I had the chance not so long ago to visit the Church of the Primacy of Peter in Tabgha, Israel on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee.
The Church of the Primacy of Peter at Tabgha. It was here on the north shore of the Sea of Tiberias that the events recounted in John 21 took place: the second miraculous draught of fish, the meal by the lake, and the prophecy of Peter’s destiny. (Taken by me April 24, 2014)
Looking out from the shoreline at Tabgha. Roughly the same view our Lord would have had looking out from land to sea that early morning so long ago now as the Seven brought in the last miraculous draught of fishes. (Taken by me April 24, 2014)
I will recount here the the 21st chapter, verses 1-19, of St. John’s Gospel in Greek, Latin, and English. The Greek comes from 1904 text of the Orthodox Church issued by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the Latin from the Clementine Vulgate, and the English from the 1970 New American Bible (any typos or mistakes in the text of any of the languages are my own):
Μετα ταῦτα ἐφανέρωσεν ἑαυτὸν πάλιν ὁ Ἰησοῦς τοῖς μαθηταῖς ἐπὶ τῆς Θαλάσσης τῆς Τιβεριάδος ἐφανέρωσε δὲ οὕτως. ἦσαν ὁμοῦ Σίμων Πέτρος, καὶ Θωμᾶς ὁ λεγόμενος Δίδυμο, καὶ Ναθαναὴλ ὁ ἀπὸ Κανᾶ τῆς Γαλιλαίας, καὶ οἱ τοῦ Ζεβεδαίου, καὶ ἄλλοι ἐκ τῶν μαθητῶν αὐτοῦ δύο. λέγει αὑτοῖς Σίμων Πέτρος ὑπάγω ἁλιεύειν. λέγουσιν αὐτῷ ἐρχόμεθα καὶ ἡμεῖς σὺν σοί. ἐξῆλθον καὶ ἐνέβησαν εἰς τὸ πλοῖον εὐθύς, καὶ ἐν ἐκείνῃ τῇ νυκτὶ ἐπίασαν οὐδέν. πρωΐας δὲ ἤδη γενομένης ἔστη ὁ ᾿Ιησοῦς εἰς τὸν αἰγιαλόν· οὐ μέντοι ᾔδεισαν οἱ μαθηταὶ ὅτι ᾿Ιησοῦς ἐστι. λέγει οὖν αὐτοῖς ὁ ᾿Ιησοῦς· παιδία, μή τι προσφάγιον ἔχετε; ἀπεκρίθησαν αὐτῷ· οὔ. ὁ δὲ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς· βάλετε εἰς τὰ δεξιὰ μέρη τοῦ πλοίου τὸ δίκτυον, καὶ εὑρήσετε. ἔβαλον οὖν, καὶ οὐκέτι αὐτὸ ἑλκύσαι ἴσχυσαν ἀπὸ τοῦ πλήθους τῶν ἰχθύων. λέγει οὖν ὁ μαθητὴς ἐκεῖνος, ὃν ἠγάπα ὁ ᾿Ιησοῦς, τῷ Πέτρῳ· ὁ Κύριός ἐστι. Σίμων οὖν Πέτρος ἀκούσας ὅτι ὁ Κύριός ἐστι, τὸν ἐπενδύτην διεζώσατο· ἦν γὰρ γυμνός· καὶ ἔβαλεν ἑαυτὸν εἰς τὴν θάλασσαν· οἱ δὲ ἄλλοι μαθηταὶ τῷ πλοιαρίῳ ἦλθον· οὐ γὰρ ἦσαν μακρὰν ἀπὸ τῆς γῆς, ἀλλ᾽ ὡς ἀπὸ πηχῶν διακοσίων, σύροντες τὸ δίκτυον τῶν ἰχθύων. ὡς οὖν ἀπέβησαν εἰς τὴν γῆν, βλέπουσιν ἀνθρακιὰν κειμένην καὶ ὀψάριον ἐπικείμενον καὶ ἄρτον. λέγει αὐτοῖς ὁ ᾿Ιησοῦς· ἐνέγκατε ἀπὸ τῶν ὀψαρίων ὧν ἐπιάσατε νῦν. ἀνέβη Σίμων Πέτρος καὶ εἵλκυσε τὸ δίκτυον ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς, μεστὸν ἰχθύων μεγάλων ἑκατὸν πεντήκοντα τριῶν· καὶ τοσούτων ὄντων οὐκ ἐσχίσθη τὸ δίκτυον. λέγει αὐτοῖς ὁ ᾿Ιησοῦς· δεῦτε ἀριστήσατε. οὐδεὶς δὲ ἐτόλμα τῶν μαθητῶν ἐξετάσαι αὐτὸν σὺ τίς εἶ, εἰδότες ὅτι ὁ Κύριός ἐστιν. ἔρχεται οὖν ὁ ᾿Ιησοῦς καὶ λαμβάνει τὸν ἄρτον καὶ δίδωσιν αὐτοῖς, καὶ τὸ ὀψάριον ὁμοίως. Τοῦτο ἤδη τρίτον ἐφανερώθη ὁ ᾿Ιησοῦς τοῖς μαθηταῖς αὐτοῦ ἐγερθεὶς ἐκ νεκρῶν.
