Dear Father Angelo,
I ask you a simple question, so that you could kindly clear a doubt of mine.
In the Gospel of John, it is written: “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God”.
Reading this prophecy, it almost seems that Peter died of old age, supported and looked after.
But St. Peter died a martyr.
Where am I wrong?
Thank you very much.
May the Lord reward you.
Answer from the priest
I answer you with the words of St. Thomas in his Commentary on the Gospel of St. John.
1. “Above, our Lord entrusted the office of shepherd to Peter. Now he foretells his martyrdom. This was pertinent because a good shepherd should lay down his life for his sheep. It was not granted to the young Peter to lay down his life for Christ; but rather to the old Peter to lay down his life for his sheep. This is what Christ foretold to him. In this prediction, three things are specified: Christ first tells of Peter’s past life; then he predicts the end of his future life: “when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you, etc.” Thirdly, the Evangelist explains our Lord’s words: “This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God”.
2. Peter’s past life showed certain shortcomings, for as a young man he was too presumptuous and self‑willed. But this is characteristic of the young, as the Philosopher says in his Rhetoric. Thus we read in Ecclesiastes (11:9) a kind of reproach: “Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth; walk in the ways of your heart…”. And that is why the Lord, hinting at this, says to him: “When you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would.”. He says: “you girded yourself”, that is, you restrained yourself from certain unlawful and superfluous things, but walked where you would, not allowing yourself to be kept in check by anyone. That is why you always wanted to be in danger for my sake. But it was not granted to you that you suffer for me when young, but when you are old I will fulfil your desire because: “you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you”. What a wondrous prediction! It gives both the time and the suffering. From the time these words were spoken until Peter’s death, about thirty‑seven years went by. We can see from this that Peter was quite old.
3. According to Chrysostom, he says, when you are old, because human affairs are different than divine affairs: in human affairs the young are useful, and the old are not of much use; but in divine matters virtue is not taken away by old age, rather it sometimes becomes even stronger: “My old age is exalted in abundant mercy” [Ps 92:10]; “As the days of your youth, so shall your old age be” [Deut 33:25]. But this is to be understood only of those who have practiced virtue in their youth, as Cicero says. For those who have passed their youth in idleness will become of little or no value when old.
4. This also teaches us that we rarely find rulers and teachers who are useful to the Church dying young, as Origen remarks in his explanation of Matthew (25:19): “Now after a long time the master of those servants came.” He gives Paul as an example. In Acts (7:58) Paul is seen as “a young man” [during the martyrdom of Stephen] but in Philemon (1:9) he is “an old man.” The reason for this is that people of this calibre are so rare, that when they are found, the Lord preserves them to a ripe old age.
5. He mentions the way he will suffer when he says, you will stretch out your hands, for Peter was crucified. Yet he was crucified using ropes, not nails, so he would not die so quickly. This is the girding spoken of by Christ.
6. Three things can be considered in the sufferings of the saints. First, there is a natural affection: there is such a natural love between the soul and the body that the soul never desires to be separated from the body, nor the body from the soul. See 2 Cor 5,4: «Not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed»; and Mt 26:38: “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death”. This is why Christ says, where you do not wish to go, that is, by the impulse of nature, which is so rooted in nature that even old age could not destroy it in Peter. Yet, the desire due to grace weakens this: “My desire is to depart and be with Christ” (Phil 1:23); “We are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor 5:8).
7. Secondly, the intentions of the persecutors and the saints are different. From here the sentence: “and carry you where you do not wish to go”.
8. Thirdly, we see that we should be prepared to suffer, but not to kill ourselves: “You will stretch out your hands and another will gird you”. This clearly was the case with Peter: for when the people wanted to rebel against Nero and deliver Peter, he forbade it. See 1 Pet 2:21: “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example”.
9. I answer you today, that is your name-day.
The Acts of the Apostles present St. Stephen as a man full of grace and Holy Spirit.
I cannot wish you anything better: may you always be like him, full of grace and Holy Spirit!
I hope you carry on with the grace and the peace of Christmas in your heart.
I entrust you to God and I bless you.
Translated by Francesca Belfiore