4th Sunday after Pentecost
If you have ever been blessed to go to Rome and visit St Peter’s Basilica, you cannot forget the overwhelming impression of one of the most awesome edifices ever constructed. And in honour of whom? A poor, ignorant, feisty fisherman from Galilee. Tomorrow we will honour the Holy Apostle Peter along with St Paul with liturgical solemnity, but today on the vigil of their feast we are fittingly given to meditate in the Gospel of this fourth Sunday after Pentecost the key moment of the vocation of Simon Peter.
He and his companions had spent a long night on the lake, hopelessly trying to take in some fish. It was morning; they were tired; the Rabbi from Nazareth asked to use their boat for a sermon, and they complied, but really they had had enough; their spirits were low. Indeed, fish is the livelihood of fishermen, and no fish meant no pay. With the exorbitant taxes being imposed by the Roman occupation, the future was not bright at all.
Having finished his homily, Jesus gives Peter an order. This in itself was surprising. Jesus knew nothing about fishing. That was Peter’s job. What must not have been the surprise of them all to hear the Rabbi say: Launch out into the deep and let down the nets for a catch. Launch out into the deep. So now, after working all night with nothing to show, after listening to an early morning sermon on an empty stomach, after all that, we are now asked to go back out into the deep waters for a catch that can only be fruitless? Peter knew the lake; he knew his business. With this in mind, we can only admire how little he actually replies: Master, we have laboured all the night and have taken nothing: but at thy word I will let down the net. In these words, we can sense a bit of irritation. No doubt there are many considerations he could have added to enlighten the poor Rabbi about why this was not a good idea. But, and this is perhaps the most important point of today’s Gospel, even though there were plenty of objections, he obeyed. He obeyed a command that, to all appearances, made no sense. He renounced his own will, his own interests, he submitted his judgment and obeyed.
This first miraculous catch of fish, in addition to proving Our Lord’s divine mission, also prefigures the apostolic mission of the disciples. Just as they catch fish from the deep waters and bring them into the ship for the service of man, so the apostles will bring in souls from the deep waters of sinful life in the world, to enter the Church and finally be brought into the heavenly kingdom symbolised by the shore. Henceforth, you will be fishers of men. Henceforth your only passion must be to bring souls to Christ and to salvation.
In that mission, Our Lord’s command to “launch out into the deep – Duc in altum” is one which we can meditate on at length. The deep is clearly the large expanse of this world. The apostles’ mission will take them to the utter ends of the earth, to all souls without exception in every age and every clime. This word has ever been a stimulus for apostolic labourers in the Church, to not be afraid to carry the Gospel into every situation, and at any risk. All souls must be brought to Christ and that can happen only through the preaching of the Gospel. As we will be reminded tomorrow, Peter, like the other apostles, will pay for his courage in taking the Gospel to Rome: the Eternal City will be consecrated by the shedding of his blood for Christ.
But the words Duc in altum have another meaning. We must put out into the deep of our own hearts, that bottomless well of our being in which God is waiting for us. The great St Augustine acknowledged to the Lord, after so many wanderings here and there: I was on the outside; You were on the inside. It is by drawing back his mind from the distractions of many things that he was able to seek God in his heart, and it is there that he found Him.
In our age of ceaseless distractions that word Duc in altum is there to remind us to turn off the noise, to turn our gaze to the heart where the Blessed Trinity dwells. Today, the monastic life should inspire our contemporaries to refuse the futile distractions of the world, and seek to go down deep into the well of prayer, silence, contemplation.
This past week, we celebrated the Nativity of St John the Baptist who went off into the desert as a young boy and would stay there for many years, learning the ways of the Lord, being fortified by His grace and by intimate conversation with the Bridegroom of our souls. It was only once he had been fully prepared by so much asceticism that he was ready to be launched out into the deep of preaching to the world, because he had already been down into the depths of his own heart.
In a couple weeks we will celebrate the feast of our Holy Father St Benedict, who, as St Gregory tells us, “lived with himself”. Benedict too put out into the deep at a tender age, and it was only after that long purification of solitude that he would arise to found the city on the mountain, his monastery, that would be a haven for countless souls ever since.
At several critical moments in the history of the Church, we see the same thing happening. In times of decadence and turmoil, a group of men goes off to start a monastery, a religious community, to live a simple life like that of the apostles. And in so doing, they allow the Holy Spirit to purify them and make use of them to save the world. It happened in the Dark Ages with the foundation of Cluny and Citeaux. It happened in the sixteenth century with the foundation of the Theatines and the Jesuits. It happened in the nineteenth century with the legions of congregations founded in French devastated by the Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. In every age, the Spirit of God raises up souls who rise to the task.
Today too, the scene of the world is tragic, and the Church finds herself in dire straits, unprepared, so it would seem, to meet the challenge. Now it is that we need men to accept to put out into the deep of a truly ascetic spiritual life, as close as possible to the apostolic model. From that depth, the Lord will be able to bring forth a miraculous catch of fish, in His time, and in His way. Our job is not to save the world, much less the Church; our job is to become saints. And saints are those who obey the voice of Christ and who are ready to go anywhere and to do anything He commands.
Remember, every you time you hear of St Peter’s Basilica: that awesome edifice would not exist, the Catholic Church would not exist, if that poor fisherman had not, one bright morning on the Sea of Galilee, obeyed an order that made no sense. In faith, he obeyed, and so the Church began. All things are possible for the one who believes.