The Vicar Does Not Swagger

Thanks to the postwar baby boom, when I was growing up — in mid-20th century America — the neighborhoods were full of kids, and all of our fathers were he-men. 

They had all served in the military. They all knew how to fix cars, saw lumber and shingle the roof. As free and feisty little fiends, we kids would gather on a summer’s day to play kickball and explore the berry-rich, pine-scented woods, before they became new housing developments. Eventually, tribal sensibilities would emerge. The family with nine children would make war on the family with only three; those of us in the middle — craven opportunists, all — took sides and swore allegiances to whoever we thought might have ice pops in the freezer, and the one-upsmanship began:  

“My father can fix cars!” “Well, my father helps build airplanes!” “Well, my father’s brother is a cop!” “Well, my father was a captain in the army!” 

For competitive purposes, our fathers were invested with outsized swagger, but, in truth, we held them in a bit of awe and wonder. If our mothers were so familiar to us that we went running to them interchangeably for Band-Aids and drinks of water, our fathers were mysterious: they were partial-absentees who nevertheless held enormous power over the life of the family, both in their provisions and their persons. We loved them and needed them, but differently from our mothers, and a little distantly, because we were less sure that they needed us. 

Perhaps because they were a generation raised in economic privation and then tested by war, these men projected a quiet sort of strength and invulnerability. Children were not privy to the thoughts of grown men, but if we had to guess, we would have imagined our fathers as functioning like renaissance American hybrids — half Thomas Edison, half Walt Whitman — who were all thinking lofty, inventive thoughts about The Future and Mankind and Progress.  

One day, though, I saw one of these fathers — the he-manliest of the he-men by my estimation — say and do something surprisingly out of character. He suppressed his own often-articulated position and instead agreed with a group around him whose thoughts, I knew, were not his thoughts. The inconsistency bothered me, but there was nowhere I could go with my questions. It took a few more years of growing before I began to realize that men and women sometimes say things they do not mean, in order to deliver themselves up to others as acceptable; that the impetus for all of our lies resides within our need to be accepted and not pushed aside. The need to be accepted, even loved, is only human, but it can be dangerous, because it makes us weak, and when we are weak, we are prey to opportunistic aggressors, bullies, evil and sin. 

That was the lesson that Peter — the he-manliest of the apostles, it always seemed to me — had to learn as he sat outside the praetorium, among those who had called for the blood of his Lord. Unwilling to trust their temper, he sought acceptance in the convenient lie, “I do not know him.” It was not the first time that Peter, in his weakness, had lost himself to circumstances. After trustingly pronouncing Jesus as “the Christ,” Peter dared to argue “God forbid!” to Jesus’ own prophecies. At Mount Tabor, in the presence of a transfigured Christ, Moses and Elijah, he jabbered that it was “good to be here” and offered to build dwellings — a typical he-man, trying to put a good face on a terrifying situation.  

In both cases, swagger met a need for acceptance, and truth suffered for it. It was only after the Resurrection, when Peter wholly understood that there is no risk to vulnerability, that he became fully the Vicar that Christ intended — and needed — to build His Church. And this is why Peter does not swagger, nor deny truth to curry earthly acceptance, from his throne. TCA

Elizabeth Scalia is a Benedictine Oblate, and the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos.com, where she also blogs as The Anchoress. She is also a weekly columnist at First Things and a regular panelist on the the Brooklyn-diocese-produced current events program, In the Arena, seen at NETNY.net. Contact Elizabeth at theanchoress@gmail.com