In today’s Gospel we hear the fascinating post-Resurrection dialogue between our risen Lord and St. Peter. Many people wonder about repetitive nature of Our Lord’s questions, and why He says “lambs” one time and then another time He says “sheep.”
Of course throughout His public ministry Christ frequently used familiar terms such as “sheep” to describe His followers, and He even referred to Himself as the “Good Shepherd,” gathering into one fold His straying sheep. But what else is going on in today’s Gospel?
In John 21:15-19, Our Lord gives St. Peter the opportunity to reaffirm his love for Him three times to atone for his threefold denial. The Ignatius Study Bible points out that this dialogue in Greek makes use of several synonyms. For example, two different nouns are used for sheep–in one instance translated as “sheep” and in another instance translated as “lambs.” In addition, two different verbs are used for love, feed, and know. This may simply be a stylistic feature to avoid redundancy, without a different meaning intended.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 1429) discusses this dialogue in the context of divine mercy and our need to turn to the Lord for a “second conversion” whenever we stumble or turn away. Our Lord’s repetitive questioning evoked tears of repentance on the part of St. Peter, and it gave Our Lord an opportunity to provide a threefold affirmation of His merciful love for the “rock” on which He was building His Church.
Even more fundamentally, the Church has always seen in the threefold command to feed/tend the sheep/lambs an affirmation of the primacy Our Lord gave to St. Peter as His vicar on earth and as the head of the college of apostles (Catechism, nos. 553, 881). This point was solemnly affirmed at the First Vatican Council (1869-70) in Pastor Aeternus, the council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ”:
“So we teach and declare that according to the testimonies of the Gospel the primacy of jurisdiction over the entire Church of God was promised and was conferred immediately and directly upon the blessed Apostle Peter by Christ the Lord. . . . And upon Simon Peter alone Jesus after His resurrection conferred the jurisdiction of the highest pastor and rector over His entire fold, saying ‘Feed my lambs,’ ‘Feed my sheep’ [John 21:15 ff.]” (chapter one).
When we hear St. Peter’s successor, Pope Benedict XVI, as we did during the Holy Father’s recent visit to the United States, may we hear the Good Shepherd’s voice calling each one of us to follow Him.