In this last resurrection appearance of Christ in John’s Gospel we find an exploration of the vocations of Peter and John: the pastor and the contemplative. The pastoral office is laid upon Peter with three instructions: ‘feed my lambs… tend my sheep… and feed my sheep’ (John 21: 15-17). Preceding each of these instructions is a question: ‘Simon, Son of John, do you love me more than these?’ Whereas on the night Jesus died, Peter, out of fear, denied Jesus three times, now Peter is given the opportunity to undo this betrayal and affirm his love. Indeed, as John reminds us in his first letter, ‘it is perfect love that casts out fear’ (1 John 4:18).
This love that casts out fear is itself dependent on humility, and acknowledging of one's limitations, of what one's true identity before God. For Aquinas, Peter’s humility is manifested in his despairing cry, ‘You know everything, you know I love you’ (John 21: 17). The true pastor, if he is to serve his flock lovingly, must be humble. This humility will be fully manifested in Peter’s martyrdom, when ‘Another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go’ (John 21: 18).
Peter, then, will serve Christ in an active life of service through leadership. John, in contrast, is usually associated in the tradition with the contemplative life. Aquinas emphasizes that both these forms of life have Christ as their end and object, yet interestingly Aquinas associates the active life with greater devotion. He writes:
‘The active life, which Peter signifies, loves God more than the contemplative life (which is signified by John) because it feels more keenly the difficulties of this present life, and more intensely desires to be free from them and to go to God. But God loves the contemplative life more, because he preserves it longer: it does not come to an end with death, as does the active life: “The Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwelling places of Jacob” (Ps. 86:2). (Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John 21: 19-23).
The active life, then, has the greater ardor yet the contemplative life is objectively higher because it continues even in heaven when we shall contemplate God as he really is. Clearly the Church desperately needs both vocations to fulfill its mission. Indeed, in the Summa Theologiae Aquinas argues that the very best religious orders will be both Active and Contemplative work. He goes on to conclude, unsurprisingly, that the Dominicans are the very best religious order!