April 22, 2007


Do you love me? – John 21: 15, 16, 17

Classical Hebrew has no comparative or superlative degrees, so instead of saying good, better & best, one simply repeats the word good twice or three times. Thus when we say (or sing) Holy, Holy, Holy during the Mass we are saying, quite literally, Most Holy.

It’s tempting to think that this is what our Lord was doing when he asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” The second time was to ask, “Do you love me more than … (fill in the blank). The third time was to ask, “Do you love me most of all?” In so doing, I think He was trying to draw something out of Peter that Peter himself was unaware that he had. A case can be made that today’s Gospel episode represents the defining moment for Peter when he was transformed from a braggart who couldn’t keep his promises into a person who was genuinely able to lead Christ’s Church.

Jesus is hammering away at what might be called Peter’s spiritual identity. Although most people are unaware of it, the human makeup has a spiritual center that defines who we are more than mere skills or even values can do. Our Lord is attempting to bring Peter into this deeper identity so that he will order his values correctly & integrate them more thoroughly into his leadership activities. This identity will generate the passion to learn & perfect the necessary skills. In the words of Catholic theology, gratia elevat naturam (grace elevates nature).

Our spiritual center is a refined form of consciousness & any sense of identification with it needs sustained practice; but it is also an acquired taste, one for which most people do not have the time or temperament.

When the ego is plugged into the soul, as it were, it becomes a vehicle that has the ability to change the physical & social realms. He sees in Peter an enormous ego capable of shaking the foundations of both the Roman world & our own. His project is to get Peter to love him. When this happens, the isolated ego’s tendencies of promotion & protection turn to acts of creative service.

Calvin Coolidge, 30th president of the U.S. , once found himself addressing a tribe of American Indians on a reservation where there had been no rainfall for months. The skies were cloudless & their crops were going to ruin. Coolidge began his speech by saying, “Do not think that I in Washington have not been aware of your situation. Do not think that I have not been wondering what I could do to help you.” Whereupon, a veritable cloudburst descended upon the astonished but delighted gathering. Coolidge was soaked before he got under cover. As he watched the rain pouring down he was heard to say to himself, “Gosh, I didn’t know I had it in me!”

Peter didn’t know he had it in him, & so it is with us. The difficulty is getting Christ to coincide with our spiritual identity – to love Him most of all. The events of this past week at Virginia Tech are only the latest reminder of how desperately our sick world stands in need of such transformations in our own hearts & souls. The risen Christ is the only one who can make sense out of such senseless & unnecessary tragedy. How much do WE love Him? AMEN!