of faith. Simon Peter is the icon of a man whom the Lord Jesus pushes to make acts of faith at every moment. When Simon Peter understands this ‘dynamic’ of the Lord, this pedagogy of His, he never passes up the chance to discern, in every moment, what kind of act of faith he can make in his Lord. And he makes no mistake in this. When Jesus acts as his master, giving him the name of Peter, Simon lets Him do so. His “let it be so” — like Saint Joseph’s — is silent, and it will prove itself real throughout the course of his life. When the Lord exalts him and humbles him, Simon Peter does not look at himself, but takes care to learn the lesson of what comes from the Father and what comes from the devil. When the Lord reproves him because he puffs himself up, he allows himself to be corrected. When the Lord cleverly shows him that he should not act falsely before tax collectors, he goes out to catch the fish with a coin [in its mouth]. When the Lord humbles him and predicts that he will deny Him, he is sincere in saying what he feels, just as he will when he goes out to weep bitterly and in allowing himself to be forgiven. There are many different moments in Peter’s life, yet there is one unique lesson: it is the Lord who strengthens his faith so that he, in turn, can strengthen the faith of his people. Let us also ask Peter to strengthen our faith, so that we can strengthen that of our brethren.
1 Cf. Omelia a Santa Marta, 3 June 2014. Let us recall that the Lord prays that we may be one, that the Father protect us from the demon and from the world, that He forgive us when “we know not what we do”.
2 It is a matter of the thoughts the Lord discerns in His disciples when, arisen, He says to them: “Why are you troubled, and why do questionings rise in your hearts?” (Lk 24:38).
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17 March 2017, page 10
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