῞Οτε οὖν ἠρίστησαν, λέγει τῷ Σίμωνι Πέτρῳ ὁ ᾿Ιησοῦς· Σίμων ᾿Ιωνᾶ, ἀγαπᾷς με πλεῖον τούτων; λέγει αὐτῷ· ναί, Κύριε, σὺ οἶδας ὅτι φιλῶ σε. λέγει αὐτῷ· βόσκε τὰ ἀρνία μου. λέγει αὐτῷ πάλιν δεύτερον· Σίμων ᾿Ιωνᾶ, ἀγαπᾷς με; λέγει αὐτῷ· ναί, Κύριεο, σὺ ἶδας ὅτι φιλῶ σε. λέγει αὐτῷ· ποίμαινε τὰ πρόβατά μου. λέγει αὐτῷ τὸ τρίτον· Σίμων ᾿Ιωνᾶ, φιλεῖς με; ἐλυπήθη ὁ Πέτρος ὅτι εἶπεν αὐτῷ τὸ τρίτον, φιλεῖς με, καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ· Κύριε, σὺ πάντα οἶδας, σὺ γινώσκεις ὅτι φιλῶ σε. λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ ᾿Ιησοῦς· βόσκε τὰ πρόβατά μου. ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, ὅτε ἦς νεώτερος, ἐζώννυες σεαυτὸν καὶ περιεπάτεις ὅπου ἤθελες· ὅταν δὲ γηράσῃς, ἐκτενεῖς τὰς χεῖράς σου, καὶ ἄλλος σε ζώσει, καὶ οἴσει ὅπου οὐ θέλεις. τοῦτο δὲ εἶπε σημαίνων ποίῳ θανάτῳ δοξάσει τὸν Θεόν. καὶ τοῦτο εἰπὼν λέγει αὐτῷ· ἀκολούθει μοι.
Postea manifestavit se iterum Jesus discipulis ad mare Tiberiadis. Manifestavit autem sic: erant simul Simon Petrus, et Thomas, qui dicitur Didymus, et Nathanael, qui erat a Cana Galilaeae, et filii Zebadaei, et alii ex discipulis ejus duo. Dicit eis Simon Petrus: Vado piscari. Dicunt ei: Venimus et nos tecum. Et exierunt, et ascenderunt in navim: et illa nocte nihil prendiderunt. Mane autem facto stetit Jesus in littore: non tamen cognoverunt discipuli quia Jesus est. Dixit ergo eis Jesus: Pueri, numquid pulmentarium habetis? Responderunt ei: Non. Dicit eis: Mittite in dexteram navigii rete, et invenietis. Miserunt ero: et jam non valebant illud trahere prae multitudine piscium.
Dixit ergo discipulus ille, quem diligebat Jesus, Petro: Dominus est. Simon Petrus cum audisset quia Dominus est, tunica succinxit se (erat enim nudus) et misit se in mare. Alii autem discipuli navigio venerunt (non enim longe erant a terra, sed quasi cubitis ducentis), trahentes rete piscium. Ut ergo descenderunt in terram, viderunt prunas positas, et piscem superpositum, et panem. Dicit eis Jesus: Afferte de piscibus, quos prendidistis nunc.
Ascendit Simon Petrus et traxit rete in terram, plenum magnis piscibus centum quinquaginta tribus. Et cum tanti essent, non est scissum rete. Dicit eis Jesus: Venite, prandete. Et nemo audebat discumbentium interrogare eum: Tu quis es? scientes, quia Dominus est.
Et venit Jesus, et accipit panem, et dat eis, et piscem similiter.
Hoc jam tertio manifestatus est Jesus discipulis suis cum resurrexit a mortuis. Cum ero prandissent dicit Simoni Petro Jesus: Simon Joannis, diligis me plus his? Dicit ei: Etiam Domine, tu scis quia amo te. Dicit ei: Pasce agnos meos.
