Is the Barque of Peter Really Seaworthy?
During Pope Benedict XVI’s final general audience, he reflected on his pontificate in the context of the oft-used symbol of the Catholic Church as the Barque of Peter:
I have felt like St. Peter with the Apostles in the boat on the Sea of Galilee: the Lord has given us many days of sunshine and gentle breeze, days in which the catch has been abundant; then there have been times when the seas were rough and the wind against us, as in the whole history of the Church it has ever been—and the Lord seemed to sleep. Nevertheless, I always knew that the Lord is in the barque, that the barque of the Church is not mine, not ours, but is His—and He shall not let her sink. It is He, who steers her: to be sure he does so also through men of His choosing, for He desired that it be so. This was and is a certainty that nothing can tarnish.
These are lofty words to be sure. They direct our minds to scenes of placid waters, calm and peaceful. As our Pope Emeritus puts it: “Nevertheless, I always knew that the Lord is in the barque . . . and He shall not let her sink.” Certainly, on an ultimate basis both of these statements are true. But we should not take the Pope Emeritus as calling for rest. No, he is calling for action from the oars and from the guns of the Church Militant.
There are two stories in scripture in which Jesus calms the turbulent Lake Gennesaret—the Sea of Galilee. In one story, Jesus is already in the boat sleeping when the tempest starts. In the other story, the Apostles are alone in the boat. It is in this latter story that Jesus comes toward the Apostles walking on the water. Although this miracle is recorded in three of the Gospels, only Mark reports an important and apparently enigmatic detail:
And he saw that they were distressed in rowing, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night, he came to them walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them. (Mk 6:48 RSVCE, 2d ed.).
“He meant to pass by them.” Jesus saw their distress and did not intend to do anything about it. This statement appears shocking and contrary to the comfortable attitudes of some in the Church who believe that we can simply fall backwards and Christ will catch us. This is not so. In most cases, Christ will simply let us hit the ground. This divine allowance is not to our detriment; rather, it is a consequence of our freedom and for our instruction. God permits our freedom in order to draw the will and the intellect to Him. That is the meaning of the words, “He meant to pass by them.” Blessed Theophylact comments on this passage as follows:
He permits the disciples to be tested, so that they would learn to endure. This is why He does not go to them at once, but allows them to be tossed by the storm throughout the night, teaching them to persevere and not to hope for rest at the very beginning of their troubles.
Indeed, it should be remembered that Christ sent the Apostles across the Sea of Galilee by themselves in the dark of night. It was not until the fourth watch (between 3 am and 6 am)—after hours of rowing—that Christ came toward them. “But the boat by this time was many furlongs distant from the land, beaten by the waves; for the wind was against them.” (Mt 6:24). John reports that “they had rowed about three or four miles.” (Jn 6:19a). This is the state of the Barque of Peter that was launched by our Savior. It is a far cry from the Love Boat.
Christ has clearly promised His divine protection to His Church in the end. But we live in time, God does not. We should not delude ourselves into inaction merely in the trust of His ultimate protection. For His protection may not be at this precise moment in time or in the moments that succeed it. The voyage is rife with travails, whether from without or within the boat. We must be prepared for the Barque to take on dangerous amounts of shot and water. Tertullian was one of the earliest writers to refer to the Church with the imagery of a boat and he minces no words about the seaworthiness of the vessel:
Also that little ship presented a type of the Church, because on the sea, which means this present world, it is being tossed about by the waves, which means persecutions and temptations, while our Lord in his long-suffering is at it were asleep, until at the last times he is awakened by the prayers of the saints to calm the world and restore tranquility to his own.
How do we ensure that Christ comes to aid we who struggle at the oars? An excellent example is also presented in a unique way in the Gospel of Mark:
And they came to Jericho and as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great multitude, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside. And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent; but he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” (Mk 10:46-49a).
“And Jesus stopped and said, ‘Call him.’” These are the sweetest words one can hear. If we want to hear those words and have Christ stop from passing by the Barque of Peter, we must follow the lead of Bartimaeus. In reflecting on this story, one can discern four virtues that should serve as our guide: vigilance (waiting and watching by the road as a beggar of grace and mercy); perseverance (withstanding rebuke to call loudly to God in our private lives and in the public square); supplication (not presuming on God’s aid, but actively requesting it in prayer); and fidelity (calling God “Master” and conforming our will in faith to His).
During this time of the vacancy of the See of Rome, and throughout our lives, we cannot sit back and hope for the best. Pope Benedict’s parting words cannot be construed in such a way. Many times he has asked each of us to take on our duty of being Catholic witnesses to the world. We each have a station to man on the Barque of Peter. And although we do not know if Bartimaeus ever set foot in a boat, for my money his is the only way to run a ship.
© 2013 Peter V. Rother
Peter V. Rother, Esq., guest contributor to the Bellarmine Forum, is Associate General Counsel of a Fortune 500 company. He is a sometime Confirmation catechist and retreat speaker. He resides with his wife and five children in Minnesota.
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