Sunday, June 19, 2016

Three Lessons on Fatherhood from St. Peter

(Twelfth Sunday of the Year (C):  This homily was given on June 19, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Luke 9: 18-24.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twelfth Sunday 2016]

It was very appropriate—as well as providential—that Simon Peter was the apostle mentioned in our gospel reading today.  Peter was, as we all know, the very first pope.  The word “pope” comes from the Greek word for father—“pappas”—and today we celebrate Father’s Day.

Every priest is a father (spiritually speaking, of course), and the pope—the successor of St. Peter—is what you might call the “father of all fathers”.  That is to say, he’s the earthly spiritual father of the universal family of God known as “the Church,” which includes both clergy and laity. 

So today, on this Father’s Day we look to the original “father of all fathers”—St. Peter himself—for some important and challenging lessons on fatherhood.  These are lessons, by the way, that apply both to natural fathers and to spiritual fathers.

The first lesson is this:  Fathers are called to exercise strong leadership in their families when it comes to matters of faith.  Or, to put it another way, contrary to popular opinion, Christianity is not “for women only”!  Having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that’s nourished by the word of God and the sacraments of the Church is not just for mothers!  It’s also for dads.  As Pope John Paul II said in one of his encyclicals, “The place and task of the father in and for the family is of unique and irreplaceable importance.”  (Familiaris Consortio, 25)  This means, dads, that your children need to be led by you (and not just by your wife) in the practice of their Catholic faith.  For example, you need to lead them to Mass every Sunday and holy day; you need to make sure they get to confession regularly (and after they go, you should go yourself!); you need to lead them in prayer before meals; you need to answer at least some of their questions on issues of faith and morals; you need to teach them, by word and example, to be charitable and forgiving—and to pray every day.  In this regard, I came across something recently that John Paul II once said about his father and the powerful influence his dad had on his faith life during the years of his youth.  John Paul said, “Seeing [my father] on his knees had a decisive effect on my early years.  My father was the person who explained to me the mystery of God, [and] his example was in a way my first seminary.”

We learn this lesson about fathers being faith-leaders in their families from Peter in today’s gospel scene.  Notice what happened there.  Jesus asked his disciples the question, “Who do you say that I am?”  And who was it who immediately stepped forward to answer the question?  Quite simply, it was the one who should have stepped forward!  It was the “pappas”, the father, the leader of the apostolic group of Jesus’ followers.  It was Peter: “You are the Christ of God.”
Now some of the other apostles might have believed the same thing, or at least they might have suspected that Jesus was the Christ—the Messiah—the anointed one of God—but only Peter actually had the courage and the conviction to say it.  He led the way for the others.

He was a good father—a good spiritual father—at least at that moment.  But he wasn’t a perfect dad—which brings us to the second lesson we learn from him: Every earthly dad is imperfect.  Every earthly father is a sinner in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness.  The fact is, even the best earthly fathers will fail from time to time.  But when the best do fall, they don’t stay fallen for very long.  With a humble and contrite heart they repent, seek forgiveness, and persevere in their vocation.

On that note, if you were paying attention to this gospel when it was read a few moments ago, something probably struck you.  You were struck by the fact that part of the story was left out!  This is the story of Peter’s profession of faith as recorded by St. Luke.  St. Matthew and St. Mark also write about this event from Jesus’ life, but they go on to say that afterward, as Jesus began to talk to his disciples about his upcoming passion and death, Peter objected.  Peter said, “No way, Jesus.  You’re the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one of God!  May that never happen to you!”  Our Lord then responded by saying to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.  You’re thinking the way human beings think, not the way God thinks.”

This was not the first time Peter had failed in his spiritual fatherhood—nor would it be the last time.  And yet, he never left the Lord!  He always persevered.  You see this consistently in the gospels: every time Peter fell, he repented, he got up, and he moved forward with Jesus.

That’s what every good Christian father does.

The third and final lesson from Peter on fatherhood that I want to mention today is this one: A good father lays down his life for his wife and for his children.  Here the standard of love is Jesus and his cross: “Greater love than this no one has, than to lay down his life for his friends.”

Our first pope, as most of us know, died a martyr’s death.  He was crucified—upside down—by the emperor Nero, probably near the obelisk that now stands in St. Peter’s Square in Rome.  His bones are entombed below the main altar in St. Peter’s Basilica.

The first pope, the first “father of all fathers,” literally laid down his life for his spiritual sons and daughters.  Earthly fathers, whether they be spiritual or natural, are called to the same kind of self-sacrifice in their lives.  And it involves more than the willingness to physically die for your loved ones—as necessary and as important as that is.  It involves “dying to yourself” every day in the ordinary events of life.  This is something that Fr. Roger Landry makes clear in a booklet he wrote for the men who belong to the Knights of Columbus.  There he says this:

This laying down of one’s life does not mean only the willingness to make the “supreme sacrifice” for another, but the willingness to die to oneself so that the other may more fully live.  In marriage preparation, I often ask would-be grooms whether they love their fiancée enough to take a bullet for her.  Never has one said no.  Then I ask whether his answer would be the same if the “bullet” took one of the following forms: being abstinent before marriage; giving up smoking if she asks; being on time if he is habitually late; cleaning up after himself better; patiently telling her what happened that day at work if she requests it; learning the faith better to help pass it on to her more completely; or making the time and the priority to pray with her.  Those are the types of grenades on which many men refuse to dive! But these gifts of oneself are so much more valuable than almost any material gift one could give, and they are a far greater sign of real love than any ring could symbolize.

A lot of what Fr. Landry says there applies to men in their relationships with their children just as much as it applies to men in their relationships with their wives.  Laying down one’s life in “ordinary” ways like these is what good fathers do for their sons and daughters—and wives.

St. Peter, father of all fathers, pray for us fathers on this Father’s Day.  Pray that we will be like you in the exercise of this great and precious gift that God has given to us.  Pray that we will be faith-filled, humble, self-sacrificing leaders of those whom the Lord has seen fit to place in our care.  And may our leadership of our children someday bring us—and them—to the house of our eternal Father, who lives and reigns forever and ever.  Amen.