Dicit ei iterum: Simon Joannis, diligis me? Ait illi: Etiam Domine, tu scis quia amo te. Dixit ei: Pasce agnos meos.
Dicit ei tertio: Simon Joannis, amas me? Constristatus est Petrus, quia dixit ei tertio: Amas me? et dixit ei: Domine, tu omnia nosti, tu scis quia amo te. Dixit ei: Pasce oves meas.
Amen, Amen dico tibi: cum esses junior, cingebas te, et amulabas ubi volebas: cum autem senueris, extendes manus tuas, et alius te cinget, et ducet quo tu non vis.
Hoc autem dixit significans qua morte clarificaturus esset Deum. Et cum hoc dixisset, dicit ei: Sequere me.
After this, Jesus revealed himself again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. He revealed himself in this way. Together were Simon Peter, Thomas called Didymus, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, Zebedee’s sons, and two others of this disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We also will come with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. When it was already dawn, Jesus was standing on the shore; but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” They answered him, “No.” So he said to them, “Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something.” So they cast it, and were not able to pull it in because of the number of fish. So the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad, and jumped into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, for they were not far from shore, only about a hundred yards, dragging the net with the fish. When they climbed out on shore, they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you just caught.” So Simon Peter went over and dragged the net ashore full of one hundred fifty-three large fish. Even though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come, have breakfast.” And none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they realized that it was the Lord. Jesus came over and took the bread and gave it to them and in like manner the fish. This was now the third time Jesus was revealed to his disciples after being raised from the dead.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
He then said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.”
He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Amen, Amen I say to you, when you were younger you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”
John 21 strikes me as being a Scripture passage that is deeper than the ocean and vaster than the expanse of the heavens. All parts of Scripture contain their own deep hidden significances which can only be revealed by the Holy Spirit, but few can rival this particular passage (that seems to have been added by the human author St. John almost as an afterthought) in being pregnant with meaning. Where does one start?
I have to say that the picture painted here seems in many ways to be one of the Church at the end of its journey, since the evangelist points out that it was already light and the boat was on the Lake of Galilee (or the Sea of Tiberias as he takes pains to call it right here) scarcely one hundred yards from shore. This is a vision of the Church at the end of time. A fascinating thing that St. John does at the very outset is to name five of the seven disciples present, but to leave the last two unnamed. It is curious, because all eleven (Judas was gone and Matthias had not yet replace him) are not there and seven is generally a number associated with perfection by the ancients and the Apostle goes to great length and detail to name Simon Peter, Thomas called Didymus, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, and the (two) sons of Zebedee, but he leaves the last two unnamed and no identification is given; he merely says “two others of his disciples.” Why should this be so? It is a subject worth the time to meditate on in these dark times across the formerly Catholic world.
Simon Peter begins by saying “I’m going fishing,” or in the more archaic but strangely colloquial and heart warming Douay-Rheims translation “I go a fishing.” So the apostles go fishing by themselves and fish throughout the night and of course they catch nothing. The first light of dawn streaks across the sky and they see our Lord standing on the shore but don’t recognize him at first; another hint that this passage paints a picture of the Church far distant in time from the Incarnation. He tells them to cast their net to the right which they do and the haul of fish is incredible. Stop trusting in your own efforts Catholic Church! Rely on the Lord alone and your haul of fish (men) will be more than you can possibly imagine. St. John (the disciple whom Jesus loved) is still the only one able to publicly acknowledge that it is the Lord when he speaks those famous words to Simon Peter: “Dominus est!” Upon hearing this Simon Peter wraps himself in a thin garment and jumps into the sea because he his naked, not lightly clad as the contemporary English version has it, but both the Greek and Latin agree that he was in fact naked. Anyone who has been near the Lake of Galilee in the late spring or summer can relate to how hot it can get there and why a man would be running around in the buff on a fishing boat after working all night. But of course this is Scripture and not just a short story so there is the deeper theological meaning. Adam and Eve were naked in the garden and their first act after eating from the the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was a rather pathetic attempt to cover their own nakedness. Christ hung naked and uncovered on the Cross. And here we have Simon Peter then also covering himself and his nakedness but, as opposed to what Adam and Eve ended up doing, he jumps into the sea and runs to meet our Lord on the shore. What does this mean? I don’t know exactly but there is something here worth meditating on.
