The Gospel story shows that the primacy of Peter was not something that was invented by the Church later on. It went right back to the beginning, yes, to the mind and will of Christ himself. His position as the leader of the Twelve is shown in many details in the Gospels. For instance, he is presented as the spokesman of the Twelve, and whenever the twelve apostles are listed his name is always first.
Yet the Gospels do not spare Peter, but clearly show the high and low points in his life. No doubt the lowest point was when he denied Jesus. The incident related in today’s Gospel (his great profession of faith in Jesus) was almost certainly his finest moment.
Jesus might have tempered this moment with a touch of reality, in case Peter might get a swelled head. Instead, he praised and blessed Peter, and promised to bestow responsibility and authority on him. There was a solid, even rocklike side to Peter’s character. He was always the one to come forward. It’s obvious that he had leadership qualities which Jesus recognized.
But there was another side to his character, a weaker and darker side, of which he was not yet aware. But he would find out about it in time. It would prove to be a very humbling and bitter experience for him. It is important that those in positions of leadership be aware of their weaknesses. People who act as if they are infallible make a lot of mistakes and hurt a lot of people.
It’s important to remember that the Peter who said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,’ was the same Peter who later said, ‘I do not know this man.’ If it was a different Peter, that would explain everything. But it was the exact same Peter. We might be inclined to say, ‘Ah, but the first Peter was the true or real Peter.’ But this would be a mistake. There was only one Peter.
What does this tell us? That there was division within Peter, just as there is division within each of us. Just as Peter was capable of being courageous at one moment and cowardly at another, so are we. Each of us has high and low moments. We must not let our low moments get us down, and we must draw encouragement from our high moments. While we must not forget our weak side, we must try to act out of our strong side. The Lord smiles on us in our good moments, and upholds us in our low moments.
The low moments of others should not cause us to put them down or write them off. Their good moments should help us to see their potential, and to affirm and encourage them. In general we are eager to voice our criticisms, but reluctant to give a single word of encouragement, and in this way we bar every road to improvement.
A remark I read somewhere: ‘I used to find the worst thing about others and tear them down. Now I try to find something good to say about them and thus build them up.’ In considering what people are not, we overlook what they are. Better to appreciate what a person has than brood over what he hasn’t.
Peter had his faults, but those faults were very obvious. But so too were his strengths: his generosity, his enthusiasm, his leadership. Jesus saw that, in spite of everything, his heart was sound. We must try to seek the good in everyone, and to reveal it and bring it out, as Jesus did in the case of Peter.