St. Peter's Church in the Vatican, the greateat house of God in the Christian world, is one of the largest and most majestic creations of man. It rises above the relics of this apostle with a thrilling exultation, a worthy monument of this sovereign of the early Christian world. Rising up into the air in large letters in the chapel of Michelangelo are the words of our Lord Jesus Christ to Peter, which shall never pass away even if heaven and earth should pass away: "Tu es Petrus! Et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam." - Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.
On an important feast day, when the successor of Peter is carried into the cathedral to the loud shouting of a restless and surging crowd, when the silver trumpets ring out during the Consecration of the Mass, when the high priest turns to bless the people, then does Peter, first of the unbroken chain of pontiffs, inspire the awe of the thousands who have come to meet their intercessor-Peter, who now, in eternity, touches the hem of God's garment. How mighty and majestic is the statue of Peter! How mighty and majestic was Peter the man!
As one leaves behind the great city of Rome, the statue of Peter, and the great basilica, and turn his attention to the Gospels, he finds that the simplicity of this man, the lightning of God flashing around him, leaves him speechless. So expressive, in this fisherman that He should make him, and only him, the pastor of His flock and the father of His kingdom, the foundation of His Church and the ruler of all Christianity. If the man of the century had been Paul, or the genial John, or even James, who was so vehemently energetic-although these also were not fully deserving of such a great honor-one could understand it better. But Peter? Who was this fisherman, Simon Peter?
Peter's Home and Family
Peter's home was neither Rome nor Athens, neither Jerusalem nor Tarsus, but the very small and insignificant town of Bethsaida. Situated on the eastern shore of Lake Genesareth. This is also called the Sea of Galilee and the Lake of Tiberias. The lake was thirteen miles long and six miles wide and forms the eastern coast of Galilee, the northern and most fertile region in Palestine. It was also the home of Philip the tetrarch. Very possibly, too, his home town could have been another, a very small Bethsaida on the western shore. In either case, however, Bethsaida is well-known in world history today only because Peter was from there.
During the years of Christ's public life, Peter was living in the neighboring city of Capharnaum, occupying a house there. Here the Lord humbly came and went as though He were at home. The traits and mannerism of Peter's native land were distinctly stamped on this prince of the apostles. On no other disciple of Christ was this Galilean character so strongly impressed. He had a very noticeable Galilean accent, which helped to betray him to the bystander at the time of his denial of Christ. Josephus Flavious, a Jewish historian of the first century, described the Galileans as enthusiastic, impetuously determined, and fired with spirit. Only the Judeans considered this people to be lawless and ignorant.
St. Peter's family ties were thoroughly simple. His father's name was Jona, or John-a spelling or writing mistake in the Greek transcription of Matthew's Gospel may be the reason for this difference. He was a quiet man, going about his business unnoticed, neither a councilor nor a financier, neither a politician nor a man of in fluence. But then the glance of the Lord fell upon his son, so his name will also endure as a star until the end of time: "'Blessed are thou, Simon, son of Jona!...Simon, son of John, dost thou love me?'"
The Gospels make mention of the quiet brother of Peter, Andrew, whose honor it was to be called together with Peter by the Lord to an apostolic mission. The two brothers were dedicated to the witnessing of the Gospels, the word of God. One of the first miracles of Jesus was the curing of Peter's mother-in-law, who was ill with "a great fever," as Luke, the doctor, diagnosed it in his Gospel.
The wife of Peter is never expressly mentioned in the Gospels. St Jerome conjectured that she may have died early. Perhaps it is for this very reason that Peter's mother-in-law, after her miraculous cure, was so busy and zealous in her work, serving the Guest, since there was no other woman in the house to see after the home affairs. Other commentators, however, propose that the "wife" of Peter should be understood as his "sister," whom Paul in his First Epistle to the Corinthians mentioned as a servant of Peter, helping him on his apostolic journeys. Clement of Alexandria reported that Peter accompanied his wife even to martyrdom, exhorting and encouraging, "Remember the Lord!" Jerome also wrote about the growing children of Peter. Very specifically, the conversions of a daughter of Petronilla also related this. The actual account is to be found in the "Acts of the Martyrs Sts. Nereus and Achilles." However, this holy Petronilla probably was related to the family of Petronius, who in turn belonged to the celebrated Roman family of Flavius.
Peter's Profession and Calling
By profession Peter was a fisherman. A fisherman certainly cannot be called a poor man, and by no means a beggar. Peter himself wanted to do away with such pious exaggerations. At all times he owned a house, a boat, and all the gear necessary for his work. He hired, most likely as day-laborers, the fisherman Zebedee and his family. A man who came from a background of utter poverty could not have walked so boldly and self-confidently up to the Lord when He called and have said, "'Behold, we have left all and followed thee.'"
We have left all! The sea, the wide blue sea, Peter gave up for the Lord, and in exchange was plunged headlong into the dirt and squalor of the streets and cities. Often later, as he walked through Antioch and Corinth and Rome, burdened with the cares and anxieties of the infant Church, he recalled his days on the sea. But it was the sea that prepared Peter for the storms and gales and furies, for the problems and difficulties of the universal Church.
Considering the origin, the domestic circumstances, and the social surroundings of this common fisherman, one would hardly prophesy the very high office heaven and earth were to bestow upon this man. Undoubtedly through the centuries many a common man has risen in his youth from the guidance of sheep to the guidance of men. Yet Peter possessed a personal, though not exceptional, natural talent which raised him above mediocrity. He had a lively and brilliant spirit, a quick and impetuous will, and, above all, a warm heart. He was a simple, upright person who, as he earlier had cared faithfully for his family and himself, later did not spare himself in looking after the new-born Church. His was a practical life: first things first. He planned boldly; his goals were high. If they were not completely rejected, they were at least opposed and discouraged. But Simon Peter could also persevere.
All this is evident from what Peter wrote about St. Paul:
Just as our most dear brother Paul also, according to the wisdom given him, has written to you, as indeed he did in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things. In these epistles there are certain things difficult to understand, which the unlearned and the unstable distort, just as they do the rest of the Scriptures also, to their own destruction.