As part of the live “Shameless Popery” apologetics talk, we presented six major arguments presenting the Biblical case for the papacy. Five of those points were adapted from the “Pope Peter” series I did a while back (parts I, II, III, IV, and V), but there was a sixth argument that I prepared especially for the talk, and I wanted to share it with you.
In Luke 5:1-11, Jesus calls Peter to become a fisher of men:
Duccio, Calling of the Apostles Peter and Andrew (c. 1310)
While the people pressed upon him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennes’aret. And he saw two boats by the lake; but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. And when he had ceased speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a great shoal of fish; and as their nets were breaking, they beckoned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink.But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zeb’edee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.
This is pretty self-explanatory. While this event is historical, it’s also a sort of a living parable. What I mean is that, just as Christ heals a man’s blindness to show the Pharisees their spiritual blindness in John 9, here, He uses the catch of fish to symbolize the salvation of souls, and to invite Peter to become a fisher of men.
|Stained Glass Window, Holy Trinity church, Caister-on-Sea (UK)|
All of this takes on rather more significant when you understand the way that the events of Luke 5 prefigure the second miraculous catch of fish, described in John 21:1-11. In it, Christ again uses a miraculous catch of fish to make a point about the role of the Church, and Peter specifically, in making Disciples of all nations. Let’s address the passage piece by piece:
After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tibe’ri-as; and he revealed himself in this way. Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathan’a-el of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zeb’edee, and two others of his disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.”
St. John wasn’t in the habit of throwing in meaningless details and dialogue in his Gospel. On the contrary, even the minute details tend to be chock full of significance. So what do we make of this dialogue? Peter leads the fishing expedition, and the other Apostles say, “We will go with you.” Peter is to be a fisher of men, and the other Apostles are to be fishers with him.
They went out and got into the boat; but that night they caught nothing.
This is the same situation the fishermen found themselves in when Jesus came upon them in Luke 5. As the Catechism explains in paragraphs 1812-14, faith is a theological virtue that comes only from the One and Triune God. In other words, none of us (you, me, the pope, anyone) can convert anyone on our own, because we can’t impart the graces of the Holy Spirit.
With Christ, on the other hand, all things are possible, as we’re about to see:
Pulpit, Saint George’s church, Hollerberg (Austria) (18th c.)
Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the beach; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, have you any fish?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, for the quantity of fish.
That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his clothes, for he was stripped for work, and sprang into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off.
So the catch of fish is so enormous that all of the Apostles, working together, are unable to haul it in. Then another miraculous event occurs:
When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish lying on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and although there were so many, the net was not torn.
St. Peter, acting alone, and at the direction of Our Lord, is able to single-handedly bring in the catch of fish. One interpretation of the fact that it’s 153 fish (advanced by St. Jerome) is that it represents the 153 species of fish known at that time, and thus both fulfills Ezekiel 47:10 and signifies that we are to make disciples of all nations (Mt. 28:19). Whether this is the right way to understand the 153 or not, the sheer abundance of fish clearly signifies the call of Peter and the others to evangelize all nations.
And note a fascinating distinction between this miracle and the one in Luke 5. Here, unlike the first time (Lk. 5:6), the nets aren’t torn. Why is this significant? Because the nets signify the Church, as Jesus makes clear in Matthew 13:47-50:
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net which was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind; when it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into vessels but threw away the bad.So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.”
So here, Jesus entrusts Peter both with bringing in the catch of fish (of every kind), and with preventing the nets from breaking. Put another way, if all Christians stay with the pope, we’re better able to evangelize all nations, thus fulfulling the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20, and there’s no tearing of the fabric of the Church. (Jesus makes this connection between the unity of the Church and success of the Gospel at various other points in the Gospels, like John 17:20-23). That’s why it’s important that the other Apostles decide to fish with Peter.
|Raphael, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (1515)|
As if to clarify the miracle’s connection to the papacy and evangelization, look at the passage that immediately follows what I quoted above. After breakfast, Jesus singles out Peter as His shepherd in John 21:15-17, asking him if he loved Him “more than these,” that is, more than the other Apostles did. That Jesus chooses the seashore to talk to Peter about being His shepherd solidifies the connection between these two images. In fact, in his homily upon becoming pope in 2005, Pope Benedict reflected upon these two images from John 21, saying:
Here I want to add something: both the image of the shepherd and that of the fisherman issue an explicit call to unity. “I have other sheep that are not of this fold; I must lead them too, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd” (Jn 10:16); these are the words of Jesus at the end of his discourse on the Good Shepherd. And the account of the 153 large fish ends with the joyful statement: “although there were so many, the net was not torn” (Jn 21:11). Alas, beloved Lord, with sorrow we must now acknowledge that it has been torn! But no – we must not be sad! Let us rejoice because of your promise, which does not disappoint, and let us do all we can to pursue the path towards the unity you have promised. Let us remember it in our prayer to the Lord, as we plead with him: yes, Lord, remember your promise. Grant that we may be one flock and one shepherd! Do not allow your net to be torn, help us to be servants of unity!
|Anonymous, Third Appearance of Christ (16th c.)|
Plenty of Protestant commentaries recognize the parallel between the catch of fish, and the call to be fishers of men, but every one that I’ve read has completely ignored the specific connection to Peter. For example, here’s a homily given on the implications of John 21:1-14 for being fishers of men that avoids mentioning Peter at all (outside of the Scriptural passage itself, of course). This is a rather glaring ommission, when you consider that of the four fishermen Apostles on the Sea of Galilee in Luke 5, that it was Peter individually who received the call to become a fisher of men (Luke 5:10), and that of the seven fishermen Apostles on the Sea of Galilee in John 21, it was Peter individually who brought in the nets (John 21:11).
Characteristic is John Calvin’s Commentary on John. Calvin avoids explaining the significance of Peter being the one to single-handedly bring in the net of fish where the assembled Apostles couldn’t, by simply not addressing John 21:11 at all. He does, however, acknowledge that the preservation of the net was a second miracle, on top of the miraculous catch of fish:
Christ here exhibited two proofs of his Divine power. The first consisted in their taking so large a draught of fishes; and the second was, when, by his concealed power, he preserved the net whole, which otherwise must unavoidably have been broken in pieces.
|St. Peter and Paul Altar, Heilsbronn (Germany) (1510-1518),|
Jamieson, Fausset & Brown go even further, recognizing the parallel (and contrast) from Luke 5, and that this has something to do with keeping folks in the Church. Citing the 19th century Lutheran theologian Christoph Ernst Luthardt, they write:
And whereas, at the first miraculous draught, the net “was breaking” through the weight of what it contained–expressive of the difficulty with which, after they had ‘caught men,’ they would be able to retain, or keep them from escaping back into the world–while here, “for all they were so many, yet was not the net broken,” are we not reminded of such sayings as these (Jhn 10:28): “I give unto My sheep eternal life, and they shall never perish, neither shall any pluck them out of My hand”?
Again, these commentaries seem so close to grasping that something important is being said about the Church. After all, the promise of John 10:28 is connected to John 10:16’s promise of one flock and one shepherd, and the promise of an earthly shepherd in John 10:1-10 discussed here.
As you can see, the Protestant commentaries don’t seem to refute or deny the papal implications of the miraculous catch of fish in John 21. Instead, they just stop short of grasping the full implications of the passage. If anyone can find a Protestant commentary that addressing the specifically papal connotations of this passage, please let me know in the comments below.