[“Tu est Petrus” by Salvador Dali]
As most of you probably know, at least a million young Catholics are gathered in Madrid, Spain to meet with Pope Benedict XVI to celebrate our Catholic faith at World Youth Day. There are several members of our parish who are participating in World Youth Day, and from their Facebook posts, there is tremendous excitement among all the young Catholics from all over the world who are gathered in Madrid, especially about seeing the Pope. Why would so many young people get so excited about seeing, most likely from a distance, an 84-year-old German man? The answer is quiet simply, because he is the Pope.
Today’s youth meeting in Madrid are in good company. St. Catherine of Siena called the pope, “my sweet Christ on earth,” while St. Augustine wrote, “Wherever Peter is, there the Church is.” Indeed, it is impossible to imagine the Catholic Church without the Pope, and that makes perfect sense, especially when we take a few minutes to consider the message of today’s readings, which every Catholic should be able to explain.
Some non-Catholic Christians mistakenly think that the papacy was invented by the Roman Emperor Constantine three-hundred years after Christ. Up until then, they claim, the Church had no single leader. Rather, the Bible alone showed individual believers the way to follow Christ, and the Church was a democratic gathering of those followers. Today, even some Catholics have accepted that point of view, and so they want to change Catholic beliefs and practices the way modern political systems change laws and leaders – by opinion polls and popular votes.
Besides forgetting that the list of books included in today’s Bible was not finalized until decades after the death of Constantine, and besides ignoring the fifteen centuries of Christian history between St Paul and Martin Luther, that point of view seriously misinterprets today’s powerful Gospel passage.
Christ’s Church was never a democracy. The Church of the New Testament, like Israel of the Old Testament, is a family of believers, a kingdom ruled by God, with Christ Himself as the head of that family and the King of that kingdom. But Christ chose to exercise His headship through a representative, a vicar on earth, much as the Old Testament kings temporarily delegated their authority to the “master of the palace,” like Shebna and Eliakim, who are mentioned in today’s First Reading.
In other words, Jesus Himself invented the papacy as an instrument of unity and continuity for His Church, the community of believers forged by God’s grace and destined to overthrow the devil’s rule of evil, which has dominated the world since the fall of Adam and Eve. This comes across in today’s Gospel passage both in what Jesus says to Peter, who was the first Vicar of Christ, the first pope, and also in where He says it.
The conversation recorded in this passage took place outside the city of Caesarea Philippi. The city was constructed on the top of a huge hill, one side of which was a towering, bare rock cliff. It gave the city an appearance of invincibility and magnificence. Precisely there, standing near that imposing cliff, Jesus explains that His Church will also be invincible, because it too will be founded on rock, the rock of Peter, Christ’s Vicar, the first Pope. The solidity of the papacy, Jesus explained, will not come from Peter’s natural, human qualities, but through the supernatural intervention of “my heavenly Father.” Peter will receive from God the authority to rule the Church in Christ’s name.
This authority is symbolized by the keys and the “binding and loosing.” The keys refer to the delegated authority held in ancient Israel by the King’s master of the palace, as mentioned in the First Reading. The binding and loosing refers to the authority of the Jewish synagogue leader to expel and reinstate people into the synagogue community, in order to preserve the community’s religious and moral integrity. This authority has remained intact through twenty centuries of popes, giving the Catholic Church a truly amazing record of unbroken unity of faith, worship, and governance, in spite of its members’ many failings.
Critics disagree with this interpretation of Christ’s conversation with Peter. They twist this passage into nonsensical knots by pointing out that the Greek word for rock (petra) is of the feminine gender. They conclude, that Christ wasn’t really applying the term to Simon the man (even though he changed it into a masculine form when he made it into a name) but only to Simon’s faith. Other critics take a different approach, claiming that Christ said these words while pointing to Himself, making Himself the rock.
Such objections make complicated a text that is actually quite simple. They also ignore the many other passages in the New Testament that illustrate Peter’s primacy among the Twelve, and Christ’s plan to give His Church a hierarchical structure. For example: Christ originally renamed Simon “Peter” in Chapter One of St John’s Gospel, when He first met him. In that conversation there was no reference to faith or other ambiguous gestures. Solemnly renaming people in the Bible is much more than handing out nicknames; it signifies receiving a new role in salvation history, as in the case of Abraham and Jacob. Also, during the Last Supper Christ prayed in a special way for Peter and gave him a special commission to “confirm your brethren in the faith” (Luke 22:32). Christ also gave him a unique commission after His resurrection, in John 21. And curiously enough, Peter’s name always appears first on the lists of the Twelve Apostles.
There is one Lord: Jesus Christ. He founded one Church to wage His definitive war against sin and evil: that Church’s keys are in Peter’s hands. The papacy was founded by Christ and is sustained by Him. What else could explain its incredible longevity and vitality, in spite of so much hardship, persecution, and corruption through the centuries?
Christ guides us through His Church, and the visible head of that Church is the pope. Today we have been reminded that this is true, and we should be glad to explain it to anyone who may not understand it. The pope is no political leader or authoritarian patriarch tyrannically imposing his will on Catholics. Rather, he is our spiritual father, appointed and guided by Christ to keep the Gospel pure and to apply it faithfully to the changing times and circumstances of history. In fact, the word “pope” comes from the Greek word for “dad”: “pappas.”
As once again we celebrate Christ’s sacrifice and receive Him in Holy Communion, in union with the pope, the bishops, and all members of God’s family everywhere on this Lord’s Day, all of us, through our interest in what the pope says and does, and through our conscious, faith-filled, and well-informed obedience to his divinely guaranteed teaching regarding what true Christians must believe and how they must live, should stir up in our hearts that same sentiment expressed so beautifully by St José María Escrivá: “Love for the Roman Pontiff must be in us a delightful passion, for in him we see Christ.”