I was in Belfast on Thursday evening, to be more precise I was staying with my friend and his wife who live on the outskirts of Lisburn. They had moved house during the last 12 months and since Christmas we have been trying to organize a reunion.
We hadn’t met since last October and I was long overdue a visit to the East of the Bann. Now my friend and I first encountered each other back in the summer of 1994 in Maynooth. We would go on to study together for three years before he went to Rome and I ventured back to Maynooth. In the third year of his theological studies in Rome he decided to leave. Never an easy decision but one which takes a lot of honesty and soul searching before you allow yourself to be guided by God down another path. He is now married and teaches. For a number of years we lost contact and thankfully these last two years we have made an effort to stay in touch. Travelling on Thursday evening we had our plans made, he’s from Ballymena so rather than go out for something to eat he had ordered a Chinese takeaway. This was the start of a great evening, afterwards we journeyed into Belfast and spent the night catching up and enjoying the craic. What I discovered was the reality that the world is a small place. I had gone outside to answer my phone and when I was away a woman tapped my friend on the shoulder and said, ‘Is your man from Derry?’ He explained I was, to which she asked, ‘Is he a priest?’ Well we soon discovered the woman’s brother was married and living in the Waterside. She visited regularly and by the sounds of things she even went to Mass. Of course the usual banter developed and Belfast, Ballymena and Derry were all slagged in turn regardless of anyone’s sensibilities.The next morning I was hoping for a lie-in, unfortunately I wasn’t warned about the imminent arrival of workmen before 9am. The dawn chorus I was awoken by consisted of sawing, shouts and the bangs of a hammer. Reluctantly I gave in to the inevitably and got out of bed, however when a fry was mentioned I nearly trampled the workmen on my way down the stairs. So we travelled to the local garden centre where the Ballymena man took exceptional joy in two fries for the price of one special offer. After breakfast we wondered round the garden centre at leisure, looking at plants, sheds, garden furniture, ponds and goldfish. When I think back it really was quite sad and tragic, is this what life has been reduced to? Getting excited by bedding plants, accessories and garden sheds with hydro pools and saunas all for £15,000. In a reflection in the window I noticed my grey hair and when I was about to cry I thankfully noticed my friends greyness was more advanced, then again he is married!
In the midst of my mid-life crisis there is a sense you have to ask questions about who we are and where it is we are going? Different events and stages along our journeys make us query some of the deeper issues and problems. We reflect on the past as a means to understand and interpret the present, trying to discover a unity which holds our lives together. Being honest we recognize and celebrate our successes and joys, we mourn our losses, we try to come to terms with our failings. Often regrets surface and we are racked with sorrow and guilt. Yet these occasions help us to understand who we are in the eyes of others, ourselves and God. Those who have known us the longest, our closest family and friends hopefully don’t judge us on one incident, one occasion; it’s the totality of our lives which matter, the good, the bad and the ugly. Our identity is shaped by the way we live our lives, on what we have inherited from others but ultimately shaped by the gifts God has given us.
In our own personal search we have to make room for the question at the heart of Matthew’s gospel, ‘who do people say the son of man is?’ Only those who have encountered Jesus in a real and meaningful way can answer this question. Unless we have some knowledge, some experience of the person of Jesus then this question will not concern us. How we answer the question has implications for the way we live our lives, how we understand ourselves and one another. Peter, all too human of men answers the question, because he is open to the voice of God. He dares to speak the truth and from that moment his own identity and vocation is transformed.
St. John Chrysostom declared ‘Peter was to be entrusted with the keys of the Church, or rather, he was entrusted with the keys of heaven; to him would be committed the whole people of God. Now Peter was inclined to be severe, his falling into sin was thus a providential grace to teach him from experience to deal kindly with others... He fell into sin so that remembering his own fault and the Lord’s forgiveness; he also might forgive others out of love for them. This was God’s providential dispensation. He to whom the Church was to be entrusted, he, the pillar of the churches, the harbour of faith, was allowed to sin; Peter, the teacher of the world, was permitted to sin, so that having been forgiven himself he would be merciful to others.’