Little Fishers of the Amazon

In St. Matthew’s Gospel we read the account of Christ’s call to fishermen near the Sea of Galilee. He said to Simon (Peter) and his brother, Andrew, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men” (4:19). Immediately after, James and his brother, John, were called as well: “And immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him” (4:22).

This famous passage of the call of the first apostles, all of whom were fishermen, came to my mind on a recent trip to the Peruvian rain forest. I traveled there to view the source of the Amazon River as it begins its eastward journey of some 4,300 miles to the Atlantic Ocean. While the river was wide, fascinating and mysterious, it was the children I met along the banks, who also were fishermen, that brought home to me the message of simplicity and faith presented by Matthew’s description of Jesus’ initial call to those who would be his apostles. While discovering the source of the world’s second longest river, I rediscovered the attitude of Jesus Christ.

A Chance Encounter

Peru, a nation with coastal beauty, the majestic Andes Mountains and dense jungle, has been a regular place of pilgrimage and ministry for me since I discovered this jewel of God’s creation in the first years of this new century. Initially, I was smitten with the discovery of many advanced civilizations of native peoples that occupied this land over many centuries — the Chimu and Moche, for examples — culminating with the vast territory of the Inca Empire, which was conquered by the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro in the early 1530s. Having the fortune to explore the sites and ruins left by these previous civilizations, I set out to see some of the country’s natural wonders. Having seen the source of the Nile River (Lake Victoria in Uganda), I set my goal to view the origin of the Amazon.

The Amazon rain forest is in the northern regions of Peru, adjacent to the city of Iquitos, a metropolitan area that even today only can be reached by airplane or boat. My planned adventure — and the unexpected gift of rediscovering the attitude of Jesus — began by traveling by van to a local river and then by boat, journeying to the confluence of a series of rivers that become the Amazon. During the two-day excursion, opportunities were provided to fish and swim along the riverbank. Not really interested in either activity, I wandered along the bank and discovered a group of five children, ages 3 to 12, who were fishing and helping their mother with other activities, including drying clothes in the warm Peruvian sun, clothes that earlier had been washed in the river.

I struck up a conversation with these children, peppering them with all sorts of questions that raced through my mind: Where did they live; did they go to school; why were they alone on the bank of this mighty river? I noticed all of them were wearing a cross, indicative, in my mind, of their Christian faith. These children were a family, the older looking out for the younger, but all working together to assist their mother in her many household duties. They fished to catch their dinner; they dried the clothes to have something clean to wear. They played games, as children often do, to amuse themselves and have some fun. The simplicity of their activities were markers of their faith.

A Tall Task

What I observed forced me to reflect upon my own life and ministry and the attitude I possess and the direction I take in my efforts to serve God’s people and build the Kingdom in our world. In his ministry Jesus clearly did not associate with the rich and the powerful, the intellectual and the elite, but rather with the simple, ordinary and, at times, the “rejects” from Jewish society. It would be these simple, generally unlearned and unsophisticated, men who would be tasked with the great responsibility of preaching and building the kingdom of God throughout the world.

Immediately before his ascension to the Father, Jesus gave this charge to his selected inner circle, the apostles: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20). That, indeed, was a tall order — a challenge of great proportions.

How would such simple men carry out such a demanding endeavor? Where would they get the necessary “tools” to navigate the future troubled waters that they would encounter in seeking to build the Kingdom? Fortunately, Jesus’ final words were not simply an exhortation and challenge; he added a final comment of continual support when he stated, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). The apostles knew that whatever the challenges they would face, Jesus would be with them.

Ministry Is Relational

The challenge that the Lord placed before the apostles is the same challenge we as priests and religious find today. We have been given the great privilege of education and numerous opportunities to do our share to promote and build the kingdom of God in our world. In many ways we do this extremely well. We do it through our preaching, programs of catechetical instruction (both for youth and adults) and formal education on the elementary, secondary and college and university levels. These significant ways of building the Kingdom are important and continually must be fostered and improved, from both our personal effort and that of the institution where we minister — the parish, the school, the hospital or the agency that assists the poor. Yet my experience in the Amazon, coupled with the choices made by Jesus in selecting the simplicity of fisherman over the sophistication of the scribes, Pharisees and other elites of Hebrew society, suggests that we must use the gifts, talents and opportunities we have in simple ways to promote and advance the Kingdom and Jesus’ message of love in our contemporary society.

