top of page
  • Writer's pictureFr. Scott Haynes

We are the Little Fishes of Christ

Fr. Scott Haynes

In the ancient world, the symbol of the ship was oftentimes carved in burial chambers to signify the soul’s journey into the afterlife. This can be seen in the tomb of Nevoleia Tyche, a wealthy woman of Pompeii, who erected for herself an extravagant tomb on the Via dei Sepolcri (Via delle Tombe) in Pompeii, the prominent street leading from the Pompeii to Herculaneum.

The Roman catacombs, containing Christian art going back to second century, display an abundant display of boat and fish graphics. In Scripture, the boat image was significant for both Jews and Christians. In the Old Testament, we recall that after Moses was discovered floating in the Nile River in a boat-like basket, he was adopted by the daughter of the Pharoh (Exodus 2:10); and, Noah’s family was saved from the great flood by building an ark (Genesis 6-9). In the New Testament, Christ makes St. Peter’s boat the pulpit from where he teaches the saving words of the Gospel (Luke 5:1-11).

Because the boat has become a symbol of the Church bringing the faithful to safe harbor of salvation, the architectural shape of our Christian churches has developed under the wave of nautical terminology. Thus, the faithful attend the Sacred Liturgy from the part of the church building called the “nave,” a word coming from the Latin word for a ship, navis. In the architectural designs of Roman basilicas, we can further see the image of the ship with respect to the placement of the Bishop’s cathedra (“seat”). Thus, the Bishop’s throne was typically placed in the apse behind the altar and baldachin, placing the bishop in the place to pilot the ship.

As we examine today’s Gospel lesson, we notice that the apostles of Christ’s Ecclesia (“Church”) are standing in two boats, indicating that the Catholic Church breathes with two lungs, East and West (John Paul II, Lumen Orientalis). St. Luke tells us that Christ comes aboard Peter’s boat. Christ had made Peter the chief of the Apostles, so, perhaps, by standing on the “little ship of St. Peter” (La navicella di San Pietro), Our Lord is emphasizing the Petrine primacy.

Indeed, Peter and his successors are entrusted with the keys of the kingdom (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 553). Thus, St. Cyprian of Carthage taught: “On him {Peter} He builds the Church, and to him He gives the command to feed the sheep; and although He assigns a like power to all the Apostles, yet He founded a single chair, and He established by His own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity” (The Unity of the Catholic Church, 4).

In the images of Peter’s boat from the Roman catacombs, we generally find a “T” shaped beam that indicates the Cross. It is firmly planted in the middle of the boat—in the middle of the Church—for the Cross secures all graces and makes the sacraments efficacious (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1127). It is from the Cross that Christ’s power flows down into the waters, sanctifying the waters for the baptism of the little fish.

Looking at typical depictions of Peter’s barque in the catacombs of Rome, we often see the symbol of the fish accompanying the boat. The fish ranks as the most popular symbol of early Christians, and it is still popular today. St. Clement of Alexandria (b. 150) even advises Christians to have their tombs engraved with the image of a fish (Paedagogus, III, xi). It is not surprising then, that the early Christians made an acrostic from the Greek word for “fish,” Ichthys, replacing each letter with a word: Iesous Christos Theos, Yios Soter (“Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”).

Along with the fish symbol which decorated the primitive graphics of Peter’s boat in the catacombs, one frequently finds short inscriptions. One popular phrase used in the catacombs comes from Tertullian (b. 160), one the Fathers of the Church: “We are the little fishes of Christ!” (On Baptism, 1). This charming phrase of Tertullian reminds us that if Christians are the “little fishes” of Christ, then Christ is the big Fish. In the theology of St. Paul, Christ is the Head of his own Mystical Body; we are “members in particular” (1 Corinthians 12:27).

These depictions of Peter’s boat in the catacombs have taught us a profound but simple lesson about the nature of the Church. The lesson is this—Christ the Lord speaks to Peter, and then Peter speaks to the Church. Consequently, if we close our ears to Peter—if we close our ears to the teaching of the Pope—we no longer hear the words of Christ. St. Cyprian of Carthage put it in the strongest terms: “If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he deserts the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?” (The Unity of the Catholic Church, 4). Thus, if we plug up our ears when the Pope speaks, we are deaf to the teaching of Christ our Savior. If we refuse to be in communion with Peter, by committing, with full knowledge and complete consent, an act of heresy or schism, we have wiggled our way out of Peter’s net. And where do we fall if not into the waters of division. We plunge to our soul’s great peril!

It was to Peter alone that Christ said, “duc in altum” (i.e., “put out into the deep” – Luke 5:4), and then Peter, in simple obedience to Christ, signaled to the others to lower the nets. The others were obedient to Peter. The result of this double obedience is overwhelming—they get such a catch that the boats struggle to stay afloat. Let us today resolve to pray for the unity of Christians, and for the conversion of non-Christians around the Chair of St. Peter. Just imagine if all Christians were in full communion with the Chair of St. Peter, what would the catch of fish be? Look around the boat, little fish; there is plenty of room.


bottom of page