In this famous scene from Caesarea Philippi when Jesus asks the disciples, “who do people say I am,” they give him many answers; John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets. But Jesus really wants to know, ‘who am I to you?’ In today’s gospel we have the simple answer, “you are the Christ.”
In Matthew’s telling of this same event we hear Peter saying, “you are the Christ the Son of the living God.” Jesus goes on to tell Peter he didn’t come to such an insight on his own, God himself revealed this truth to Peter. Peter was happy to accept this insight into Jesus but he colored it with his own idea of the Christ, the Messiah. Peter’s Messiah was to be the one who was to deliver the Jewish people from the oppressive Romans. Peter’s Messiah would be a victorious liberator. When Jesus starts to tell Peter and the others what the total reality of being Messiah would entail, “the son of man must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes and be killed and on the third day be raised,” things changed.
Peter couldn’t cope with this at all; this is not the way things were to work out. Peter tells Jesus, “Far be it for you Lord, this must never happen to you.” That’s when Jesus called Peter “Satan” and a stumbling block. In Matthew’s telling of this event Jesus calls Peter a rock, a rock on which he would build his church, his community. In today’s gospel Peter is a stumbling block.
I think Jesus had his tongue in his cheek when he called Peter a rock. He knew Peter inside and out. He chooses this dedicated but fickle man to lead the church. We know that the church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ. Through the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit Jesus watches over his church, a church he entrusted to men who possess all the strengths and weaknesses found in human beings.
It’s not easy to be a Catholic these days. It’s certainly not easy being a priest these days. It was easy to be a Catholic in the glory days of Second Vatican Council led by the good Pope John. Those were days of great dreams and promises. It was easy to be a Catholic in the early days of the young, vibrant Pope John Paul 11 and bask in the impact he had on the world scene.
In those days we shared in Peter’s concept of Jesus as Messiah, the deliverer, the conqueror, the church victorious.
Now we are more in the time Jesus spoke of when he described how the son of man would be handed over, scourged, mocked, belittled and brought low. Today Christ in his church is beset with scandals and troubles. The churches in Ireland, in Belgium, Germany and other countries are shamed by the crimes committed against innocent children by priests and religious.
We are embarrassed and angry as we learn of the concerted efforts of our bishops to cover up these crimes and move criminals to new parishes so as to keep a lid on the crimes and protect the reputation of the church. In the States we see bishops and diocesan bureaucrats brought to trial for their failure to protect the innocent children and their cover-up of the crimes of priests.
There is something we must all remember and hang on to in these painful times. The people are the church. Christ is the head of the church and we are its members. As St. Paul tells us, “when one member suffers we all suffer, when one member glories, we all glory.” Today we are a suffering, embarrassed church. Today we are one with the ridiculed and humiliated Christ. Today we must stay with the church; we do not abandon Christ as the Apostles did in their time of testing. We have the witness of the resurrection, the witness of the victorious Christ.
This isn’t the first time the leadership has failed the church. This isn’t the first time our church has been rocked by scandal. But in every age the church has been saved by the deep faith and fidelity of the people inspired by saintly men and women like Francis of Assisi and Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila and many others. As we continue this Mass we pray for our wounded Church, we pray for our wounded selves and ask Christ to heal all our wounds and restore us to fidelity.