At the Last Supper, Simon Peters proud boast was, Though all may have their faith in you shaken, mine will never be. And, after Jesus warned him that he would weaken, Peter still insisted, Even though I should have to die with you, I will not deny you.
Then the high priests courtyard.
When the risen Jesus appeared to the apostles at the lakeshore in Galilee, he asked Peter three times, Do you love me? With an aching heart, sadness and sincerity Peter protested, Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.
Jesus then entrusted him with shepherding his flock but warned Peter of his death: 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.
The Lords only direction for Peters future was, Follow me.
According to the second century apocryphal Acts of Peter, years later in Rome during the persecution of Nero, Peter decided to flee the city. On the Appian Way, he met Jesus heading in the opposite direction.
Where are you going, Lord? Peter asked. Jesus replied, To be crucified again. Then Peter understood he was fleeing his destiny, returned to Rome and was crucified in Neros stadium near the Vatican hill now famous for the great basilica that marks his grave.
I was thinking about this on 16 October 2003, when I was privileged to be in St. Peters Square for Pope John Pauls 25th anniversary Mass. Already wheelchair-bound, he could hardly speak, but his message was that the Lord had entrusted him with the papal ministry and he could not turn from it. Only the Lord could relieve him of this burden.
The Holy Father knew his vocation was to walk in the footsteps of Peter in the ministry of strengthening the faith and unity of the People of God. Perhaps the Quo Vadis story was in his mind and heart as he faced his painful struggle at the very place where Peter died.
Last month, the Lord he followed so faithfully, joyfully and well finally relieved him of his burden. With what peace and joy he must have welcomed that blessed release and entrance into eternal life.
On 8 April 2005, I was privileged once again to be in St. Peters Square, this time for John Pauls funeral. The huge crowd from all over the world did not so much mourn as celebrate this time, not just a milestone in his ministry, but the whole course of his life. His funeral had more acclamation than lamentation, more applause than grief. It was hard to be sad.
I felt the popes life truly echoed the old Gospel hymn, I have decided to follow Jesus. No turning back, no turning back.
Karol Wojtyla followed Jesus faithfully and well. He followed him on the long road from Wadowice to Rome with many a turn around all the world, but never back. No one else carried out his special ministry as he did and no one else will. Gods glory is our diversity.
Like that fisherman who left boat and nets long ago, our new Pope Benedict starts out almost overwhelmed yet confident. His calling, too, is to follow Jesus in the way of Peter and ultimately to be led where you do not want to go.
May the Lord be with him! And, for you, quo vadis?
Msgr. Archimandrite Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA