Perfect Love Casts Out All Fear

Lessons from the First Pope

Painting of St. Peter walking to Jesus on the stormy sea.

Saint Peter is perhaps the most fascinating, lovable, and relatable apostle. The insight which Scripture provides portrays this very fact, for the Gospels depict an amusing yet awe-inspiring image of a humble and sincere, bold and fearful fisherman who was called by Christ to serve as the rock of the Church. This call challenges Peter in multiple ways as he soon discovers how his blunders, fearfulness, and over-zealous nature causes him much trouble. Though Peter perfects his love for Christ, the flaws of Peter and the process which he embarks upon to overcome these faults allow one to develop a sense of companionship with Peter.

Fear, though a natural human emotion, is something which can also cause much turmoil and destruction. However, Peter slowly conquers his fear through love. Thus, the life of Saint Peter presents the question: what can be learned from the life of a simple fisherman? Peter’s life provides lessons in love for love makes great Faith possible, allows receptivity to the Spirit and overcomes all fear of suffering and death.

Love Allows the Impossible to Happen: Growing in Faith

Peter was a rather fearful man at time, yet his love for Christ enables Peter to perform the impossible. When Christ approaches the apostles on water, Peter’s desire to be with the Lord prompts his belief that if Christ would invite him to walk on the water then it would happen. Peter exclaims: “‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus” (Mt 14:28-29).

Scripture relates if man has the faith the size of a grain of a mustard seed then man’s faith will move mountains. In that moment, Peter does not think of the logistics or the absurdity of walking on water. Peter, prompted by love, wishes to be physically united with Jesus. Thus, Peter’s love makes possible this great act of faith: if Jesus commands Peter to walk on water then it will happen. Christ ultimately rewards the simple fisherman’s love by granting Peter the grace he desires.

It is only when Peter, distracted by the moment, loses his focus on Christ and gives wave to fear that he sinks. In the moment of recognizing the grace he is given, Peter, instead of being filled with an even greater love for Christ, allows himself to be paralyzed and so he sinks. Peter therefore teaches the Church that with a genuine love for Christ, anything is possible. His example also serves as a warning that an excessive amount of fear prohibits the possibility of loving without reserve and of fully accomplishing one’s call.

Love Allows Receptivity of the Spirit and Grants an Understanding of Divine Realities

Peter’s love for Christ enables the fisherman to profess divine realities when many reject Christ and His teachings. After many disciples leave Jesus’ company following the Bread of Life Discourse, Jesus turns to the apostles asking, “Do you also want to leave?” (Jn 6:67). Instead of succumbing to the fear of the impact of Jesus’ words, Peter, motivated by the Holy Spirit and his love for Christ, responds with a simple yet profound profession of faith: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68). Even though Peter does not always immediately fully comprehend the teachings of Christ, the fisherman’s love for Christ is enough to stifle his fears in the midst of adversity.

This same love later causes Peter to wish to remain in God’s presence. On Mount Tabor, Peter recognizes the goodness of being in God’s presence and gazing upon His beauty as he exclaims: “Master, it is good that we are here” (Mt 17:47). Similarly, it is his love for Christ, which inspired by the Holy Spirit, allows Peter alone to proclaim Christ to be the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Peter’s bold and fearless confession of Christ to be the long-expected Messiah is the first admission of all the apostles. This realization only results from being open to the grace of the Father, as Jesus reveals. Jesus rewards Peter’s profession by bestowing upon him an immense responsibility: shepherding the Church symbolized through the bestowal of the keys to the kingdom of Heaven.

Peter’s love for Christ enables him to be receptive to the work of God in his soul and ultimately allows him to profess divine realities which the other apostles are incapable of proclaiming. Peter’s fearless acceptance of God’s grace challenges the Church and her members to be receptive to God’s grace working through them. Additionally, the apostle’s recognition of the goodness of being in God’s presence teaches the Church to appreciate the beauty of Christ’s presence in the Church, particularly in the Eucharist, and of the goodness of contemplation — a loving gaze upon God.

