Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.
For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.
Today is the feast of the Chair of St. Peter, which in a special way honors the role of the papacy in the life of the Church. It is not just St. Peter, who is honored, but the very institution of the papacy as such. That must have touched Pope Benedict deeply when he was celebrating Mass today, less than a week from the time when he will surrender this office for reasons of health. In examining his conscience, we can be sure that Benedict reflected upon the words of St. Peter scattered throughout the Gospels and in the book of acts and Peter’s Letters. We can say today something like what Jesus said to Peter in the Gospel. “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah,” for these are words that also apply to any of St. Peter successors: “Blessed are you Joseph, son of Joseph Ratzinger … you are Benedict, and on your faith I will build my Church.”
Do those last words strike us as perhaps going a bit too far? Has Jesus been building his Church on the faith of Pope Benedict for the last eight years? I think we can affirm this with confidence since Benedict’s faith is not only guaranteed by his office and the supernatural charism given by the Holy Spirit to his office, but also because Benedict has done everything from a human standpoint to make sure that his faith is the faith of Peter, to preach always “you are the son of the living God.” Indeed, we can say of Benedict, what can be said of every faithful Pope, that Peter is speaking through his successor.
To understand this, we have to be mindful of the truth that the Church herself is of a sacramental nature. It’s not simply that the Church possesses seven means of grace that we call sacraments, but, as Vatican II stated, the Church herself has a sacramental nature, for the Church as a whole is a visible sign of the continuing presence of Christ in this world continuing to teach us, to sanctify us and to shepherd us as we make our pilgrim way to heaven. Christ has not left us orphans. As he promised at the end of St. Matthew’s Gospel, He is with us always to the end of time.
Within this sacramental structure of the Church, the apostles themselves continue to exercise their office sacramentally, through their successors. Jesus established a most intimate bond of authority and teaching power with Peter, but also with the other apostles as well. Nonetheless, Peter has a unique and indispensable role of being the source of Church unity that keeps the apostles themselves and the Churches they continue to rule one body, with one faith and with one body of sacraments.
So Peter also continues sacramentally to exercise his role as the rock upon which Christ would build his Church. We see this especially when a Pope exercises his supreme authority. It is Peter who is speaking through the pope. For instance, recall what the bishops at the Council of Chalcedon declared when the teaching of Pope St Leo the Great, regarding the unity of person and duality of nature us in Christ, was read in his letter to the Council Fathers: “This is the faith of the Apostles! So we all believe! Thus the orthodox believe! Anathema to him who does not thus believe! Peter has spoken thus through Leo!” In other words, The Council Fathers recognized the supreme charism of Truth given to Peter as continuing in his successor Leo four hundred years later, and we believe that same charism continues today.
It might be objected, however, that Pope Benedict has made no solemn declarations or definitions during his tenure as pope, but does that imply that the charism the truth is only given at the moment of a solemn declaration or definition of the faith? There are distinctions that need to be made, certainly. Not every word, nor every teaching that comes from the mouth of the Pope participates in Peter’s charism of truth in its fullness. But nonetheless, it would be a very strange charism indeed that simply operated at the moment of a solemn definition. In fact, there are greater and lesser participations in that charism according to the nature of the Pope’s teachings, but surely the charism the truth accompanies the Pope even in his ordinary teaching, though not in its fullness. That fact alone would explain why the ordinary teaching of the Pope has a serious weight attached to it for the faith of believers. And that fact alone would explain why the universal, ordinary Magisterium of the Church, as was taught at both Vatican I and Vatican II, is infallible when it comes to a teaching on matters of faith or morals.
At any rate, leaving aside all these technical, theological qualifications, as important as they are to be sure, we have the witness of Benedict’s marvelous writings and addresses, that are so faithful to the Church’s Tradition, that reveal so clearly the intimate relationship between his faith and the mind of Christ, mediated through the faith of Peter to his successors via the Holy Spirit. True, Benedict produced no new definitions, but he solidified the faith and tradition of the Church, and he has made a great contribution to the necessity of reading the Scriptures within the Tradition of the Church. I prayed for him this morning at Mass, that God will richly reward him for his fidelity and service in the Petrine office. And I prayed that his successor, and more importantly the successor of Peter, will be as worthy of that office and as effective in that office as was Benedict XVI. May he be blessed forever!
Categories: Weekday reflections