Below is a working translation of Pope Francis’ address Thursday morning, March 2, 2017, to the priests of the Diocese of Rome, gathered in the Basilica of Saint John Lateran for the traditional appointment at the beginning of Lent. Due to the length of the address, Zenit is publishing this in separate pieces and this is part II.
The Icon of Simon Peter “Sifted”
To concretize this reflection regarding a faith that grows with discernment of the moment, we contemplate the icon of Simon Peter “sifted” (cf. Luke 22:31), which the Lord prepared in a paradigmatic way, so that with his faith tested he could confirm all of us who “love Christ without having seen Him” (cf. 1 Peter 1:8).
We enter fully in the paradox by which he who must confirm us in the faith is the same one that the lord often reproaches for his “little faith.” The Lord usually indicates other persons as examples of great faith. With notable emphasis many times He praises the faith of simple persons and of others that do not belong to the people of Israel – we think of the centurion (cf. Luke 7:9) and the Syro-Phoenician woman (cf. 15:28) –, while to the disciples – and to Simon Peter in particular – He often reproaches their “little faith” (Matthew 14:31).
Keeping in mind that the Lord’s reflections regarding great faith and little faith have a pedagogic intent and are a stimulus to increase the desire to grow in faith, we concentrate on a key passage in Simon Peter’s life, that in which Jesus says to him that He “has prayed” for his faith. It is the moment that precedes the Passion; the Apostles have just discussed who among them is the traitor and who is the greatest, and Jesus says to Simon: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:31-32).
We specify the terms, because the Lord’s requests to the Father are things to treasure in the heart. We consider that the Lord “prays”  for Simon but thinking of us. “To fail” translates ekleipo – whence “eclipsed” – and the image of an eclipsed faith by the scandal of the Passion is very plastic. It is that experience that we call desolation: something covers the light.
To go back (epistrepsas) expresses here the sense of “being converted,” of returning to the previous consolation after an experience of desolation and of having been sifted by the devil.
“To confirm” (sterizon) is said in the sense of “to consolidate” (histemi) the faith so that henceforth it is “determined” (cf. Luke 9:51) — a faith that no wind of doctrine can toss (cf. Ephesians 4:14). Further on we pause again on this “sifting.” We can reread the Lord’s words thus: “Simon, Simon, [. . .] I have prayed to the Father for you, so that your faith is not eclipsed (from my disfigured face, in you who saw it transfigured); and you, once you have come out of this experience of desolation of which the devil has taken advantage to sift you, confirm (with your tested faith) “the faith of your brethren.”
Thus, we see that Simon Peter’s faith has a special character: it is a tested faith, and with it he has the mission to confirm and consolidate the faith of his brethren, our faith. Simon Peter’s faith is less than that of so many little ones of the faithful people of God. There are even pagans, as the centurion, who have a greater faith at the moment of imploring the healing of a sick one of their family. Simon’s faith is slower than that of Mary Magdalen or of John. John believes just seeing the sign of the shroud and he recognizes the Lord on the shore of the Lake on just hearing His words. Simon Peter’s faith has moments of greatness, as when he confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, but these moments are followed almost immediately by others of great error, of extreme frailty and total disconcert, as when he want to move the Lord away from the cross, or when he sinks without remedy in the Lake, or when he wants to defend the Lord with his sword, not to speak of the shameful moment of the three denials before the servants.
We can distinguish three types of thoughts, charged with affections , which interact in Simon Peter’s tests of faith: some are the thoughts that come from his very way of being; other thoughts are caused directly by the devil (of the evil spirit); and a third type of thoughts come directly from the Lord or from the Father (from the good spirit).
- The Two Names and the Desire to Walk on the waters towards Christ
We see, in the first place, how the Lord relates to the most human aspect of Simon Peter’s faith. I speak of that healthy self-esteem with which one believes in oneself and in the other, in the capacity to be worthy of trust, sincere and faithful, on which every human friendship is based. There are two episodes on Simon Peter’s life in which one can see growth in faith, which can be called sincere. Sincere in the sense of without complications, in which a friendship grows deepening who each one is without their being shadows. One is the episode of the two names; the other, when Simon Peter asks the Lord to command that he go towards Him walking on the water.
