Peter: Pope, Saint, Screw-Up

Last year, the Ronald Reagan Library hosted an incredible exhibit of treasures from the Vatican. My grandpa, a devout born and raised Catholic, hinted that he was interested in checking it out. So, when my mother, her friend, and I went, Grandpa went with us. I stuck with him as we walked through the exhibit, in absolute awe of these pieces of our Church’s 2,000 year history. A relief of La Pieta by Michelangelo. A papal throne. A brick from Saint Paul’s tomb. A reliquary of Saints Peter and Paul.

Walking among the gold and marble, my attention was captured by a certain painting. It depicted a Gospel story every Christian is familiar with: Jesus saving Peter from drowning. It’s a story I have heard and, thanks to a multitude of paintings, seen many times.

But there was something to this painting that I really loved. As I looked closely, I saw a hint of a smile on Christ’s face, a stark contrast to Peter’s fear-filled expression.  He seemed to say “Here we go again,” as He reached out to take Peter’s hand. He smiled in that loving and patient way a parent smiles as they lift their toddler who is still learning to walk after they’ve fallen for the millionth time. This, I told my grandpa, is the Jesus I love. The Jesus we can see through the eyes of Saint Peter.

Peter has become a favorite figure of mine. I lovingly refer to him as “the patron saint of screw-ups”. (I am expecting quite the eye roll when I meet him at the pearly gates of Heaven.) It just seems as though every time we meet Peter in the Gospels, he’s gone and messed up again.

He doesn’t trust Jesus when He invites Peter to walk on water with Him.

He doesn’t want to let Jesus wash his feet at the Last Supper.

He denied Jesus three times on Holy Thursday.

He ran and hid when Jesus was killed.

Peter is a man who can’t seem to get anything right. Why in the world would Christ choose this man, out of all His apostles, to be the first Pope, the leader of His followers, the Rock on which His Church is built?

Because the story of Peter gives us hope.

We are all sinners, screw-ups, messes. Just like Peter. But, like Peter, we are called to get up each and every time we fall.

Never in the Gospels does Jesus give up on Peter. Even when He knows Peter will fail Him, Jesus loves this fisherman unconditionally. Each and every time Peter fails, Christ is there to forgive and encourage him. And Peter accepts each new challenge with the same vigor and enthusiasm.

As he drowned, Peter called out for the Lord to save him; and so he was saved.

He allowed Jesus to wash his feet, then asked the Lord to wash all of him. (Which was still the wrong thing to say!)

Even denying his Lord could not separate Peter from His love. Jesus forgave Peter, and Peter affirmed his love for Christ three times- one for each time he’d denied the Lord. And each time, Christ asked him to feed His sheep: us, His beloved followers.

Peter was Christ’s choice to feed His sheep not because Peter was extraordinary in any way; he was chosen instead for how incredibly ordinary he was. He is someone we can relate to: a flawed, imperfect, fumbling human. He fails and sins, just like us. He is perhaps the most unqualified person in the Gospels. But, as they say, “God doesn’t call the qualified; He qualifies the called.” From the moment Christ called out to him on his boat, Peter was perfectly qualified in his imperfection.

My image of Peter is something like this:

Peter runs recklessly after Christ, stumbling. Finally, he falls down. Instead of staying down (as so many of us are tempted to do), he reaches out to Christ for help. Each time, Christ picks Peter up, sets him on his feet, brushes him off a little, and says “Alright, Pete. Let’s try again, okay?” And they set off again- with Peter continually falling and Christ picking him up again.

This image isn’t just of Peter, though. It’s each of us. We cannot sit and wallow in our sin and failure; we have to let Christ pick us up out of the mud, clean us off, and encourage us to continue pursuing Him with the same enthusiasm Peter had.

In Rome, the remains of St. Peter lie under the high altar of the Basilica. He is literally the Rock on which the church is built! Christ took the bone fragments of his flawed apostle, who denied Him, disobeyed Him, and failed to trust Him, and made them the foundation for His own sacred altar.

What a beautiful goal for each of us: to allow Christ to take us, in our imperfections and brokenness, and make us into something strong and magnificent for His glory, just like He did with Peter. It is his example of never giving into despair and always allowing Christ to pick him up again that makes Peter, the imperfect apostle, a perfect role model for Christians everywhere.

Peter Saved from the Water, Vatican Splendors

“Peter Saved from the Water” from the School of Giuseppe Ghezzi

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