Love Overcomes Fear of Suffering and Death

Though Peter frequently professes his desire to die with Christ, the apostle fears suffering and death. He ultimately conquers this fear through his love for Christ. Peter demonstrates his fear of death by fleeing the Garden of Gethsemane and denying Christ multiple times. Contrary to his vows to follow Christ to the death, Peter allows his fear to compromise his love for Christ. Not fully understanding God’s plan of salvation for men, Peter foolishly dictates to Christ that he will never permit his Lord to suffer and die. Yet, when given the opportunity to acknowledge his teacher, the horror of death immediately seizes Peter, prompting him to declare that he “does not know the man” multiple times (Mt 26:72).

Despite Peter’s cowardice, Jesus uses Peter’s fear as a foundation for love to grow. Peter’s denial of Christ inspires in the Prince of the Apostles a sense of true repentance and contrition for his sins. This in turn enables Peter to make a complete act of love and faith after the resurrection: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you” (Jn 21:17), thus renewing his dedication to follow Christ. Jesus accepts Peter’s admittance of love by charging the fisherman with a task: “Feed my sheep” (Jn 21:17), thereby reaffirming Peter’s role in the Church.

Moreover, after the Ascension, the grace of the Holy Spirit reminds and intensifies Peter’s love for Christ. This encourages Peter to zealously proclaim the risen Christ to all nations on the first Pentecost. Peter, no longer the timid and fearful fisherman from Galilee, and driven by a purer and deeper love of Christ, preaches the Good News to the whole word. The result is astonishing. Over three thousand are baptized that day (Acts 2:41).

Peter’s love for the Lord ultimately allows him to accept and undergo persecution and death for the sake of his friend. Though Peter’s fear causes the first pope to flee the city of Rome by the prompting of the faithful, it is his love for Christ which overcomes his fear of death. It grants Peter the courage to return to Rome and face certain death.

Despite Peter’s fears and mistakes, Jesus uses Peter’s weaknesses to continue His saving work on earth. The apostle’s faults are not obstacles for following Christ but are opportunities to seek perfection. When Peter does fail, Christ works through his mistakes to bring about a greater good: the perfection of love in Peter. Christ does the same in person. Despite personal faults, Christ calls each one, as He did Peter, to be a rock in demonstrating love for God. In this way, mistakes will not shake a person’s love or Faith in Christ, for love understands that God works through each person, situation and shortcoming by bringing about a greater good. Like Peter, the greatness lies in recognizing that when mistakes are made, forgiveness is always possible through the expression of true contrition and the will to try again. With this knowledge, love surpasses all fear and equips each person to confidently trust in God.

Love As Demanding

Love expects much. Love allows Peter to perform the impossible, inspires him to profess divine realities and transforms Peter into a courageous apostle. Love demands Peter’s whole life — from the moment Peter left his family and fishing business to follow Christ, to the apostle’s death on the cross. Despite his doubts, Peter gradually allows his love for Christ to overcome his every fear. Thus, Peter’s life perfectly encompasses the passage from the first letter of Saint John: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment and he who fears is not perfected in love” (1 Jn 4:18).

Peter’s ability to remedy his imperfections and conquer his fears serves as a powerful lesson to the Church. He teaches that fears, whether great or small, practical or impractical, will not become an obstacle to following Christ if one truly loves Him. Why? Because Christ Himself relates that there is nothing to fear, for He has overcome death itself. Christ reassures the Church that He will provide for man’s daily necessities which includes the grace to overcome any imperfections. All that is necessary is love for God and the rest will fall into place: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all things will be given you” (Mt 6:33). If one truly loves Christ, then his priority will be seeking Christ and His kingdom.

Though fear is a natural dimension of life, it must be conquered by love. Only by surrendering all fear and allowing love to captivate the heart can each person live his life to the fullest capacity which God intended — for man’s heart was created to love, not to fear. Peter’s life bears witness to the reality that love calms all fears, encourages trust and inspires Faith. Thus, with perfect love, a task once deemed insurmountable or impossible will be possible for “the love of Christ impels” all to accomplish that which Christ asks (2 Cor 5:13). Peter’s love for God slowly became perfect, conquering his fear. His example should inspire Christians to grow in their love for God, for perfect love dispels all fear, makes great Faith possible, allows receptivity to the Spirit and overcomes all fear of suffering and death.

Maria Cintorino About Maria Cintorino

Maria Cintorino currently teaches at a Catholic school in Northern Virginia. She has been published in Crisis Magazine, Our Sunday Visitor’s “Catholic Answers,” The Imaginative Conservative and Dappled Things.