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The wavering saint who is the masterstroke of Christianity

The statue of St Peter outside St Peter’s Basilica (CNS)

St Peter and St Paul, the two most important figures in the early dissemination of Christianity, share the same feast day, even though they did not always see eye to eye in life. Paul, of course, holds an unassailable position as Apostle to the Gentiles. Peter, however, is the masterstroke of Christianity.

“Thou art Peter, and it is upon this rock that I will build my Church.” One would have imagined that the person chosen for this august privilege would be a stern leader of unflinching integrity. Peter, though, is both lovable and fallible. In nature he is impulsive, enthusiastic and generous; in speech and action often wrong-headed and weak.

Throughout the gospels he is very far from being a rock. At their first meeting, Jesus makes it clear that this description applies to the future: “Thou art Simon the son of Jona; thou shalt be called Cephas [“the rock” in Aramaic], which means the same as Peter.” It is only after Peter’s declaration of faith at Caesarea Philippi – “Thou art the Christ, the son of the living God” – that the definitive transferral of name takes place. “Blessed art thou, Simon son of Jona… Thou art Peter.”

Even as Peter, though, the leader of the Apostles remained wholly unreliable. When Jesus prophesies his Passion, Peter, “drawing him to his side” (an illuminating detail), cannot accept it.

“Never, Lord,” he remonstrates, “no such thing shall befall thee.”

“Get thee behind me, Satan,” comes the fierce reply, “thou art an offence unto me; for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.”

Yet Peter remained incorrigible. “Though all else should lose courage over thee, I will never lose mine,” he blurts out at the Last Supper. “Before the cock crows,” he is told, “thou wilt thrice disown me.”

“I will never disown thee,” Peter returns, “though I must lay down my life with thee.”

An hour or so later he is asleep in Gethsamane. Later that night he “fell to calling down curses on himself and swearing: ‘I know nothing of that man.’” Then, after the cock has crowed, “he went out and wept bitterly”.

The desolation of that moment has been re-created with matchless profundity in Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion. “Have mercy, My God, regard my bitter weeping.” In his threnody of lamentation Bach conveys that Peter is Everyman, whose aspirations to goodness are always liable to failure and humiliation.

Yet Peter redeemed himself. “Thou knowest all things,” he told the resurrected Christ, “Thou knowest that I love thee.” In that faith he discovered both the strength to lead, and the courage to suffer martyrdom. He did become the rock upon which the Church
was founded.