This week Msgr. Gervasio came into my office, and with a chuckle said that he thought that today’s first reading was rather appropriate given that it is my last weekend here at Our Lady of Sorrows-St. Anthony; “I will thrust you from your office and pull you down from your station.” I hope I was a little bit better servant of the Lord than the scribe Shebna, to whom the Lord said those words, and I certainly do not see going to St. Theresa’s in Tuckerton as a form of exile, as Shebna was exiled.
Rather, we should exclaim with St. Paul in our second reading today, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” St. Paul takes up this triumphant note of joy and thanksgiving because of the marvelous ways that he saw God working in his life. He would never have predicted nor planned the way his life turned out, but he did not see that as something to regret but rather as something to rejoice in.
Likewise, when I was assigned to Our Lady of Sorrows-St. Anthony’s over two and half years ago, it was not something I expected nor planned for. I came here during a difficult time in my life, personally, as my father was dying of cancer. Yet the Lord knew what was for my best. When my father died 11 days after I arrived here, God knew that the people of this parish, in my hometown, would demonstrate such kindness and support that I would need to go through my grief and so that I could support my mother and uncle. I will always be appreciative of the kindness and love that you have shown me, and for the opportunity that you gave me of ministering to you, of becoming a part of your lives. All that I can say is thank you.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus asks His apostles, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” This is a critical question, and one that Jesus continues to ask His followers today. Who do we say that Jesus is? Is He merely a person of history? A wise teacher? A friend?
St. Peter boldly responds, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and in return Jesus gives St. Peter authority over His Church. What do we mean by the word “authority”? Was there something special about St. Peter’s character which merited the authority that Jesus gave him?
I don’t think so. Peter was not perfect. He often was very boastful, but then would fail to live up to his promises. Just look at the Last Supper; when Jesus tells the Apostles that they will all abandon Him, Peter protests that even if all the others abandon Him, he would not. Yet just a few hours later, Peter denied even knowing Jesus not once, but three times. Even after witnessing the glory of Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead, Peter still seemed to have a weakness of character. He caved into peer pressure by not associating with Gentile converts, after a group of Jewish Christians came to town, so St. Paul had to correct him. And tradition says that when the Christians in Rome were being persecuted, St. Peter was fleeing the city, and it was only when he encountered Christ Jesus on the road and asked Jesus, “quo vadis?” — “where are you going?” — and Jesus said that He was going to Rome to be crucified again, that St. Peter turned around and gave the ultimate witness to Jesus by his martyrdom. So, how is St. Peter an authority figure?
We often think of authority in terms of power, and an authority figure is someone who can tell others what to do. However, Jesus teaches different understanding of authority. Someone is an authority because we want to follow them. We sense that they are on the right road, and while they may not have all the answers, we trust that they will not lead us astray.
One amusing example of this came to mind as I was writing this homily. Have you seen the movie Pretty Woman with Julia Roberts? Among other things, she plays a woman that did not have much in terms of the higher social refinements. There is a scene in a restaurant when she is served escargot, and she has no idea how to eat them. The elderly gentleman sitting at the table notices her uneasiness, and after making a small joke to put her at ease, without embarrassing her, he demonstrates to her how to eat escargot. For her, in that circumstance, he was an authority.
So how is St. Peter an authority for us today? It is not in a strength of character, but rather in being a model of faith. St. Peter, through his confession of faith, demonstrated his trust in the One whose strength overcomes human weakness. Faith in Jesus was something that St. Peter always manifested. When many of Jesus’ followers left Him after He said that they would need to eat His flesh and drink His blood, and Jesus asked the apostles if they would also leave Him, it was Peter who said, “Lord, where would we go? You have the words of eternal life.” St. Peter may not have had all the answers, and he often did not fully understand all that Jesus said, but he knew that he had to follow Jesus because only Jesus could fulfill the deepest longings of his heart. That confidence of faith is what makes St. Peter an authority for us.
Just as the Church has grown immensely from the time of Jesus, so has the office of St. Peter grown. Yet there is a way in which all Popes are like St. Peter, the first Pope. Like each and every one of us, all the Popes have been mortal human beings and sinners who must constantly seek the mercy of God, particularly through the sacrament of reconciliation. All the Popes share the same weakness common to all of us and who, like St. Peter, are strong only as long as they continue to trust not in their own strength but in the power that comes from God alone, through His Son, Jesus.
As St. Peter strengthened his brothers after that scattered when Jesus was arrested and crucified, so the Pope today, through his witness to the Gospel, strengthen us during our journey of faith. And as our heavenly Father revealed to St. Peter the truth of who Jesus is, the Popes have been given the special charism to teach infallibly in matters of faith and morals. With St. Peter, let us pray for his successor today:
Almighty and eternal God, You guide all things by Your Word; You govern all Christian people. In your love, protect the Pope you have chosen from us. Under his leadership, deepen our faith and make us better Christians. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.