Francis Is Our Peter

On this feast of Saints Peter and Paul, the Church wants us to look at our current Pope in light of the first Pope. Let’s.

It is four years now since Pope Francis became the latest Successor of Peter, and what a four years it has been. The Pope has been by turns charming and consternating, inspiring and upsetting, a great witness to truth and the cause of great uncertainty.

Lumen Gentium (25) teaches that “religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra.” “Submission” came easy when the saintly professor John Paul II or the great theologian Benedict XVI was the successor of Peter.

But how is it possible when the successor to Peter is a man who speaks off the cuff, confuses instead of clarifies, and builds a celebrity following of people who seem to fundamentally misunderstand him?

Well, today’s feast answers the question. If it was possible to follow Peter, it is possible to follow Francis. Consider:

Both Peter and Francis self-identify as sinners.

“Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” says Peter when we meet him in Luke (5:8). Jesus insists that he follow, and become a “fisher of men” and he does.

Pope Francis’s reaction to being chosen Pope on March 13, 2013, was much the same: “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance.”

Both these sinners are celebrities.

It Acts 5:15, we learn that people lined the streets “so that when Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on any one of them.” In in Acts 3:12 he had to correct the crowds after he healed a man “as if we had made him walk by our own power or piety.” No, it was Jesus, he said.

The AP account of Francis’s visit to New York sounded a little like Acts. Ruth Smart of Brooklyn was one of the people lining the street by Central Park who felt his shadow. “As he passed by, you felt a cool, refreshing peace, as if he were spreading a huge blanket of peace through the crowd,” she told the Associated Press. “It was pure joy.”

And Francis also redirects the adulation he receives. As he told a meeting of the movements shortly after his election, “All of you in the square shouted ‘Francis, Francis, Pope Francis’; but where was Jesus? I should have preferred to hear you cry: ‘Jesus, Jesus is Lord, and he is in our midst!’ From now on enough of ‘Francis’, just ‘Jesus’!”

Both these sinner-celebrities had severe faults as managers and thinkers.

Peter betrayed the Lord before his crucifixion and seemed to draw the apostles back into the fishing business (John 21:3) when he should have been starting the Church.

Of Peter the manager, Jesus said, “I have prayed that your own faith may not fail so you can strengthen your brothers.” The theological motto of Peter was also negative: “Master, to whom shall we go?”

Peter comes by truth through trial and error — and mysticism. In Acts 10, a heavenly vision convinces him to change his attitude toward dietary rules. In his letter to the Galatians (2:11), it was Paul who “opposed [Peter] to his face because he clearly was wrong.”

Likewise, Francis has had to be pushed and prodded and reigned in. He has had to correct misimpressions and revise statements. And he, too, has been “opposed to his face” by fellow successors to the Apostles.

Peter and Francis treat economic sins harshly.

Pope Francis’s gentle, merciful ways are well known, but we know his harsh side, too, especially when it comes to “the cult of money” or “the devil’s dung.” In his 2016 Lenten address warned that “the proud, rich and powerful will end up condemning themselves and plunging into the eternal abyss of solitude which is hell.”

Peter also was a gentle healer — and he also got uncomfortably harsh when it came to money. He told Simon the Magician, “May your money perish with you” (Acts 8:20) and he told the money-hiding Sapphira “the footsteps of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out” (Acts 5:9). If we cringe at Pope Francis, we ought to cringe at Peter, too.

The similarities run from the superficial to the sublime.

Francis is fond of comparing human behavior to dog and pig behavior — “coprophilia” and “coprophagia.” Peter did the same thing — “The dog returns to its own vomit,” and “A bathed sow returns to wallowing in the mire” (1 Peter 2:22).

“Why is Pope Francis so obsessed with the devil?” CNN asked. But it was Peter who said, “Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for [someone] to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

Francis is accused of overemphasizing mercy and love – too much “Neither do I condemn you” and not enough “go and sin no more.” But it was Peter who said “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8)

Following Peter has always been a hard sell. But it was Jesus who built his Church on such a man – a Church that has lasted for millennia.

We’re just the latest generation to have a tough time when Jesus points to an all-too-human Peter and says, “On this rock, I will build my Church.”

A version of this article appeared in Inside the Vatican. Image: Wikipedia.

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. His book What Pope Francis Really Said is now available on Audible. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, Hoopes served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.