Simon appears on the scene when his brother Andrew goes to seek him and says to him: “We have found the Messiah” (John 1:41); and he follows his brother who takes him to Jesus. And there the change of name happens immediately. It is a choice the Lord makes in view of a mission, that of being Rock, solid foundation of faith on which He will build His Church. We note that, more than changing the name of Simon, what the Lord does, in fact, is to add that of Peter.
This fact is already a motive of tension and of growth. Peter will always move around the pivot which is the Lord, turning and feeling the weight and the movement of his two names: that of Simon – the fisherman, the sinner, the friend . . . –and that of Peter – the Rock on which to build, he who has the keys, who says the last word, who looks after and feed the sheep –. It does me good to think that Simon is the name with which Jesus calls him when they speak and say things to one another as friends, and Peter is the name with which the Lord presents him, justifies him, defends him and highlights him before the others in a unique manner as his man of total trust. Even if it is He who gives him the name of “Pietra,” Jesus calls him Simon.
Simon Peter’s faith progresses and grows in the tension between these two names, whose fixed point – the pivot – is centered in Jesus.
To have two names de-centers him. He cannot center himself on any of them. If he wished to have Simon as his fixed point, he would always have to say: “Lord, depart from me, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). If he pretended to center himself exclusively on being Peter and forgot or covered all that is of Simon, he would become a rock of scandal, as happened when “he was not straightforward about the truth of the Gospel,” as Paul says to him, because he had concealed the fact of having gone to eat with Gentiles (cf. Galatians 2:11-14). To keep himself Simon (fisherman and sinner) and Peter (Rock and key for the others) will oblige him to constantly de-center himself to rotate only around Christ, the only center.
The icon of this de-centering, its putting it into act, is when he asks Jesus to command him to go toward Him on the waters. Simon Peter shows his character there, his dream, his attraction to imitate Jesus. When he sinks, because he stops looking at the Lord and looks at the agitation of the waves, he shows his fears and his ghosts. And when he prays that He save him and the Lord reaches out His hand, he shows that he knows well who Jesus is for him: his Savior. And the Lord reinforces his faith, granting him what he desires, giving him a hand and closing the question with that affectionate and reassuring phrase: “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31).
Simon Peter in all the “limit” situations in which he can get into, guided by his faith in Jesus will always discern the hand that saves him. With that certainty that, even when he does not understand well what Jesus says or does, will make him say: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Humanly, this awareness of having “little faith,” together with the humility to let himself be helped by one he knows can do so, is the point of healthy self-esteem in which the seed of that faith is rooted “to confirm the others,: to “build on it,” which is that that Jesus wants from Simon Peter and from us who participate in the ministry. I would say that it is a faith that can be shared, perhaps because it is no so admirable. The faith of one who has learnt to walk without tribulations on the waters would be fascinating, but it would distance us. Instead, this faith of a good friend, aware of his smallness and who trusts fully in Jesus, arouses our sympathy and – this is His grace – it confirms us!
- B) Jesus’ Prayer and the Devil’s Sifting
In the central passage of Luke, which we took as guide, we can see what produces the devil’s sifting in the personality of Simon Peter and how Jesus prays so that the weakness, and even the sin, are transformed into grace and communal grace. We concentrate on the word “sifting” (siniazo: to sift the wheat), which evokes the movement of spirits, thanks to which, at the end, one discerns what comes from the good spirit from what comes from the evil one. In this case he who sifts – he who claims the power to sift – is the evil spirit. And the Lord does not impede him, but, taking advantage of the test, addresses His prayer to the Father to reinforce Simon Peter’s heart. Jesus prays so that Simon Peter “[does] not fall into temptation.” The Lord did everything possible to protect His own in His Passion. However, He cannot avoid that each one be tempted by the devil, who introduces himself in the weakest part. In this type of test, which God does not send directly but which He does not impede, Paul tells us that the Lord takes care that we not be tempted beyond our strength (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:3).
