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Peter is charged with feeding the sheep

Catechesis by Pope John Paul II on the Church
General Audience, Wednesday 9 December 1992 - in Italian & Spanish  

"1. The promise Jesus made to Peter to establish him as the foundation stone of his Church was confirmed in the mandate Christ entrusted to him after the resurrection: "Feed my lambs.... Feed my sheep" (Jn 21:15-17). There is an objective relationship between the conferral of the mission attested to in John's account and the promise recorded by Matthew (cf. Mt 16:18-19). In Matthew's text there is an announcement; in John's the announcement is fulfilled. The words, "Feed my sheep" show Jesus' intention to guarantee the future of the Church he founded under the direction of a universal shepherd--Peter--to whom he said that by his grace he will be "rock" and will have "the keys to the kingdom of heaven" with the power of "binding and loosing." After the resurrection Jesus gave a concrete form to the announcement and the promise made in Caesarea Philippi, establishing Peter's authority as a pastoral ministry of the Church on a universal scale.

2. We immediately note that this pastoral mission includes the duty to "strengthen his brothers" in the faith, which we discussed in the preceding catechesis. "Strengthening his brothers" and "feeding the sheep" together represent Peter's mission; it could be called the proprium of his universal ministry. As the First Vatican Council states, the Church's constant Tradition has rightly maintained that Peter's apostolic primacy "also includes the supreme power of Magisterium" (cf. DS 3065). Both the primacy and the power of Magisterium are directly conferred by Jesus on Peter as a unique individual, although both prerogatives are ordered to the Church, without however being derived from the Church, but only from Christ. The primacy was given to Peter (cf. Mt 16:18) as "totius ecclesiae figuram gerenti" [1] , that is, inasmuch as he personally represents the entire Church. The duty and power of Magisterium is conferred on him as confirmed faith so that it may strengthen all the "brothers" (cf. Lk 22:31f.). But all this is in the Church and for the Church, whose foundation is Peter, the keeper of the keys and the shepherd in the visible structure, in Christ's name and by his mandate.

3. Jesus had foretold this mission to Peter not only in Caesarea Philippi, but also at the first miraculous catch of fish, when he said to Simon, who had acknowledged that he was a sinner: "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men" (Lk 5:10). On that occasion Jesus reserved this announcement to Peter personally, distinguishing him from his companions and colleagues, among whom were the "sons of Zebedee," James and John (cf. Lk 5:10). At the second miraculous catch of fish following the resurrection, the person of Peter stands out from the other apostles, as John describes the event (21:2ff.). He hands on a record of it, as it were, in the prophetic symbolism of the fruitfulness of the mission Christ entrusted to those fishermen.

4. When Jesus was about to confer the mission on Peter, he addressed him officially as "Simon, son of John" (Jn 21:15), but he then assumed a familiar, friendly tone: "Do you love me more than these?" This question expresses his interest in the person of Simon Peter and stands in relationship to his choice for a personal mission. Jesus asked the question three times, with an implicit reference to the threefold denial. Peter gave an answer not based on trust in his own strength, personal abilities or merits. By now he was well aware that he must put all his trust in Christ alone: "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you" (Jn 21:17). Obviously the task of shepherd requires a special love for Christ. However, it is he, it is God who gives everything, including the ability to respond to one's vocation, to fulfill one's own mission. Indeed, we must say "all is grace," especially at that level!

5. After Simon Peter had given the desired answer, Jesus conferred on him the pastoral mission: "Feed my lambs.... Feed my sheep." It is a prolongation of Jesus' mission. He had said of himself: "I am the good shepherd" (Jn 10:11). Jesus, who shared with Simon his quality as "rock," also communicated to him his mission as "shepherd." It is a communication which implies an intimate communion, as can also be seen in Jesus' expression: "Feed my sheep," as he had already said: "Upon this rock I will build my Church" (Mt 16:18). The Church is Christ's property, not Peter's. The lambs and sheep belong to Christ, and to no one else. They belong to him as the "good shepherd" who "lays down his life for the sheep" (Jn 10:11). Peter must take up the pastoral ministry for those redeemed "with the precious blood of Christ" (1 Pet 1:19). The nature of the service which distinguishes the power connected to the mission conferred on Peter is based on the relationship between Christ and human beings, who have become his property through the redemption. It is a service to him who alone is "the shepherd and guardian of our souls" (1 Pet 2:25), as well as to all whom Christ, the good shepherd, has redeemed at the cost of his sacrifice on the cross. The content of this service is also clear: as a shepherd leads his sheep to where they can find food and safety, so the shepherd of souls must offer them the food of God's word and of his holy will (cf. Jn 4:34), ensuring the unity of the flock and defending it from every hostile attack.

6. Certainly this mission entails a power, but for Peter--and for his successors--it is a power ordered to service, to a specific service, a ministerium. Peter receives it in the community of the Twelve. He is one of the community of the apostles. However, it is certain that Jesus, both by the announcement (cf. Mt 16:18-19) and by the conferral of the mission after his resurrection, assigned in a particular way to Peter everything he transmitted as mission and power to all the apostles. To him alone did Jesus say, "Feed," repeating it three times. Consequently, within the common task of the Twelve a mission and a power are defined for Peter which belong to him alone.

7. Jesus addressed Peter as a unique individual among the Twelve, not only as a representative of them: "Do you love me more than these?" (Jn 21:15). He asked this subject--the you that is Peter--for a declaration of love and on him this unique mission and authority were conferred. Peter was thus distinguished from the other apostles. The threefold repetition of the question about Peter's love, probably in relation to his triple denial of Christ, also highlights the fact that a particular ministerium is conferred on him, as a decision of Christ himself, independently of any quality or merit on the apostle's part, and even despite his temporary infidelity.