Our Lord is already cooking bread and fish on the shore. There is a curious correlation here with the Multiplication of the Loaves that I suppose shouldn’t surprise me since these two events occurred at almost the same spot; the Church of the Primacy of Peter is a short five minute walk from the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes. So there is something to this and, again it is worth meditating on but I do not have the answer. Our Lord then tells them to bring in the fish they had caught and Simon Peter hauls in the entire catch of fish, numbering 153 large fish, and despite the large haul the net does not tear. I confess that I do not know what the number 153 signifies; I am not certain that a satisfactory answer has ever been given except that it is a lot of fish and I also have heard some speculation that the ancients knew of 153 different species of fish in the waters of the world. I am not sure but this whole passage seems to indicate that at the end of time many around the world and of all the races of man will be brought into the Church and before the Lord. The reference to the net not tearing is an obvious reference to Luke 5 where at the beginning of the time of the Apostles with our Lord they make a large catch of fish and the net tears and many are saved but many also are lost. Anyone with even the slightest understanding of the history of the Church over the last twenty centuries knows well the painful fulfillment of that prophecy, so we should have equal confidence that before the end of time all of the ruptures will be healed and that we will stand united with Peter before our Lord when he comes. We have to do our part with prayer and sacrifices and not covering up the light of Christ, but it will all happen according to God’s own time and his own ways whenever that day comes.
Now we come to the famous reconciliation scene between Jesus and Simon Peter after the latter’s threefold denial of our Lord in the courtyard on the night of his trial. This passage is rendered poorly in English, though it is not the fault of the modern translators alone (Douay-Rheims is equally bad on this score) but of the English language itself. The language is simply inadequate to express what is really going on in this scene. The endless repetitions of “Do you love me?” and “Yes I love you.” almost trivialize what is going on here. In truth the word ‘love’ has been so bastardized in contemporary English that we really don’t have any real understanding of the concept anymore. When our Lord asks Simon Peter the first time, as St. John rendered it into Greek, “ἀγᾷπας με πλεῖον τούτων” he is not just saying “do you love me more than these?” The verb here expresses not just filial love or affection but the kind of love that was always rare and that the modern world has really lost any conception of: the kind of love where you pour out your very being for someone else, where you don’t just live for them or die for them but you both live and die for them and you do both every minute of the day, the kind of love where you pour out your very being for your beloved. And Simon Peter’s response is “σὺ ἶδας ὅτι φιλῶ σε.” The verb that Simon Peter uses here, φιλῶ, is kind of a come down from the verb our Lord uses. I think that a way of rendering the exchange into English for us to better understand it would be like this:
Jesus said to Simon Peter “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these, will you pour out your being for me?” And he said to him: “Yes Lord you know that I love you.”…
He then said to him a second time “Simon son of John will you pour out your being for me?” He said to him “You know that I love you.”
I will pause here and note that when our Lord asks the question the third time, and this will give us a hint as to why Peter suddenly gets so frustrated, he uses the same verb that Peter had been using, φιλῶ. He asks Simon Peter this third time:
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
At this the first pope gets rather frustrated and annoyed and tells God who is sitting there right next to him and has just cooked for him a meal of bread and fish grilled on a charcoal fire, and he tells Him that He knows everything and of course He knows that Peter loves Him. Our Lord would seem to know that Simon Peter loves Him but He also knows that he is still Peter and that he is not quite there yet, not yet where he needs to be, but that he will be. My impression, and it is only that, is that our Lord’s unspoken response to Peter when he says the last time “You know everything, you know that I love you” would go something like this: “No, Simon, son of John, you do not yet love me, but you will.”
Hence the prophecy of Peter’s death: “When you were young…” I have now had the immense privilege to stand both at Tabgha on the north shore of the Sea of Tiberias, where that prophecy was made, and in the place 50 feet under the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican before the bones of the Apostle himself where that prophecy was fulfilled. And I wonder sometimes whether this prophecy of our Lord’s does not apply only to the man Simon Peter himself, but also to the institution of the papacy and by extension to the whole Church. If the Catholic Church is, as Saint Paul wrote, the Mystical Body of Christ then it would seem that she must be betrayed and handed over by her own to Godless men just as He was; she must be stripped naked and hung on a Cross before the world just as He was; and she must die and rise just as He did. And despite it all those last words of our Lord in this sequence apply just as much to the current Holy Father, to his successors, and to us as they did to Saint Peter: “Follow me.”
The High Altar of St. Peter’s Basilica (taken by me April 26, 2013)
Pray the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary on Monday for the See of Constantinople, the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary on Tuesday for the See of Antioch, the Glorious Mysteries on Wednesday for the See of Jerusalem, the Luminous Mysteries on Thursday for the See of Alexandria, and the Sorrowful Mysteries on Friday for the See of Carthage; for their liberty and their salvation and the restoration of their ancient position as pillars of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome; for the conversion of the Jewish people and the conversion of the Muslim peoples.