The fact that the Lord says expressly that He prays for Simon is extremely important, because the most insidious temptation of the devil is that, together with a certain particular test, he makes us feel that Jesus has abandoned us, that in some way He has left us alone and has not helped us as He should have. The Lord Himself experienced and overcame this temptation, first in the Garden and then on the cross, entrusting Himself to the Father’s hands when He felt abandoned. It is in this point of the faith that we have need to be in a special way and with care reinforced and confirmed. In the fact that the Lord foresaw what would happen to Simon Peter and assured him that He had already prayed so that his faith would not fail, we find the strength of which we are in need.
This “eclipse” of the faith in face of the scandal of the Passion is one of the things for which the lord prays in a particular way. The Lord asks us to pray always, with insistence: He associates us to His prayer, He makes us ask “that we fall not into temptation and that we be delivered from evil,” because our flesh is weak; He also reveals to us that there are devils that are only defeated with prayer and penance and, in certain things, He reveals to us that He prays in a special way. This is one of these. As He kept for Himself the humble task of washing the feet of His own, as once risen He was personally concerned with consoling His friends, in the same way this prayer with which, reinforcing Simon Peter’s faith, He reinforces that of all the others, it is something of which the Lord takes charge personally. And it is necessary to take it into account: it is to this prayer , which the Lord did once and continues to do – “who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us” (Romans 8:34) – to which we must take recourse to reinforce our faith.
If the lesson given to Simon Peter to let his feet be washed has confirmed the Lord’s attitude of service and has fixed it in the Church’s memory as a fundamental event, this lesson, given in the same context, must be put in it also as icon of the tempted and sifted faith for which the Lord prays. As priests who take part in the Petrine ministry, in that which is ours, we participate in the same mission: not only should we wash the feet of our brethren, as we do on Holy Thursday, but we must confirm them in their faith, witnessing how the Lord prayed for ours.
If in the trials that originate in our flesh the Lord encourages and reinforces us, often working miracles of healing, in these temptations that come directly from the devil, the Lord uses a more complex strategy. We see that there are some devils that He expels directly and bluntly; others He neutralizes, silencing them; He makes others speak, asks their name, as the one who was “Legion”; to others he answers amply with Scripture, enduring a long procedure, as the case of the temptations in the desert. This devil, who tempts his friend at the beginning of His Passion, He defeats by praying, not so that he will leave Him in peace, but so that His sifting will become a motive of strength for the benefit of others.
We have here some great teachings on growth in the faith. One has to do with the scandal of the suffering of the Innocent One and of the innocent. This touches us more than we think, it even touches those who cause it or those who feign not to see it. It does good to hear from the mouth of the Lord, at the precise moment in which He is about to take on Himself the scandal of the Passion, He prays that the faith will not fail of those He leaves instead of His own, and because it is for Him to confirm the rest of us. The eclipse of the faith caused by the Passion is not something that each one can resolve and surmount individually.
Another important lesson is when the Lord tests us, He never does so in our weakest part. This is typical of the devil, who exploits our weaknesses, who looks for our weakest part and who rages fiercely against the weakest of this world. Therefore the infinite and unconditional mercy of the Father for the littlest and sinners, and the compassion and infinite forgiveness that Jesus exercises to the point of giving his life for sinners, is no only because god is good, but it is also fruit of God’s ultimate discernment upon evil to uproot it from its relation with the frailty of the flesh. In the last instance, evil is not with the frailty and the limit of the flesh. Therefore, the Word is made flesh without any fear and gives witness that He can live perfectly in the heart of the Holy Family and grow protected by two humble creatures as Saint Joseph and the Virgin Mary, His Mother.
