Jesus had died and risen from the dead, but Simon Peter decided he’d go fishing. It proved an aimless, frustrating activity; it was a desperate waste of time.
It turns out that this fishing expedition was a waste of time and effort, because Peter and the others went at it without Jesus; if anything, it proved what Jesus had told them before: that without him, they could do nothing.
Then Jesus appeared on the shore and gave them instructions; after which they not only caught an amazing number of fish, but 153 different kinds of fish – a catch that Jesus had directed, and not just of fish, but signifying the people that Peter and the others would catch for him: People of every kind – red, yellow, black, white and brown; some so white they look like alabaster, some so black they seem royal blue. 153, every human tribe and people and nation, to be gathered in an unbroken net: to be gathered into a community that is not to be torn, no matter the number of members, no matter the different kinds of people composing it. For as Jesus had said, once he be lifted up (crucified, raised and ascended), he would draw all people to himself. Peter had gone back desperately / to fishing in vain / in part because he was ashamed: he had denied the Lord 3 times – said he didn’t know Jesus, said he wasn’t one of his disciples, even said he didn’t know what the Lord’s arrest and crucifixion were about.
Indeed, this last denial may have been partly true, because the other reason for Peter’s returning to useless fishing – for fish – was Peter’s lack of understanding about the Resurrection. He had seen the empty tomb; Jesus had appeared to Peter and the others – even breathed the Holy Spirit on them – but Peter’s response to all this? – “I’m going fishing.” Some might call it a state of denial, others would say it was a state of confusion; we might even call it lack of faith.
But Jesus had already fished Peter for something more than that. And after the apostles had pulled in their symbolic harvest of fishes, Jesus shifted the animal symbolism and directed his attention onto the shamed and uncomprehending Simon Peter: “Simon bar Jonah, do you love me more than these others do?” – “Yes, Lord, you know I love you” – “Feed my lambs”
The community of believers are lambs, young in the faith and needing nourishment – needing teaching, example, support and discipline – to grow into sheep that hear their Good Shepherd’s voice and don’t follow strangers. And again, Jesus asks him “Simon ... do you love me?” – “Yes, Lord, I love you” – “Tend my sheep”
Even after they have grown to maturity, sheep have a way of wandering from the fold – getting lost and falling into peril, or even being fooled and led astray by false voices that separate them from the flock and fleece them – or even lead them to slaughter. The Good Shepherd wants a Main Watchman to look after his sheep, to keep united the huge and diverse community that is his Church, to lead them all in the same direction; to keep them safe from harm – self-inflicted as well as harm from others.
Then Jesus asks him a 3d time “Simon ... do you love me?” – “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you” – “Feed my sheep.”
Even mature sheep need to be led to good pasture, else they’ll starve, and die. Teaching cannot stop just because a believer reaches maturity; different needs will arise in the community, new questions at different times, which need new and different answers that nonetheless bear faithful, loving witness to the Good Shepherd, and reveal his all-knowing Truth to the Church; the Main Watchman must protect the basic store, and amplify the community’s knowledge and discipline; he must enlarge the flock, cure or cut out the diseased members: do his duty out of love for the Good Shepherd. Peter finally understood what the Resurrection meant: he was bound in unbreakable love to Christ and would only fish people; the Holy Spirit would send him harvesting souls from all the nations; and he was to be the Main Watchman, guiding his fellow apostles in the faith, leading the community in charity – and preaching the Truth about God and humanity for the forgiveness of sins.
And indeed it is so. The community tended by Peter and his successors is the oldest and the largest and perhaps the only true multi-cultural society in the world. The Church in communion with the Bishop of Rome easily speaks at least 153 languages, and from the College of Cardinals to this very law school community, our members are of every kind, color and ethnicity. Christ calls us into unfractured community, to love each other as his grace teaches us to love ourselves, and to seek each other’s salvation that we ourselves may be saved.
We belong to Christ’s catch – we’re the sheep of his flock – and the dynamic of our communal identity gives life to the character of this Catholic law school, of which (by this time tomorrow) many of us will be alumni. Our law school’s Catholic identity arises out of the conviction that only in the mystery of Jesus Christ the Word Made Flesh does the mystery of humanity – the human being, the human person – truly become clear. And that’s why faith is palpable in this community: fervently expressed liturgically, through prayer and the sacraments; manifest in acts of charity and service to the wider community, shown in respect for God’s creation, and – because we are a law school – acted out in concrete concern for social justice.
To express and secure the harmony between faith and life, professional practice and culture, we’ve sought diligently to engage the human intellects of our members without forsaking attention to their human wills. For, as Peter’s successor pointed out barely a month ago when he spoke with Catholic educators in Washington, in a community of study that neglects the human will, the notion of freedom will be distorted: freedom is not an “opting out”; freedom is an opting in, to the goodness and beauty of ultimate Truth – to God’s Truth – which we need to understand ourselves.
Our law school’s commitment to integrating faith and reason in the search for Truth requires our free attention to the Truth: consideration of ultimate truths that provide the essential foundation for human morality and social justice. Popular culture – the things people do: that doesn’t create the truth; the Truth should provide the grounds for what we (people) do. Ours is an academic culture that seeks, not only to enhance the life of the mind, but that of the conscience as well – to animate ideas, beliefs and debates that are rational, honest and accountable, in the hope of attaining principled consensus. We still insist on the moral categories of right and wrong, so as to resist the seduction to “go fishing” for cold pragmatic calculations based on utility, or efficiency, or positivist legality – calculations that (as Pope Benedict noted) render the human person “little more than a pawn on some ideological chess-board.” We want to appreciate the law as God sees it, so that we can be of service to the human family that God loves.
Now, our law school’s mission has a certain urgency for those of us who are about to become alumni. You’re going into the blunt reality of bar exams and jobs – some still looking for them, some undertaking them: real practice, real clients, real deadlines, real trials. It’s serendipitous that the 1st lesson at our Mass today features St Paul on trial because of God’s Truth.
Wherever you go from this point on, and whatever you do, you’re a St Thomas lawyer, equipped to integrate faith and reason in the search for Truth. And, loving Truth, you’re going to be pressured and tested and tempted to dodge the search for Truth and ... fish for easier solutions. But, I repeat, you’re a St Thomas lawyer: don’t forget, you’re still a member of this community; don’t forget that you belong to Christ’s flock.
There is no greater love than what Christ has done to make you who you are, and there’s no greater power than remembering whose you are: you belong to us; and we belong to Christ.
And that’s the truth. You never need to go fishing. Amen.