On St. Peter's Imprisonment and Miraculous Release

"True freedom is found in following Jesus"

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VATICAN CITY, MAY 9, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the Italian-language catechesis Benedict XVI gave today during the general audience held in St. Peter’s Square.  The Pope continued his reflection on prayer in the Acts of the Apostles, today considering St. Peter’s imprisonment and miraculous release.

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Dear brothers and sisters,

Today I would like to consider the final episode of St. Peter’s life recounted in the Acts of the Apostles: his imprisonment by order of Herod Agrippa and his liberation through the prodigious intervention of the angel of the Lord, on the eve of his trial in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 12:1-17).

The prayer of the Church once again marks the account. St. Luke writes, in fact: “So Peter was kept in prison; but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the Church” (Acts 12:5). And after having miraculously been led forth from prison, on the occasion of his visit to the home of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, it is affirmed: “Many were gathered together and were praying” (Acts 12:12). Peter’s detainment and release, which span the whole night, are placed between these two important annotations, which illustrate the attitude of the Christian community when faced with danger and persecution. The power of the Church’s unceasing prayer rises to God, and the Lord hears and accomplishes an unthinkable and unhoped-for release through the sending of His angel.

The account recalls the great elements of Israel’s liberation from the slavery of Egypt, the Jewish Passover. As had occurred in that foundational event, here too the angel of the Lord who frees Peter carries out the principal action. And the very actions of the Apostle -- who is asked to get up quickly, to put on his belt and to gird himself -- mirror those of the chosen people on the night of their deliverance by God’s intervention, when they were invited to eat the lamb in haste with loins girt, sandals on their feet, staff in hand, ready to leave the country (cf. Exodus 12:11). Thus Peter can exclaim: “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod” (Acts 12:11).

But the angel recalls not only the event of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, but also that of Christ’s Resurrection. The Acts of the Apostles says, in fact: “And behold, and angel of the Lord appeared, and a light shone in the cell; and he struck Peter on the side and woke him” (Acts 12:7). The light that fills the prison cell, the very action of awakening the Apostle, recall the liberating light of the Passover of the Lord, who conquers the shadows of night and of evil. Lastly, the invitation: “Wrap your mantle around you and follow me” (Acts 12:8), echoes the words of Jesus’ initial call (cf. Mark 1:17), which is repeated after the Resurrection on the Lake of Tiberias, where the Lord says twice to Peter: “Follow Me” (John 21:19; 22). It is a pressing invitation to follow: for it is only in going out of ourselves in order to walk with the Lord and to do His will that we live in true freedom.

I would also like to emphasize an aspect of Peter’s attitude in prison; indeed, we note that while the Christian community was praying persistently for him, Peter “was sleeping” (Acts 12:6). In such a critical and dangerous situation, it is an attitude that may seem strange but that rather denotes tranquility and confidence. He trusts in God, he knows that the solidarity and prayer of his own surround him, and he abandons himself totally into the Lord’s hands. So must our prayer also be: assiduous, united in solidarity with others, fully trusting in God who knows us intimately and who cares for us to the point -- Jesus says -- that “even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore” (Matthew 10: 30-31).

Peter lives the night of imprisonment and release as a moment in his following of the Lord, who conquers the darkness of night and frees [him] from the slavery of chains and the danger of death. His is a miraculous liberation, which is marked by various carefully described passages: guided by the angel, despite the surveillance of the guards, he passes through the first and second guard, to the iron gate leading into the city: and the gate opened to them of its own accord (cf. Acts 12:10). Peter and the angel of the Lord together cover a long stretch of road until, coming to himself, the Apostle realizes that the Lord has actually delivered him; and after having reflected upon this, he goes to the home of Mary, the mother of Mark, where many of the disciples were gathered together in prayer; once again, the community’s response to difficulty and danger is to rely upon God, to intensify their relationship with Him.

Here is seems to me useful to recall another difficult situation through which the early Christian community lived. St. James speaks of it in his Letter. It is a community in crisis, in difficulty, not so much on account of persecutions, but because of the jealousies and contentions present within it (James 3:14-16). And the Apostle asks why this situation exists. He finds two principal causes: the first is allowing oneself to be dominated by one’s passions, by the dictatorship of one’s own will, by egoism (James 4:1-2a); the second is the lack of prayer -- “you do not ask” (James 4:2b) -- or the presence of a prayer that cannot be defined as such -- “you ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:3). This situation would change, according to St. James, if the whole community were to speak with God, if they were to pray assiduously and of one accord.