Evil has its origin in an act of spiritual pride and is born of the arrogance of a perfect creature, Lucifer. Then, it is infected in Adam and Eve, but finding support in their “desire to be like gods,” not in their frailty. In the case of Simon Peter, the Lord does not fear his frailty as sinful man or his fear to walk on the waters in the midst of a storm. Rather, He fears the discussion about who is the greatest.
It is in this context that He says to Simon Peter that the devil has asked for permission to sift him. And we can think that the sifting began there, in the discussion about who would be the one to betray Him, which then resulted in the discussions about who was the greatest. Luke’s whole passage, which follows immediately after the institution of the Eucharist is a sifting: discussions, predictions of the denial, offering of the sword (cf. 22:23-38). Simon Peter’s faith is sifted in the tension between the desire to be loyal, to defend Jesus and that of being the greatest and denial, the cowardice and feeling himself the worst of all. The Lord prays so that Satan will not darken Simon’s faith in this moment, in which he looks at himself to make himself great, , to scorn himself or to remain disconcerted and perplexed.
If there is a formulation elaborated by Peter about these things, it is that of a “tested faith,” as his First Letter shows us, in which Peter warns that one must not be surprised by tests, as if they were something strange (cf. 4:12), but the devil must be resisted “firm in the faith” (5:9).Peter describes himself as a “witness of the sufferings of Christ” (5:1) and he writes his letters to “remind them [. . .] of the right way to think” (2 Peter 3:1) (eilikrine dianoian: judgment illuminated by a ray of sun), which would be the grace opposed to the “eclipse” of the faith.
Therefore, the progress of the faith happens thanks to this sifting, to this passing through temptations and trials. Simon Peter’s whole life can be seen as progress in the faith thanks to the Lord’s accompaniment, who teaches him to discern, in his heart, what comes from the Father and what comes from the devil.
- b) The Lord who puts to the test making the faith grow from good to better and ever present temptation
Finally, the encounter by the Lake of Tiberius – a further step in which the Lord puts Simon Peter to the test, making him grow from the good to the better. The love of friendship is consolidated as that which “feeds” the flock and reinforces it in the faith (cf. John 21:15-19).
Reading in this context of Simon Peter’s trials of faith which serve to reinforce our own, we can see here how it is about a very special test of the Lord. In general it is said that the Lord questioned him three times because Simon Peter denied Him three times. It might be that this weakness was present in Simon Peter’s soul (or in him who reads his story) and that the dialogue served to cure it. But we can also think that the Lord healed that denial with his look which made Simon Peter weep bitterly (cf. Luke 22:62). In this interrogation we can see a way of proceeding of the Lord, namely, to begin from a god thing – which all recognized and of which Simon Peter could be happy –: “Do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15); confirming him, simplifying him in a simple “do you love me?” (v. 16), which removes every desire for greatness and rivalry from Simon’s soul; to end in that “do you love me as a friend?” (v. 17), which is what Simon Peter most desired and, evidently, is that which is most at heart in Jesus. If it is truly love of friendship, there is no type of reproach or correction in this love: friendship is friendship and it is the highest value that corrects and improves all the rest, without the need to talk about the motive.
Perhaps this was the greatest temptation of the devil: to insinuate in Simon Peter the idea to not feel himself worthy to be a friend of Jesus because he had betrayed Him. But the lord is faithful – always. And He renews His fidelity again and again. “If we are faithless, He remains faithful – for He cannot deny Himself” (2 Timothy 2:13), as Paul says to Timothy, his son in the faith. Friendship has this grace: that a friend who is more faithful can. With his fidelity, make the other faithful who is no so faithful. And if it is about Jesus, He more than any other has the power to make His friends faithful. It is in this faith – the faith in a Jesus faithful friend – that Simon Peter is confirmed and sent to confirm each and all. In this precise sense one can read the threefold mission of feeding the sheep and the lambs. Considering all that pastoral care entails, that of reinforcing others in faith in Jesus, who loves us as friends, is an essential element. It is to this love that Peter refers in his First Letter: it is a faith in Jesus Christ who says: “without having seen Him you love Him; though you do not now see Him you believe in Him,” and this makes us rejoice “with unutterable and exalted joy,” certain of reaching “the end of (our) faith: the salvation of souls” (cf. 1 Peter 1:7-9).
However, another temptation arises — this time against his best friend — the temptation to want to investigate Jesus’ relationship with John, the beloved disciple. The Lord corrects him severely on this point: “What is that to you? Follow me” (John 21:22).
We see how temptation is always present in Simon Peter’s life. He shows us personally how the faith progresses confessing and letting himself be put to the test. And showing others that sin itself also enters in the progress of the faith. Peter committed the worst sin – denying the Lord – and yet he was made Pope. It is important for a priest to be able to insert his temptations and his sins in the ambit of this prayer of Jesus so that our faith does not fail, but matures and serves to reinforce in turn the faith of those that have been entrusted to us.
I like to repeat that a priest or a bishop who does not feel himself a sinner, who does not go to confession, is shut-in on himself, he does not progress in the faith. But it is necessary to be careful that confession and discernment of one’s temptations include and take into account this pastoral intention that the Lord wants to give to them.
A young man was telling me, who was recovering in Father Pepe’s Hogar de Cristo in Buenos Aires, that his mind played against him and aid he should not be there, and that he was fighting against this feeling. And he said that Father Pepe helped him a lot. That one day he told him that he could not anymore, that felt very much the absence of his family, of his wife and of his children, and that he wanted to leave. “And the priest said to me: “And before, when you went around to take drugs and sell drugs, were you missing your own? Were you thinking of them?” I made a sign with my hear to say no, in silence – said the man – and the priest, without saying anything more to me, gave me a slap on the back and said to me: “Go, enough of this.” As if to say to me: realize that what is happening to you and what you are saying. “Thank heaven that you now feel the absence.”
That man said that the priest was great. Who said things to his face. And this helped him to fight, because he was the one who had to put his will to work.
I tell this to make it seen that what helps in the growth of the faith is to have together one’s sin, the desire of the good of other, the help we receive and that which we should give. It is no good to divide: it is not right to feel perfect when we are unwilling <to carry out > the ministry and, when we sin, to justify ourselves by the fact that we are like all the others. It is necessary to unite things: if we reinforce the faith of others, we do so as sinners. And when we sin, we confess as what we are, priests, stressing that we have a responsibility towards persons, we are not like a;;. These two things are well united if we put before people. Our sheep. The poorest especially. It is what Jesus does when He asks Simon Peter if he loves Him, but He does not say anything to him either of the sorrow or of the joy that this love causes Him; He makes him look at his brethren in this way: feed my sheep, confirm your brothers’ faith. Almost saying to him, as to that young man of the Hogar de Cristo “Give thanks if you now feel the absence.”
“Give thanks if you feel you have little faith,” means that you are loving your brothers. “Give thanks if you feel yourself a sinner and unworthy of the ministry,: means that you realize that if you do something it is because Jesus prays for you, and without Him you can do nothing (cf. John 15:5).
Our elderly used to say that faith grows by doing acts of faith. Simon Peter is the icon of the man to whom the Lord Jesus makes him do at every moment acts of faith. When Simon Peter understand this “dynamic” of the Lord, His pedagogy, he does not lose an occasion to discern, at every moment, what act of faith he can make in his Lord. And in this he is not mistaken. When Jesus acts as his Master, giving him the name Peter, Simon lets Him do it. His “so be it: is silent, as that of Saint Joseph, and it will show itself real in the course of his life.
[Original Text: Italian] [Working Translation by ZENIT, by Virginia Forrester] ***
On ZENIT’s Web page:
The working translation of Part I can be viewed here: https://zenit.org/articles/popes-address-to-roman-clergy-part-i/