8. Communion in the messianic mission established by Jesus with Peter in that mandate, "Feed my lambs..." cannot fail to include the apostle-shepherd's participation in the sacrificial condition of Christ, the good shepherd, "who lays down his life for the sheep." This is the interpretative key for many events found in the history of the pontificate of Peter's successors. Throughout this history echoes the prediction Jesus made: "When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go" (Jn 21:18). This was a prediction of the confirmation Peter would give to his pastoral ministry by dying as a martyr. As John says, by such a death Peter "would glorify God" (Jn 21:9). The pastoral service entrusted to Peter in the Church would be consummated by his sharing in the sacrifice of the cross offered by Christ to redeem the world. The cross, which redeemed Peter, would thus become for him the privileged way of totally fulfilling his duty as "servant of the servants of God."

[1]   St. Augustine, Epist. 53, 1, 2

After the Catechesis, Papa Giovanni Paolo II greeted the pilgrims in various languages

Ai visitatori di lingua francese

Chers Frères et Sœurs,

À toutes les personnes de langue française qui sont présentes ici ce matin, j’adresse un très cordial salut.

Tandis que nous avançons vers la fête de Noël, je demande au Seigneur de répandre sur vous sa lumière pour qu’il vous trouve, quand il viendra, “vigilants dans la prière et remplis d’allégresse”.

Qu’il vous bénisse et qu’il vous garde!

Ai pellegrini di espressione inglese

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

I extend a cordial welcome to Bishop Even Fougner and a group from the Lutheran Church of Norway. I pray that your visit to Rome will be spiritually enriching and that it will encourage you in your ecumenical commitment. My greetings also go to the group of teachers and students from Kenya. To the choirs from Vantaa, Finland, and from Chicago, I express my appreciation for their praise of God in song. Upon all the English-speaking visitors, especially the pilgrimage groups from England, Wales and the United States, I cordially invoke the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Ai fedeli di lingua tedesca

Liebe Schwestern und Brüder!

Mit dem innigen Wunsch, in dieser Adventszeit dem Ruf und dem Beispiel Johannes des Täufers zu folgen und durch Wort und Tat Wegbereiter des Herrn zu sein, der auf uns zukommt, begrübe ich Euch, liebe deutschsprachige Pilger und Besucher sehr herzlich, be sonders die ”Bürgerkapelle Tramin“ aus der Diözese Bozen-Brixen.

Euch allen, Euren lieben Angehörigen daheim sowie all jenen, denen Ihr Euch geistlich verbunden wibt, erteile ich von Herzen meinen Apostolischen Segen.

Ai fedeli spagnoli

Amadísimos hermanos y hermanas,

Saludo ahora muy cordialmente a todos los peregrinos y visitantes de lengua española. En particular, al grupo de sacerdotes latinoamericanos que hacen un curso de animación misionera, a las Religiosas Guadalupanas y a las Mercedarias de la Caridad.

Ai pellegrini polacchi

Witam wszystkich obecnych tutaj pielgrzymów z Polski, w szczególności ogólnopolską pielgrzymkę kuratorów oświaty z ich krajowym duszpasterzem, a prócz tego wszystkich innych obecnych, zarówno z kraju, jak i z emigracji.

Ai fedeli di lingua italiana

Saluto tutti i pellegrini di lingua italiana e, in particolare, i fedeli di Carpenedolo, qui venuti con la Corale “Ars Nova”, che ieri ha accompagnato la solenne Liturgia in Santa Maria Maggiore. Vi ringrazio e, con le parole di Sant’Agostino, dico a ciascuno: “Chi canta bene, prega due volte”.

Un cordiale benvenuto rivolgo ai membri del “Centro Studi Avellaniti”, guidati dal loro Presidente, il Cardinale Pietro Palazzini. Nel ricordo della visita da me compiuta all’Abbazia di Fonte Avellana, auspico che il vostro lavoro culturale sia coronato da abbondanti frutti.

Accolgo con piacere il gruppo di Acquaviva Collecroce, in provincia di Campobasso; vi ringrazio per il dono della statua della Madonna “Regina della pace”, che avete qui recata in segno dell’antica solidarietà del vostro paese con i profughi provenienti dalla Croazia.

Saluto, poi, i giovani e i lavoratori della Diocesi di Iglesias, accompagnati dal loro Pastore e dai responsabili diocesani per la pastorale del mondo del lavoro. Condivido le vostre preoccupazioni per la grave crisi dell’occupazione ed incoraggio il vostro impegno in favore del diritto al lavoro.

Un pensiero, infine, per gli Allievi dell’Accademia Aeronautica di Pozzuoli, ai quali auguro di tendere sempre alle nobili mete della virtù, sulle ali della fede e della rettitudine.

Ai giovani, agli ammalati e agli sposi novelli

Carissimi giovani, malati, sposi novelli!

Affido particolarmente alla vostra attenzione il “Catechismo della Chiesa Cattolica”, che proprio nei giorni scorsi è stato solennemente presentato alla Chiesa e al mondo. Esso offre alla meditazione della comunità cristiana le linee essenziali della fede, perché i credenti siano sempre più radicati nella verità, saldi nella comunione, vibranti nell’annuncio del Vangelo. Auspico di cuore che il nuovo Catechismo costituisca per voi, giovani, un luminoso punto di riferimento nel cammino della vostra vita; aiuti voi, malati, a trovare nel Cristo il significato salvifico del dolore; indichi a voi, sposi novelli, il segreto della riuscita del vostro amore coniugale. A tutti imparto la mia Benedizione.

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