Peter & Paul & Pope Francis


In a culture that can seem obsessed with celebrity, that even grades them A-List, B-List etc. – the church celebrated on Sunday 29th June two of our foremost saints.  Saints Peter and Paul have been called the indispensable men of the early church: Peter who has the unique authority that Jesus conferred to him, who is given the keys to heaven, Petrus the Rock on which Jesus says "I will build my Church".  And Paul, the great missionary, who first takes the news of the risen Christ to those outside of the Jewish community.

It may be fitting in these days of the World Cup to compare them to a defensive and attacking midfielder: Peter anchoring the team built around him and Paul making ranging runs into the opponent’s box. Different roles, and as any team knows, there may be tensions between their star players, but if that energy can be harnessed and becomes a creative tension, if the egos (and perhaps I should say teeth!) can be kept in check,  when we’re playing for the team not for ourselves, when we remember it is God’s Kingdom rather than our own we’re building - then these different but complementary roles can become great channels of grace. Peter and Paul certainly had their differences. Notably, Paul rebukes Peter in his Letter to the Galatians for Peter’s decision to stop eating with Gentiles in order to appease the hardliners in the early church. But Paul always ultimately deferred to the senior apostle. Both were to die a martyr’s death in Rome, sometime in the AD 60′s: Peter reputedly crucified upside down in the area known as the Vatican Circus, and Paul beheaded. Ever since then Catholics have believed that the leadership of Peter has continued down the years in the Popes, some saintly men, others certainly not. These saints and sinners have exercised what we call the Petrine ministry. It has been a great scandal and a great sadness that this Petrine ministry has become a source of division for so many Christians; so much so that Pope John Paul II appealed to all Christians to help him explore how the Petrine ministry could be at service to unity, a crucial question that we have to take seriously. We can see the damage that inter-religious feuding can wreak, looking at the painful history in our islands, but also now in the poisonous conflict between the Sunni and the Shi’ite.  It is clear after Pope Francis’ recent visit to the Middle East that he, following in the footsteps of John Paul II, wants his role to be at service to unity.  He surprised the world with his invitation to both the Presidents of Israel and Palestine to join him for prayer – and it was great to see how quickly they responded, joining him, giving people new hope, and a new dream of peace.

Jorge Bergoglio, Pope Francis – was never meant to be Pope. He is a Jesuit like me, and when he took his final vows, he took private vows never to seek authority or status in the Church or within our Order – Jesuits call it ‘ambitioning’ and it’s strictly forbidden.  St Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, saw clerical ambition as one of the main sources of corruption in the Church. In the influential Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius, we are asked at one point to meditate on how power, wealth and honour can in a very subtle but deadly way undermine our commitment to be disciples of Jesus. So Pope Francis has an inbuilt aversion to careerism in the church. So how did he become a bishop – let alone sit on the Chair of Peter?  Because, as a Jesuit he has also promised special obedience to the Pope, which took priority when first he was asked by the Pope to be a Bishop in Argentina, and then was elected Pope by his peers.

I think the other key to understanding him is to understand the significance of the Spiritual Exercises. Jesuit training is called formation.  It often lasts for longer than ten years, but the key experience of that formation is a 30 day silent retreat called the Spiritual Exercises. This is a programme written and honed by St Ignatius which is split into four parts.  Each day is split into five hour long slots of prayer – interspersed with mass and also a daily meeting with your spiritual director. The four parts are referred to as 'weeks’, although the Director decides how long is spent in each week – for some it can be a couple of days, for others it can be up to ten or more days.  For each week there is a grace that is being prayed for and a series of meditations which are leading towards that grace. To understand Pope Francis is to see someone who is profoundly marked by the grace of the first week – which is a gentle, but deep and honest assessment of life, warts and all.  It is when we honestly look at our mistakes, at how we’ve hurt others and inspite of all of that, we are still loved unconditionally, that our life changes.  It happened to me and I am sure it happened to Pope Francis.  Somehow this sense of being loved inspite of all our messiness and sinfulness, as well as being a healing experience, unlocks a great compassion in us.  And more than his simplicity and integrity, people sense a deep compassion in Pope Francis.  I think there is a wonderful parallel with Peter there, Peter who denied Christ three times and was forgiven three times.  Both are leaders who made mistakes early on and have encountered a risen Christ who is only compassionate.

Francis is a man who knows he made many mistakes as a young Jesuit .  He was thrust into authority at a young age in a toxic political situation in Argentina – the Dirty War.  Through the spiritual exercises he has faced up to his mistakes, his weaknessess, and has experienced that, like St Peter – even though he is frail, God still loves him. He often describes himself as a loved sinner – and someone who has experience of the mercy of God becomes more and more compassionate themselves. The courage to go deeply into silence, to honestly assess one’s life and to experience the love of God, as happens so often in the Spiritual Exercises, gives one great freedom – freedom from fear, and also great compassion. These graces are not instantly available – they take commitment to prayer, the courage to seek silence and the wisdom of a Spiritual Guide.

So what about us? As we remember how the risen Jesus undoes Peter's threefold denial, by offering Peter the chance to express his love three times, we too are offered that same encounter with the unlimited mercy of God. Only this encounter can change hearts and change minds; and an increasingly angry world is thirsting for this. Let us, like St Peter and Pope Francis, dedicate our lives to sharing this compassion. Let us be the blessing which Zechariah recognised was coming from God in Jesus: ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel: for he hath visited and redeemed his people.’

Tim Byron SJ

Originally published on Tim Byron Sj's blog Schola Affectus:   and broadcast by BBC Radio 4 as part of Sunday Worship on 29th June