The lessons of the five children, the Amazon fishermen, are multiple and need to be learned and applied in our own ministry. First, we need to reconsider how we care for one another. This certainly applies to the people we serve in our various ministries, but it also should be part and parcel of our relationship with those with whom we share the road of ministry, whether they are fellow priests and religious or the dedicated laity, without whom our Church would be in dire straits. We constantly need to remind ourselves that ministry is not about us, our needs, our fame or notoriety, or for our benefit. On the contrary, we minister to serve the needs of others.

Fortunately, experience teaches us that through our ministry to others we, the so-called minister, receive much more in return. Jesus promised that this would be the case. When the apostles asked him what they would receive for being his followers, the Lord powerfully responded, “And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life” (Mt 19:29).

Faith in Action

Like the apostles, the little fishermen of the Amazon teach us the importance of simplicity and how we express our faith. Sophistication in the life of faith is not what we must seek, but rather a more humble approach should be the avenue we traverse. The Lord instructed us in the Sermon on the Mount about how to approach our life of faith. In this discourse, he reminds us to not use our faith to draw attention to ourselves through prayer, fasting or charity, noting that if we do these in secret we will be repayed by the Father.

Another important lesson the Amazon fishermen give us is fidelity to task and purpose. The privilege we have, especially as priests and religious, to enter into the lives of God’s people, often in the most critical and vulnerable times of their lives, necessitates a responsible and faithful response. We cannot shirk our responsibilities, and we should seek no specific recompense for the things we do. Rather, we should do what we do simply because it is the right thing. Again, Jesus shows us the way when he said: “When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do’” (Lk 17:10).

A final lesson we can learn concerns the need to place our faith in action. As the expression goes, “If you talk the talk, you must be able to walk the walk.” Possession of faith is a great gift and privilege, but if this great prize from God is not exercised, then it will, at best, atrophy and become useless and, at worst, be taken away.

In the great parable of the talents (see Mt 25:14-30), the Master congratulates and rewards those who have used their talents wisely and effectively. But the Master excoriates the one who has done nothing, burying his talent in the earth, knowing the Master to be shrewd and demanding. Equally importantly, St. James reminds us: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (2:14-17).

Lessons to Carry with Us

The lessons of the Amazon fishermen must challenge us in our highly sophisticated and technologically advanced world to take a step back and consider how we respond in ministry to the challenges we face. Certainly the advancement that society has made in so many realms, but especially recently through communication and transportation, brings many great possibilities. But progress of any nature always has a price. We can text, instant message or email others throughout the world in a moment’s notice, but we lose the intimacy of personal conversation.

We can find information through the internet rather easily that a generation ago would have taken hours, but in the process we have lost the ability to dig, research and find answers to our questions. We can find friends online but, at the same time, lose the mystery and the beauty of discovering relationships, including, many times, lifelong mates, through the sheer joy and fun of social interaction.

Progress and advancement have their place, but with respect to our faith, the message of Jesus, as exemplified by my encounter with the five young Amazon fishermen, must challenge us to rethink and to reseek the simplicity that the Lord teaches us in the calling of his apostles. May we never be so caught up in the moment or addicted to contemporary trappings of our world that we lose the simplicity of our faith in Christ, the joy that it gives us daily and the promise of eternal life we will find at the end of our journey.

FATHER RICHARD GRIBBLE, CSC, is a priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross and presently serves as a professor of religious studies at Stonehill College in North Easton, Massachusetts.

Fishers of Men
At the Mass marking the beginning of his Petrine ministry (and the conferral of the fisherman’s ring) on April 24, 2005, Pope Benedict XVI leaned heavily on Peter’s role as a fisherman. Here is an excerpt from his homily: