In August 2013 Fr. Antonio Spadaro SJ interviewed Pope Francis. The first question he put to the pope was point blank. “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” In answer to this the pope stared at Fr. Antonio in silence for some time. Then he answered: “I do not know what might be the most fitting description…. I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.” The pope continued: “Yes, perhaps I can say that I am a bit astute, that I can adapt to circumstances, but it is also true that I am a bit naïve. Yes, but the best summary, the one that comes more from the inside and I feel most true is this: I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.”
This last phrase sums up very neatly the situation of Peter in today’s Gospel where he says: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” And then Jesus looks on him and calls him to follow him. Like the Pope, Simon Peter is a believing disciple and a sinner at the same time!
The story of the miraculous catch in the Sea of Galilee is one of those lovely idyllic stories that the Gospel of Luke is so famous for. Picture the scene: a beautiful fresh morning on Lakeshore Galilee, the lovely contrast of mountains and lake, tranquillity, – the kind of place we all would wish for a holiday. It was no holiday for Peter however. He was rather disconsolate on this certain morning having worked all night and caught nothing. When Jesus ambles along the shoreline with his avid little group of disciples, Peter might have wished he had chosen another stretch on which to do his preaching. Of all the places and all the shorelines in the world why did he have to choose his patch? But then, out of the blue, Jesus steps into his boat and into his life. Things would never be the same again. And it can all be symbolised by the fishing. Before Jesus came, Peter worked hard all night and caught nothing. Now it was bright day and two boats struggle with the huge catch.
Peter may have shown little interest at the beginning yet he trusted Jesus enough when he was asked to put out into the deep for a catch: “If you say so, I will pay out the nets.” Then, completely overwhelmed by the great catch they got, “he fell at the knees of Jesus” and with an admirable spontaneity says: “Leave me Lord, I am a sinful man”. In front of everyone, Peter recognizes his sin and his complete unworthiness to be around Jesus.
Jesus isn’t afraid to have a sinful disciple near him. On the contrary, if Peter feels himself to be a sinner, he can better understand Jesus’ message of forgiveness for everyone and his welcoming of sinners and the undesirables. “Do not be afraid; from now on it is people you will be catching”. Jesus takes away Peter’s fear of being a sinful disciple and joins him to his mission of reuniting and gathering men and women of every condition to enter into God’s saving project.
It is not only Peter who has a deep sense of his unworthiness. The prophet Isaiah is also overcome by the majesty of the divine and his own unworthiness in comparison. “Woe is me!” he said, “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Paul, too, declares himself unfit to be an apostle because he had persecuted the Church. One thing is clear: just as the wind blows wherever it wills, so the Lord chooses whoever the Lord wills and our unworthiness and lowliness does not disqualify us. On the contrary a sense of being unworthy seems to be the necessary precondition to being chosen. Like Peter we too are called to be believing disciples even though we are sinners at the same time.
A popular Irish hymn contains the hopeful prayer: “may we be gathered into God’s nets.” There are many other nets that are spread out to catch us in these times. There is the net of consumerism and gambling, that can easily tangle us in a mesh of artificial need, and worry about ability to pay. We feel pressured into “buying things we don’t want, with money we don’t have, to impress people we may not even like!” Then there is the net of image-building and lots of hype about the success ethic, with an exclusive focus on financial growth and the right sound byte, – all to the detriment of human and spiritual values. And let’s not forget the net of drug and alcohol culture that causes such havoc in families, or the net of depression, despair and suicide for those for whom life loses its meaning? All these nets flatter to deceive. They promise much only to leave us sorely disappointed.
Today Peter gets caught up in a totally different kind of net, namely, God’s own net where life, even with its faults, holds out a promise of goodness, acceptance and hope. Once he realised that he was accepted and loved despite his unworthiness, the Lord commissioned him to be a fisher of people. This net was the making of Peter. It fashioned him into a great apostle, willing at every stage to launch out into the deep for a catch and give his all to Christ.
Like Peter we, too, are commissioned to “be fishers of people” and to launch out into the deep to take every type of person into God’s net of forgiveness, meaning, love and hope. This is our vocation and duty as Christians. We are not ever to feel like strangers on the outside. Christianity begins with a call. Just as he called Peter, so too, he calls us. We all may be able to point out big moments in this call where the Lord is tangibly present. But I like to think that he also calls us on a daily basis; that each and every day he steps into our boat and our lives so as to fashion us into a people worthy of his holy name.
Peter left everything behind to follow Jesus into an unknown and exciting future. It made for a stunning relationship with Jesus. I wonder is there some part of me today that wants to do the same?
Sunday, 7th February 2016