Heading out into the deep waters

By | May 15, 2012

Obviously, I didn’t drown. The swim instructor caught hold of me and pulled me over to the ladder.

But looking back, I realized that jumping into the deep end of the pool was my first concrete experience with duc in altum — a Latin phrase generally translated to mean “put out into the deep.” (Altum, however, can refer to “the heights” as well.)

Referring to deep water, the phrase comes to us from the Latin (Vulgate) translation of Luke’s Gospel and the call of Peter.

The Lord, after choosing Peter’s fishing boat to preach from, asks Peter to put out into the deeper water and drop his net. Now, since Peter — an experienced hand at fishing — had been out all night and caught nothing, he probably thought Jesus was a bit crazy. But Peter did as he was asked and caught so many fish that “their nets were tearing.”

Peter was understandably astonished and afraid, because he was “a sinful man.” But Jesus told him, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men” (Lk 5:1-11).

Perhaps I needed Jesus to tell me, “Do not be afraid” in that pool. But the point here is that, from Peter onward, the Lord has asked all his followers to duc in altum — to trust him and go out where he directs, even if it doesn’t seem to make sense, like fishing during the day when you’ve caught nothing all night. (The best time to fish on the Sea of Galilee is at night.)

Blessed John Paul II

Duc in altum was a phrase often used by Blessed John Paul II during the celebration of the new millennium: “Duc in altum! These words ring out for us today, and they invite us to remember the past with gratitude, to live the present with enthusiasm and to look forward to the future with confidence…,” the late pope said in his apostolic letter on the close of the Holy Year 2000, “Novo Millennio Ineunte.”

Duc in altum is also a phrase that has been directed at Christians, including religious orders, throughout the last 2,000 years. It has certainly directed the lives of those women who are celebrating jubilees of religious life this year (see special section). As 60th jubilarian and Franciscan Sister of Christian Charity Juana Lucero described answering God’s call: “I have been sent to places where I would not have ever thought of being, and I loved being there.”


Each of us has been sent to unexpected places, by the Lord: duc in altum. It began with our baptism and continues today, as the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults tells us. The fathers of Vatican II, in their document on the apostolate of the laity, reminded us that the call is universal, not just out to a few disciples.

“It is the Lord himself … who is once more inviting all the laity to unite themselves to him ever more intimately, to consider his interests as their own, and to join in his mission as Savior. It is the Lord who is again sending them into every town and every place where he himself is to come” (AA, n. 33).


Duc in altum. “Put out into the deep.” There is a parallel call to this message in Luke, found in John’s Gospel, and taking place after the resurrection.

The apostles, led by Peter, have again been fishing at night and caught nothing. The risen Lord — unrecognized by the other — hails them from shore and advises them to cast their nets once again. This time they catch 153 fish and “were not able to pull (the net) in because of the number of fish” (Jn 21:1-14). Only then do the disciples recognize that “It is the Lord.”

Don’t recognize

That’s what it is like, duc in altum — you don’t necessarily recognize that it is the Lord’s work right away. Whether you have given your life to teaching or missionary work, to medical care or prayer ministry — like our sister jubilarians have done — or to any other work, you have put out into waters whose depths you could not gauge, scaled heights you could not imagine. But as the jubilarians teach us, it’s the journey that counts. Where it leads us is ultimately up to the Lord.

As Blessed John Paul II said, “Let us go forward in hope! A new millennium is opening before the church like a vast ocean upon which we shall venture, relying on the help of Christ. The Son of God, who became incarnate 2,000 years ago out of love for humanity, is at work even today: We need discerning eyes to see this and, above all, a generous heart to become the instruments of his work.”

It’s sort of like jumping into the pool at the deep end — except that we need to remember that Jesus is there with us and has gone ahead of us, like the Good Shepherd leading his sheep. Or like a swim instructor dragging his students to the pool ladder.

Sources: Documents of the Second Vatican Council; Novo Millennio Ineunte at the Vatican website at vatican.va; the diocesan 2012 sister jubilarians

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