The Witness of Love
“Do you love me?” It was just a few weeks ago on Good Friday that we heard Peter’s three-time denial of Jesus while the Lord was being condemned to death. On Sunday at Mass, we picked up the story a couple of weeks after Christ rose from the dead.
In the Gospel reading, we hear about Peter’s threefold profession of atoning love of Jesus which confirmed Peter in the role of shepherd and leader of all the flock: Jesus asked him, “‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ He then said to him a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, ‘Do you love me?’ and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, Feed my sheep’” (John 21:15-17).
The shepherding role conferred on Peter was that of leading and guiding the Church. The symbolic meaning of shepherding goes back to Jewish history at least as far as David: ‘You shall be a shepherd of my people Israel, and you shall be a prince over Israel” (2 Samuel 5:2). But the same image is also used by Christ to describe His own ministry: “I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own and my own know me” (John 10:14). Now Jesus asks Peter to be the supreme shepherd of that flock.
In many ways, the New Testament suggests the entirely exceptional role of Peter in the Church. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus has looked to him as a leader, saying, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church” (Matthew 16:18). At the Last Supper, the Lord said to him, “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:32). Through Peter, all the faithful were to be fortified in faith in the hours of difficulty.
Thus, throughout the Book of Acts, we see Peter, the first pope, acting consistently in his role as chief shepherd and universal pastor. Peter must act as a “father” because the Church is a family. We do not relate to God solely as individuals, but also as members of his family united with Christ. In fact, the Church is the world’s first universally welcoming family.
To the Apostles as a group in association with Peter, Jesus gave a commission to exercise authority in his Church (cf. Matthew 18:18). The Apostles were sent forth as a group to convert the world, to invite others to become a part of our spiritual family and know the goodness, love and grace of Jesus Christ.
Today, Peter goes by the name of “Francis.” In his role as shepherd, he has “fed Christ’s sheep” with a beautiful teaching on family entitled Amoris Laetitia. In this Year of Mercy, our Holy Father also invites us to consider how faith is fortified and the world is converted through witness to the merciful love of God. “Mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life,” he affirms. “All of her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness she makes present to believers; nothing in her preaching and in her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy. The Church’s very credibility is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love” (Misericordiae Vultus, 10).
The Church is most inviting when she is a loving shepherd protecting the most vulnerable, seeking out the lost, counseling the doubtful and comforting the afflicted. In this way, strangers can become friends and those friends then become with us one people, one flock, one family in the eternal life of Jesus Christ.