Because I Am Peter

I went to bed last night re-reading George Weigel’s Letters to a Young Catholic, the chapter about St. Peter and Catholicism’s physicality. I woke up this morning to Peter’s second letter in the Office of Readings, where he says, “We were witnesses of His sovereign majesty.” Do you find that sometimes the Holy Spirit shouts at you?

Peter was so many ways a failure, as I have been. Denying Christ three times is only the best-known example of Peter’s failings. A recent thorny issue in my life reminds me every single day of my own.

In his chapter on the Apostle, Weigel takes the reader to the Vatican and to the scavi (excavations) beneath, where Peter’s actual physical remains have been discovered. The body parts below the shins are missing, suggesting that after Peter had died upside-down on the cross, he was removed by cutting off his feet. Talk about physicality! Then Weigel leads us outside to  St. Peter’s Square and the obelisk that stands at the center. Weigel links this obelisk, which stood in Nero’s circus during the first century AD, with Peter’s martyrdom, which may well have taken place in that circus. But not before reminding us of Peter’s final denial. Peter wanted to escape martyrdom, tradition tells us, but as he fled Rome he encountered the Risen Lord. Peter asked Christ, “Quo vadis, Domine?” (Where are you going, Lord?) And Christ said: “I am going to Rome to be crucified.” Whereupon Peter, for the final time in a long lifetime of times, realized his error and headed back to Rome, to be crucified. Weigel writes:

Tradition tells us that Peter died during one of Nero’s spasms of persecution, and if so, he likely died in Nero’s circus. If he did, then it’s quite possible that the last thing Peter saw on this earth was the obelisk you’re now pondering, which was moved to the square in 1586 by Pope Sixtus V. Think about that . . .

I did think about that. And later:

Imagine Peter, in the agonized moments before his death, looking at that obelisk we can see today, and you can understand that none of this is easy.

I flicked off my iPhone with its Kindle app, and went to sleep imagining that as well. After ending the day with Peter’s last vision, I began the next with his voice, in the Office of Readings. Imagine writing this eye-witness account, as Peter did of the Transfiguration:

It was not by way of cleverly concocted myths that we taught you about the coming in power of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we were eyewitnesses of his sovereign majesty. He received glory and praise from God the Father when that unique declaration came to him out of the majestic splendor: “This is my beloved Son, on whom my favor rests.” We ourselves heard this said from heaven while we were in his company on the holy mountain. 

We ourselves heard this said from heaven while we were in his company . . . Peter was there! This imperfect, constantly sinning, ever-forgetful fisherman whose real name wasn’t even Peter—was there. I take comfort in this fact. It suggests that I can go to bed every night distraught over my own failings, but still the sun will rise and there will be evidence good enough for a court room that God is merciful, reason enough for even a skeptic to hope. 

None of this is easy, Weigel writes, and Peter agrees, urging us to—

Keep your attention closely fixed on [the prophetic message], as you would on a lamp shining in a dark place until the first streaks of dawn appear and the morning star rises in your hearts. 

"Vaya con Dios, Leonard; Rest in Peace."

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  • Nice Post!

  • Webster Bull

    Thanks, Tina, and so glad Jake is on the mend! :-)Webster

  • Maria

    You are such a delight.Maria

  • Wonderful thoughts on St. Peter. I'm also reminded of James Martin's chapter on him in My Life with the Saints –I've been reading Weigel's excellent book too (and I'm only a Catholic-in-the-making, not even a young Catholic yet!) After reading about the scavi I wondered if there might be something about them online and was richly rewarded: you might want to look at the online tour here:

  • Thank you for this post! Four years ago I was in Rome, and my group's tour guide (a seminarian at the NAC) made that same point about the obelisk. I'd forgotten it until just now, but it did strike me very intensely at the time, as did my time in the scavi. I was raised Catholic but with a very evangelical background, and until college wavered between the two. Rome absolutely convinced me of the truth of the Catholic faith — praying in front of Peter's bones, climbing the santa scala on my knees, doing all these very physical, ancient, Christian things, was kind of like a hit between the eyes — as if all this time, the things I'd been searching for turned out to be in the family room of my own house the entire time.

  • Webster Bull

    Dear quickeyedlove, Thanks for this comment. It reminds me of my visits to St. Peter's–nearly 40 years ago! (Well, 38 actually; I'm not THAT old!). Whereas your experience there seems to have tipped your balance away from an evangelical background toward Catholicism, my experience provided seeds that sat in the earth of my heart all these years–until 2 years ago, these and other seeds bloomed, to the surprise of me and many others. My dream is to take my daughter now in RCIA to Rome (and Assisi and Lourdes and, and) sometime after her confirmation in 2010. Happy Thanksgiving!

  • EPG

    Webster –Thank you.I friend gave me a copy of Letters to a Young Catholic a few years ago. I credit it with nudging me in the direction I am heading, in fits and starts, towards Rome. I especially liked the passages to which you refer, on the physicality of Catholocism. It's a thread that exists in the Anglican tradition as well (which isn't surprising).

  • Webster Bull

    EPG, Thanks for your comment. I need to understand my Episcopal (Anglican) roots better. The odd thing is, when I came into the Catholic Church in 2007-8, I never made a choice, per se, between old and new. Catholicism pretty much ambushed me, although I had been wandering down the path leading to the ambush for 40 years. Happy Thanksgiving!

  • Anonymous

    Webster, several weeks ago I was in Rome with a friend and a couple of good friend priests. We did the Scavi tour (my third time and things have changed over the last 10 years—more protection for the ancient things). But there is nothing better than the Scavi tour to convince one of the historicity of the Roman Church—"Peter is here." Exactly beneath Michelangelo's dome. St. Peter's Basilica is the taste that we have of heaven. I fervently hope that you can visit there with your daughter! If it helps, I can provide a contact at the NAC! God bless,Dawn

  • Webster Bull

    Dawn, Thanks. I vividly remember my visits to St. Peter's in the early 1970s, and I do so want to provide that experience for my two daughters, especially now that, as Weigel reports, not only are the Scavi open for visits but the entire square has been restored and brightened.