No one can deny Jesus more than Peter did in the courtyard, and no one can follow Jesus more than Peter did, who was crucified on His account.
On this feast of SS. Peter and Paul (June 29), we are reminded of the Catholic anthropological principle that even though we human beings are weak and sinful, Jesus calls us to pursue the highest perfection and to follow Him. We also see that in the Church there is a clear distinction between office and person. Jesus chose Peter as His representative, which means that we can encounter Jesus even in unworthy human beings. Every man called to serve as pope, bishop, or priest is equally fit and unfit for the office.
At the Last Supper, Peter proudly boasted, “Though all may have their faith in you shaken, mine will never be.” Even after Jesus warns Peter he would indeed weaken, Peter still insists, “Even though I should have to die with you, I will not deny you.” Then the high priest’s courtyard and his triple denial of Jesus and a rooster crowing and bitter tears being shed …
When the risen Jesus appeared to His disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, He asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” With an aching heart, in sadness and sincerity Peter protested, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus then entrusted Peter with shepherding His flock, but warned him of his death: “'When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.' He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God.”
The Lord’s only direction for Peter’s future was, “Follow me.”
As the story goes, years later (67 A.D.) in Rome during the persecution of Nero, Peter decided to flee the city. On the Via Appia — the Appian Way, he met Jesus heading in the opposite direction. “Domine, quo vadis? (“Lord, where are you going?”)” Peter asked. “To be crucified again,” Jesus said. Then Peter understood he was fleeing his destiny, returned to Rome, was arrested and crucified in Nero’s stadium on Vatican Hill — now famous for the great basilica that marks his grave.
From Peter (and his successor, the pope) we learn how to pursue the highest perfection. We can even learn something from their shortcomings. In Peter’s case we have a man who — while a natural leader — was headstrong, proud and overconfident; a man who, when the going got tough, became cowardly and denied even knowing Jesus. When later in life matters were again challenging, Peter knew he would not deny His Lord again; that experience in the courtyard taught him an important lesson. May we also learn from our “courtyard experiences!”
Like Peter, we, too, are called to follow Jesus — the highest perfection — despite our inadequacies. And so, “Quo vadis?” We can’t deny Jesus more than Peter did, nor follow Jesus more than he did. Peter’s story ended in glory; ours can as well.
David J. Conrad is coordinator of ecumenical and interfaith dialogue for the Archdiocese of Detroit; pastoral associate and director of faith formation at St. Aidan Parish in Livonia; and part-time instructor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.