Learning the wisdom of the cross, step by step

Photo: Christ appearing to St. Peter on the Appian Way, Annibale Carracci/National Gallery Photo: Christ appearing to St. Peter on the Appian Way, Annibale Carracci/National Gallery

Like Peter, we are called to follow the Lord, with all our weaknesses and failings

The Appian Way, the oldest and most famous Roman road, was opened in 312 B.C. by the consul Appius Claudius, from whom it takes its name. Known as Regina Viarum (Queen of Roads), it was once lined with luxurious villas, temples and burial monuments. Just outside the Gate of St. Sebastian on the Appian Way stands a small church known as Domine Quo Vadis.

According to an ancient legend, the Christians of Rome urged St. Peter to flee during Nero’s persecution. A fourth-century account by Pseudo-Linus describes the scene:

Thus Peter, on hearing these pleas
and being of a sensitive nature —
he was never able to witness the tears
of the suffering without weeping himself —
was won over by these laments. …

The following night, following the liturgical prayer, he said goodbye to his friends, entrusting them to God with his blessing, and he left alone.

He was about to walk through the city gates when he saw Christ coming toward him. He paid reverence to him and said, “Lord, where are you going?” (“Domine, quo vadis?”). Christ replied, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” Peter said to him, “You will be crucified again, Lord?” And the Lord said to him, “Yes, I will be crucified again.”

Peter replied, “Lord, I am going back to follow you.” Then the Lord rose up toward the heavens. Peter watched him go and wept with joy. When he came to himself, he understood that the words referred to his own martyrdom, namely, how the Lord would suffer in him, as he suffers in all those who are chosen. Peter returned to the city joyously, glorifying God.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus refers to Peter’s death: “‘I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but 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.’ He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, ‘Follow me.’” (John 21:18-19)

Peter was crucified June 29, A.D. 67, on the Vatican Hill (upside down, according to tradition, because he did not consider himself worthy to be crucified like the Lord). Pseudo-Linus writes that he offered these words of consolation to those who witnessed his martyrdom:

Great and profound is the mystery of the cross! God draws all things to himself through the cross. The cross is the sign of life, for which the empire of death was destroyed. You showed this to me, O Lord. Open the eyes of all these too so that they may contemplate the consolation of eternal life.

The story of Quo Vadis illustrates that Peter’s martyrdom was a decisive moment for the early Church. At a time of fierce persecution, Christians began to understand both the importance and the risks of their own witness to Christ, and they were encouraged to persevere as had Peter and the Lord himself. When St. John Paul II visited the Church of Domine Quo Vadis in 1982, he said that the legend has particular importance for all the successors of Peter, who are to give their lives for the Gospel in every circumstance.

Peter’s encounter with the Lord on the Appian Way teaches all disciples a very personal lesson. At once faith-filled, impetuous, stubborn, courageous and fragile, Peter had to learn the wisdom of the cross step by step. Invited by Jesus to walk toward him on the water, he stepped out of the boat but soon began to sink, distracted by the wind and waves. When Jesus said he would suffer and die, Peter could not fathom that such a thing could happen. At the end, terrified and pelted by the questions of others warming themselves by the fire, he denied knowing Jesus.

Prone to discouragement and slow to understand, he was nonetheless chosen — and given courage to persevere when the going got tough. Fleeing a city perilous to Christians, Peter met the Lord once again and saw that his cross was in fact the cross of Christ, in which he had been invited to share.

Who among us has not been discouraged or disheartened by the trials of life, by our own frailty? Who has not set out to follow Jesus, only to be distracted by storms swirling about? Who has not tried to tell the Lord there must be a better way? Who has not needed a challenge to persevere in the face of obstacles? Who has not been confronted with opposition to or ridicule of our Christian faith? Who has not reached out to the Lord for strength on the rough road?

Peter was weak but always ready to meet Jesus, even on the Appian Way, the Roman superhighway he intended to take as his escape route from the cross. When burdened and tempted to give up, we ask Jesus in prayer, “Lord, where are you going?” He responds, “I have been this way before you. It is my suffering you share. Where am I going? To carry your cross.”

And we to him respond, “Lord, I am going back to follow you.” 

Read the Spanish version of this column.

Northwest Catholic - July/August 2018

Archbishop J. Peter Sartain

Send your prayer intentions to Archbishop Sartain’s Prayer List, Archdiocese of Seattle, 710 Ninth Ave., Seattle, WA 98104.

Website: www.seattlearchdiocese.org