Today’s gospel is familiar to all of us: “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” As Roman Catholics we see this promise kept in the ministry and service of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. Other Christians have a different understanding of Christ’s words to Peter. Lutherans would maintain that the power of the keys, to bind and loose belong to the whole church while the Orthodox Churches and the Anglican communities say the power given to Peter is shared by all the bishops of the church, not just the bishop of Rome who they consider to be the first among equals, with the emphasis on ‘equal.’
For us Catholics the Pope takes on a life of his own. He is the Holy Father, the Supreme Pontiff. We dare not question his authority. For some people anyone who questions the Pope’s words or decisions is a bad Catholic.
When Jesus called Peter a ‘rock’ I think he has his tongue in his cheek. Jesus knew Peter better than Peter knew Jesus. Jesus knew Peter was quicksand more than rock. Jesus would build his community, the church, on the rock of human weakness and frailty. It would be Christ’s presence to the church that would sustain it through the troubled centuries of its life. The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.
St John Chrysostom was a great theologian in the early church. He eventually became the Patriarch of Constantinople. He died in the year 404. Listen to his reflections on today’s gospel.
“Now Peter was inclined to be severe, so if he had also been sinless, what forbearance would he have shown toward those he instructed? Peter’s falling into sin was thus a providential grace to teach him from experience to deal kindly with others.”
Just think who it was whom God permitted to fall into sin—Peter himself, the head of the apostles, the firm foundation, the unbreakable rock, the most important member of the Church, the safe harbour, the strong tower; Peter, who had said to Christ, ‘Even if I have to die with you I will never deny you;’ Peter, who by divine revelation had confessed the truth: You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Now, as I said before, the reason God’s plan permitted Peter to sin was because he was to be entrusted with the whole people of God, and sinlessness added to Peter’s severity might have made him unforgiving toward his brothers and sisters. He fell into sin so that remembering his own fault and the Lord’s forgiveness toward him; he also might forgive others out of love for them.
He to whom the Church was to be entrusted, he, the pillar of the churches, the harbour of faith, was allowed to sin; Peter, the teacher of the world, was permitted to sin, so that having been forgiven himself he would be merciful to others.” John Chrysostom did not see Peter as a rock; he knew Peter shared in the quick sand of humanity. As I mentioned before from the bottom to the top we, the church, are all mistake-making beings, sinners struggling to be saints.
You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. This text, understood both in terms of papal primacy and the church’s durability, surely challenges the faith of the contemporary Catholic. Many good people in the church today are hurting, angry and disillusioned. The scandals in many of the local dioceses in too many countries, including our own are hard to cope with. Civil investigations are exposing what church investigations refused to face; the cover up of the sexual abuse of children by priests and bishops, a cover up meant to protect the image of the church rather than expose the crimes of its leaders. Bureaucrats in Rome are involved in some of these cover-ups. Here in Canada we have the shame of our churches involvement in the government’s residential schools as well as these other issues of abuse.
We believe in the holy Catholic Church. Our church is holy in its founder and in its teaching. Our church is holy in us, its members. Our church has produced countless numbers of holy men and women. Through the centuries our church has been responsible for centres of learning, places of healing, the orphans and widows. Our church stands for the rights of workers to a living wage, it teaches the dignity of life from the womb to the tomb. All this is so because the Spirit of Christ guides us and saves us from our sinfulness and failures. The gates of hell will not prevail. A famous French convert was convinced of the validity of the church because as he said, ‘not even its priests could destroy it.’
As we continue this Mass we pray for our church, that we admit our weaknesses and give thanks for our blessings and in our own personal lives may we recognize Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God.