Let yourself be founded upon the Rock of Peter

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21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A: August 21, 2011
Isa 22:19-23; Ps 138; Rom 11:33-36; Matt 16:13-20

Surely many religious founders through the millennia have asked their followers how their message was being received. They might have asked: “How are people responding to the way that I am showing them?” Or, “How are people receiving the revelation that I am communicating to them?” These are reasonable questions that we might expect.

But these are not the questions that Jesus asks in today’s Gospel reading. Rather, he asks: “Who do people say that … I am?” He directs their focus, not to his teaching, not to a way to be lived, not to a body of revelation to be believed—but to himself, his being. “Who do people say that … I am?” For he makes himself the center of his message; the key of his proclamation; the core of his Gospel.

And the disciples pass on various answers that they have heard from people—all of them wrong! And then Jesus asks the disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” And in the silence that follows, one of them has an answer: Simon Peter says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

  • First, “You are the Christ”—the Messiah, the Anointed One, the descendant of King David that we have been waiting for God to send for so long, to liberate us from our captors. That is a bold and even dangerous statement to make, politically.
  • But the second part is even bolder: “You are … the Son of the living God.” And in that phrase, Simon puts his finger on the central affirmation of Christianity. For, though he surely does not comprehend the fullness of it yet, he actually begins to penetrate the mystery of the Trinity and of the Incarnation: that the man Jesus standing in front of him is God the Son, eternally begotten of God the Father, from whom the Holy Spirit proceeds, three Divine Persons in one God, in a communion of infinite love from all eternity; and this Son of God now also made true man and standing right before his eyes.

We heard two weeks ago how much Simon loved Jesus and wanted to be with him, wherever that was—even if it meant walking on the water in the middle of a storm at sea! And now he has spoken this central yet hidden truth. And Jesus responds: “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.”

Simon has insightfully said who Jesus is; and now Jesus will say who Simon is, that is, what Jesus will make him to be. “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” “Peter” is “Petros” in Greek, which means “rock.” And so Jesus is saying: “You are Rock (petros) and upon this rock (petra) I will build my church.”

And in so doing Christ is establishing an office. For when he says, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven,” he knows well that the keys were the symbol of the office that we heard about in the first reading—the office of master of the palace, or prime minister, second only to the king, a king of the House or lineage of David. The keys were the symbol of that office; and even as Christ establishes the Kingdom of Heaven, he also establishes that office, to be filled by Peter and his successors, the Popes.

The Catechism tells us [552-53]:

Because of the faith he confessed Peter will remain the unshakable rock of the Church. His mission will be to keep this faith from every lapse and to strengthen his brothers in it. … The “power of the keys” designates authority to govern the house of God, which is the Church. … The power to “bind and loose” connotes the authority to absolve sins, to pronounce doctrinal judgments, and to make disciplinary decisions in the Church.

Now, why does Christ give Peter this authority, this power? We know that it is not just for him to feel good about himself, or have fun at parties, or lord it over the other disciples. No, Christ gives Peter this office because he knows that the Church needs it. Each of us does. And we heard that purpose reaffirmed when Christ restored Peter after the Resurrection and said to him, “Simon … do you love me? … Feed my lambs … tend my sheep … feed my sheep.” [John 21:15-17] We need the ministry of Peter. We need the clear teaching of the Pope to guide us; we need to be founded upon that rock; we need our sins forgiven; we need to be fed and strengthened; we need a leader who will lead us surely, upon the right path, in Christ, the Son of the living God. And down through the ages, Christ’s promise has not failed. For, even until today, he has continued to call and send the successor of St. Peter, and with him the bishops, priests, and deacons, to care for his Church.

But do you receive that care?

Let me explain what I mean by that. Twelve years ago, I was Protestant, as I had been my whole life; and I was looking into the Catholic Church. And the friend who was helping me in this would sometimes speak of “Mother Church.” Now, of course I had heard this phrase many times before. But she used it differently; and it was clear that she experienced it as a reality. And I thought about that, and said to her: “You know, I have never experienced the Church as a Mother. Instead, the Church seems more like my ‘project’—something that I have the responsibility to work on and make happen; not something that has nourished me, guided me, protected me, or supported me.” And it was true.

But that changed when I was received into full communion two years later—and I could then receive the Lord himself in Holy Communion and his forgiveness in sacramental confession. But when it really changed was two years after that, when I entered seminary; and I received so much in the riches of seminary formation—humanly, spiritually, intellectually. Then I truly experienced the Church as Mother—and the priests in the seminary as true fathers. And I was also being prepared pastorally—being prepared to serve you; to take what I had been given and use it to teach and guide you, to absolve and strengthen you, to feed you and love you as a father—so that you may know the love and care of Christ.

And so I ask: have you received that love and care of Christ, through the love and care of his priests? Perhaps you have not; or have not for a long time. Perhaps you too currently think of the Church as your project, and not as your Mother. I urge you: expect more from your priests! Not that we will cater to your whims; but that we will give you what you need—what you desperately need from Christ, which he is ready to give you! For it is his will that you should receive his love and grace through others, including priests; so that you in turn may give it to others.

St. John Vianney said, “The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus.” Expect more from your priests!

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