When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him and saying, "Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress." And he said to him, "I will come and cure him" (Matt 8:5-6).
The centurion was a Roman commander of a hundred foot soldiers stationed in Capernaum, the metropolis of the area. One would expect that the Jews would be hostile to these occupation troops and especially to their commander, but such is not the case in this event. From Luke we learn that the Jews testified in his favor: "They appealed to him earnestly, saying, "He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us" (Luke 7:4-5). When you travel to the Holy Land and visit Capernaum today, be sure to visit there the standing ruins of an ancient synagogue that has characteristics of a Roman style of pillars with their capitals. We may believe that we have here the remains of the synagogue that the centurion had built.
That the centurion was a kind man is also evident from the fact that he felt extreme sorrow for his sick servant and so appealed to Jesus to cure him. Note that he must have trusted in the kindness of Jesus too, because he did not in so many words ask for a miracle, but said instead: "Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress." In this manner he appealed to the sympathy of Jesus. For the centurion must have heard already about the miracles that Jesus had been working. The centurion then spoke the words that we repeat today before receiving Holy Communion:
The centurion answered, "Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed.
A Jew was not allowed to enter the house of a gentile, and if he did so he would become legally unclean. The centurion must have been aware of this, and for that reason did not ask Jesus to enter the house to cure his servant. Nevertheless Jesus answered without hesitation: "I will come and cure him." It was then that the centurion uttered the memorable words that Jesus admired greatly, words of a military officer who expected soldiers to jump when he snapped an order:
For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes, and to another, 'Come,' and he comes, and to my slave, 'Do this,' and the slave does it."
The words invited Jesus to simply issue orders, and the sickness will depart. Here Jesus was not only pleased, but pleasantly amazed. He turned around to be sure that His Jewish followers were listening. Here was a Roman, a gentile, who had firm faith that Jesus had power to heal when distant from his servant. No need to come and touch him. To make it sink in, Jesus then contrasted the faith of this gentile to the hostility of many of the Jews.
When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, "Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." And to the centurion Jesus said, "Go; let it be done for you according to your faith." And the servant was healed in that hour.
In the end hostile Jews would even reject and crucify Him, whereas gentiles would come from east to west to enter the kingdom. He did not use the term "gentiles" which had a pejorative significance for Jews who considered themselves to be God's favorites by birth, being children of Abraham. But He made His meaning clear by saying that believers would come from the east and from the west to flock into His kingdom, whereas the Jews who should have inherited it will be the ones to miss their opportunity. Jesus was thus chiding the Jews to also believe, to also inherit the kingdom. He longed greatly that His fellow Jews would become His faithful followers, and many of them did, of course. But others did not. The warning of Jesus about failure to believe makes one shiver. "The heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." Gnashing teeth is not something that you and I want to be doing in eternity. Let our faith in Jesus be strong.
Jesus then aligned His actions to the strong faith of the centurion: "Go; let it be done for you according to your faith." And the servant was healed in that hour." The sick servant was healed instantly of his pain, and the kind centurion had his faith in Jesus confirmed and rewarded. We will meet him in heaven.
We learn from this healing what we also learned from the Catechism. To the question "Where is God?" the answer is: "God is everywhere." Jesus was probably a few miles away from the centurion's dwelling, but distance was no problem for Him. As God, He exists everywhere.
When Jesus entered Peter's house, he saw his mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever; he touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she got up and began to serve him (Matt 8:14-15).
Chrysostom (Sermon 27) asks why Jesus entered Peter's house, then replies that it was likely to take food, but also to show Peter honor by this visit. He would do the same to Matthew later, and in this manner make His disciples more zealous and more closely attached to Himself. He observes that Peter was also considerate and waited until Jesus had finished His work of preaching and of healing all the others, before bringing Him to His house. Thus the civilization of love was already becoming manifest in the lives of the apostles. Chrysostom also points out that when a fever is cured the patient requires an additional time for healing completely, but when Jesus healed, all was well immediately.
Tourists can visit the ancient remnants of the house of St. Peter when they visit Capernaum today. A church had been built over and around the house in the early centuries. It is only a stone's throw from the Sea of Galilee. As a married man Peter had his own house. When he entered it with Jesus and the other apostles, his mother-in-law was found in bed burning up with fever. Jesus touched her hand as He was wont to touch other sick and afflicted people to heal them. His touch brought instant healing, so that she arose and began to serve the visitors.
We ask, where was Peter's wife, why did she not help with the welcome and the cooking and table preparations? Was she not there? Matthew says not a word about her, nor about children if there were children. Why are the Evangelists silent on this point? Your guess is as good as mine.
Our Saint John Chrysostom spoke about the exceptional holiness of the apostles, bur reminded us that they were also men like ourselves. About Peter he says: "What can we say about Peter, the foundation of the Church, the passionate lover of Christ. . . . Did he not also have a wife? Of course he had one. . . . Where there is a mother-in-law, there is a wife; and where there is a wife, there is a marriage." But St. Jerome, a near contemporary of St. Chrysostom, wrote that St. Peter did indeed have a wife, but that "he left her when he left his nets." We ask, how would St. Jerome know that, except from what we read in the Gospels? I think St. Jerme was just guessing. Some of the fathers mention children of St. Peter (Clement of Alexandria) but give no details. Apocryphal works mention a daughter and give her the name of Petronilla (for the above, see Christian Cochini, SJ, The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, p. 67).
Capernaum was in Galilee, and from there a number of women followed Jesus to Jerusalem (e.g., Luke 23:56), but there is no mention of Peter's wife following him. Remarkably, we read in the Gospel according to St. Luke:
Then Peter said, "Look, we have left our homes and followed you." And he said to them, "Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life" (Luke 18:28-29).
From the fact that Peter says that they had left their homes to follow Jesus, and from the reply of Jesus which includes leaving a wife behind, we can conclude that the practice of celibacy had indeed begun with the apostles. Yet, many today are unwilling to accept that. Translators of current English versions of the Bible all make the same mistake in regard to 1 Cor. 9:5. What they translate as Paul claiming a right to be accompanied by a "wife as the other apostles and Peter," is a mistranslation of the Greek term adelphaen gynaika, "sister woman." A sister assistant is a chaste helper, not a wife. She can help with house-keeping, and sometimes go into homes where men should not enter. That is what Paul meant in this passage. Jerome should know, he was a master at translating. He translates it "mulierem sororem," a "sister woman," exactly as it stands in the original Greek.
We ask Bible translators to do the job of translating, and to discipline themselves not to impose pet prejudices into their works. No amount of propaganda can blow away the stark fact that the tradition of priestly celibacy began with the Apostles, and under the approving eyes of Jesus. If that is what He started, that is also what we ought to continue for His sake. The Church would be much less the salt of the earth and the city on the mountain that Christ founded, if her priests were other than celibate.
Allow me to close with these beautiful words of Pope John 23rd about priestly celibacy. He asked that priests continue to man the flag-ship of the Church, the Church which is "free, chaste, and catholic:"
It deeply hurts us that . . . anyone can dream that the Church will deliberately or even suitably renounce what from time immemorial has been, and still remains, one of the purest and noblest glories of her priesthood. The law of ecclesiastical celibacy and the efforts necessary to preserve it always recall to mind the struggles of heroic times when the Church of Christ had to fight for and succeeded in obtaining her threefold glory, always an emblem of victory, that is, the Church of Christ, free, chaste, and catholic (John XXIII, to Roman Synod, January 26, 1960).