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Sant' Egidio
Friday, 21 July 2006


"My Heart Yearns for Ephraim"

Reading: Jeremiah: 31: 20-21


"‘My heart yearns [in pain] for Ephraim; I will surely have mercy on him’, says the Lord" (Jer. 31: 21). These words of God to Jeremias are addressed to the Apostle Peter as well as each of us in the Church of Rome of which he is the good shepherd. Our thoughts begin, like those of God, with the fact of a world full of sorrow, a world that, because of man, is sinful.

For over 1600 years the Basilica dedicated to the Galilean fisherman, Peter of Capernaum, has dominated the landscape of Rome. Even during the first three centuries, his Vatican grave had been known as the martyr’s trophaeum, the premier sign of the triumph of the Christian faith. In weighing the origins and character of Peter, his later honor would have seemed unlikely. Peter was born in the obscure village of Bethsaida on the northern shore of the Lake of Galilee. He eventually followed a woodworker from Nazareth whose young adult life ended abruptly with his execution as a criminal. In his own violent death several decades later, Peter is understood by the tradition to be following the pattern of the woodworker. Peter was married. His family was probably connected with the movement of repentance and conversion associated with John the Baptist. Peter and his brother Andrew had been drawn to the woodcutter from the circle of the Baptist’s disciples (Jn. 1: 35-42). Jesus, the woodworker, had been baptized by John. I repeat that the reform circle of John the Baptist emphasized repentance and conversion; his peaching made a profound imprint upon Jesus and his disciples.

Peter’s betrayal of Jesus makes difficult reading. Even now, it is incomprehensible that Peter not only denied Jesus but also cursed him. But he did. Yet his seemingly ‘failed’ discipleship during Jesus’s lifetime is ironic because afterwards his repentance opened up a space for a theology of reconciliation. At the end, Peter was not one of those corrupt ones who plotted the execution of Jesus. His remorse when in Caiaphas’ house Jesus "turned to" him shows that Peter understood that his friendship with Jesus was not destined to be one with those who seek to save their lives in this world at any price (Mk 8: 34-38). By admitting his guilt, a double movement took place between Peter and his sin. In recognition and admission, he identified himself with his guilt and affirmed that he was a sinner. In acknowledging that the sin belonged to him and him only, he put himself at a distance from it by "turning to the Lord". So it must be with those Romans today who have "turned to" Christ through the new lay manifestations of conversion and repentance. They realize that the moment of Christian witness has arrived. This requires continuous conversion and renewal.

Peter’s conversion has been a subject of profound reflection over the centuries. One recalls the artists who have struggled with that theme like Anselm, El Greco and Michelangelo. St. Anselm prays, " St. Peter, prince of the Apostles, by the mercy shown you and the power given you, loose my chains, heal my wounds." El Greco depicts Peter as "weeping bitterly" before a Manresa-like cave over his sins. Since Mediaeval times, tears have been te soul’s sign of repentance and associated with the Sacrament of Penance. Our pagan contemporaries are determined to remove the soul and its transcendence from reality. They are dedicated to suppress at all a costs the most ancient wisdom,"There is a time to live and a time to die".

Michelangelo was another artist who struggled with the bitter tears of Peter. I am convinced that the men and women who lived in the middle of sixteenth century Rome and who designed and built the new Basilica of St. Peter, never lived without the memory of the terror of 1527. Many associated the sack of Rome by the troops of the Emperor Charles V with the prophecy of Isaiah against an unrepentant Judah. Assyria would become God’s "rod of anger, his staff of fury" against Jerusalem (Is. 10: 5). Sixteenth century Romans, including members of the curia, saw Charles V as a latter day Sennacherib of Assyria. Some Christians today raise the quiet question, "In the midst of an unfettered instrumental rationality, unrepentant Gnosticism of our times, who will become God’ rod of anger against us?"

The Roman Basilica of St. Peter remains the premier sign of the endurance of Christian conversion to agape not only after the ‘pressing’ of ancient Rome by Alaric’s armies in 410 but also after the "pressing " of the sixteenth century. In the earth and stones which make up the tortured form of the Basilica - especially apparent on its southern, western and northern sides -, Romans give an age-old witness, even a prophetic witness, to Peter’s struggle against his own fear and betrayal of Jesus. The new basilica’s form reflects how faith and reason guided Peter's ever strained emotions and tense work. According to the late second century apocryphal Acts of Peter, he continued to manifest this fear even at the end of his life. Informed of the conspiracy against Peter, Roman Christians persuaded him to escape from the city. As he was departing, Peter saw the Lord entering Rome and recognized that it was then time for him to be crucified.

Dear Brothers and Sisters, how perilous is the situation of every Roman Christian disciple today livng and working in a laicist society evolving into a democratic political religion. Your situation was foreseen in the dramatic words addressed by Jesus to Peter and the other apostles (Lk. 22 33). "Satan has demanded you, that he might sift you." Romans who wish to follow Jesus today will be exposed to as much danger as Peter himself was. Jesus assured his Apostles and assures us that he prays for us always, " I have prayed for you that your faith may not falter"( Lk. 22: 34). Thus we live with an awful reality: the enduring life of a disciple is always suspended between Satan’s demand and Christ’s prayer. The unexpected eruption of violence with which the recent Mondiale of football concluded was another painful reminder. But we also constitute a part of an enduring community which began with the exhortation of Jesus to conversion and repentance, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent, and believe in the Gospel" (Mk. 1: 14). God will comfort those who proclaim Jesus message of conversion and repentance. For he has said, "‘My heart yearns [in pain] for Ephraim; I will surely have mercy on him’, says the Lord" (Jer. 31: 21). God’s heart yearns for each of us.

J. Francis Cardinal Stafford
Major Penitentiary