Indeed, even discussion about God risks losing its interior strength, and witness withers, if they are not animated, sustained and accompanied by prayer, by the continuity of a living conversation with the Lord. This is an important reminder for us and for our communities, for small communities such as the family, as well as those that are more extensive such as the parish, the diocese and the whole Church. And it gives me pause that they prayed in the community of St. James, but they prayed badly, for they prayed only for the sake of their own passions. We must always learn anew to pray well, to pray truly, to orient ourselves toward God and not toward our own good.

The community that accompanies St. Peter in his imprisonment, on the other hand, is a community that truly prays, for the whole night, united. And the joy that floods their hearts when the Apostle knocks unexpectedly at the door is uncontainable. It is the joy and amazement at the action of God who listens. Thus, prayer for Peter arises from the Church, and to the Church he returns in order to recount “how the Lord had brought him out of the prison” (Acts 12:17). In that Church where he is placed as a rock (cf. Matthew 16:18), Peter recounts his “Easter” of liberation: he experiences that true freedom is found in following Jesus; he is enveloped by the radiant light of the Resurrection, and for this reason he can testify unto martyrdom that the Lord is the Risen One and has “truly sent his angel and rescued him from the hand of Herod” (Acts 12:11). The martyrdom he will undergo in Rome will unite him definitively to Christ, who had told him: “When you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go. (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God)” (John 21:18-19).

Dear brothers and sisters, the episode of Peter’s release recounted by Luke tells us that the Church, and each one of us, passes through the night of trial, but that the unceasing vigilance of prayer sustains us. I too, from the first moment of my election as Successor of St. Peter, have always felt supported by your prayer, by the prayer of the Church, especially in the moments of greatest difficulty. I offer you my heartfelt thanks. Through constant and confident prayer, the Lord frees us from chains, he guides us through every night of imprisonment that may grip our hearts, he gives us serenity of heart to face life’s difficulties -- even rejection, opposition and persecution. The episode concerning Peter reveals the power of prayer. And the Apostle, even though in chains, remains at peace in the certainty that he is never alone: the community is praying for him; the Lord is close to him; indeed, he knows that “the power of Christ is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Constant prayer of one accord is also a precious instrument for overcoming the trials that can arise along the path of life, for it is being deeply united to God which allows us to be deeply united also to others.  Thank you.

[Translation by Diane Montagna]

[The Holy Father then greeted the people in various languages. In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In our catechesis on Christian prayer, we now consider Saint Peter’s miraculous liberation from imprisonment on the eve of his trial in Jerusalem. Saint Luke tells us that as “the Church prayed fervently to God for him” (Acts 12:5), Peter was led forth from the prison by an Angel of light. The account of Peter’s rescue recalls both Israel’s hasty exodus from bondage in Egypt and the glory of Christ’s resurrection. Peter was sleeping, a sign of his surrender to the Lord and his trust in the prayers of the Christian community. The fulfillment of this prayer is accompanied by immense joy, as Peter rejoins the community and bears witness to the Risen Lord’s saving power. Peter’s liberation reminds us that, especially at moments of trial, our perseverance in prayer, and the prayerful solidarity of all our brothers and sisters in Christ, sustains us in faith. As Peter’s Successor, I thank all of you for the support of your prayers and I pray that, united in constant prayer, we will all draw ever closer to the Lord and to one another.

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I offer a warm welcome to the participants in the Conference on Combatting Human Trafficking hosted by the the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. My greeting also goes to the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce from New York. Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims present at today’s Audience, including those from England, Scotland, Denmark, Sweden, India, Indonesia, the Philippines and the United States, I cordially invoke God’s abundant blessings.

© Copyright 2012 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

[In Italian, he said:]

Finally, a thought for the young, the sick and newlyweds. The month of May recalls our devotion to the Mother of God; dear young people, do not disdain to recite the Rosary, which is a simple but efficacious prayer; dear sick, may the Virgin be your support in your suffering and a model in offering it to the Lord; and may you, dear newlyweds, learn to look to the Madonna as mother and as bride as you begin to build your life in common.

[Translation by Diane Montagna]