21st Sunday of the Year
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!
You may have heard a recent proposal to create a dialogue between Catholics in this country to establish some common ground for the sake of Church unity. This proposal was immediately criticized by two American Cardinals who objected to any suggestion in this proposed dialogue that there can be a fundamental common ground between those who accept the Church’s teachings and those who reject them, between those who accept the role of the magisterium in proposing doctrinal and moral truth and those who do not. In short, where can there be common ground in these cases?
There are three basic bonds of unity in the Church: common belief in doctrinal and moral truth, common worship in the same sacraments, and common acceptance of the governing authority established in the Pope and College of Bishops. This 3-fold unity of faith, worship and governance was established by Christ himself, and there can be no full Catholic unity that does not embrace all three of these bonds of unity. Read the fathers and doctors of the Church going back to the beginnings and you will see that it is unthinkable to these great saints that there could be any true and full unity that was not grounded on a common faith – including a common set of moral truths governing Christian behavior – a common worship rooted in the same sacraments, and a common authority whose rock is the Office of Peter.
Today’s Gospel speaks precisely to this whole question of Church unity, and the role of Peter and His Successors in maintaining the unity willed by Christ. First, we hear Jesus ask for and receive Peter’s confession of faith in his Person and mission. Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, responds with a perfect confession of faith, that Jesus is the Messiah, (His mission) and that Jesus is the Son of the living God (His personal identity). Second, based upon this confession of faith, Jesus in turn confers on Peter the role of being the rock upon which Jesus will establish his Church, and he changes his very name to rock, Peter, from that point forward. Third, to enable Peter to fulfill this role, Jesus confers upon Peter a share in his own supreme authority in Heaven and on earth. So whatever Peter binds on earth, Christ binds in Heaven, and whatever Peter loosens on earth, Christ loosens in heaven. In other words, whatever Peter does in relation to his role as Peter, he does it with the authority of Jesus Christ, and by virtue of his union with Peter, Peter’s acts are in reality Christ’s own act. It’s not as if Christ simply confirms what Peter does in His name; Christ actually acts through Peter.
Given this kind of authority, clearly limited to his exact role as Peter, it is obviously important to know just what this Petrine role is and, therefore, to what kind of acts this kind of supreme authority applies in this world. For instance, it is clear that this role as Peter is not a political role as such, and thus even while future popes will have some political authority in this world, the grant of authority that Christ made that day at Caesarea Phillippi does not apply to any strictly political actions of those popes, that is, these actions do not bind or loose in heaven what they bind or loose on earth. Likewise, future popes may also dabble in science or literature, or art, but here again their judgements related to these areas of human knowledge do not carry the authority of Christ. The popes are not infallible in making literary judgments, in his scientific knowledge, etc., in the area of their specfic area of human knowledge.
What then is the specific role Peter will have in the Church until the end of time, which even the gates of death will never overcome since this power and authority will be handed on to his successors in that role or office of Pope. The specific role is to be the foundation of the Church and her unity, but in what sense? To be sure, Christ himself is the absolute foundation of His Church, but he shares part of this role with Peter.
Peter’s role and authority is connected with his marvelous confession of faith. This fact becomes clear the night before Christ dies, when He declares that because of His own prayer, Peter’s faith will never fail, and that Peter must in turn strengthen the faith of the His brothers, the other apostles, and through them the whole Church. Thus the faith of Peter becomes the bedrock or guarantee of the faith of the whole Church, first of His own brother bishops, and through them of the whole body of the faithful.
To enable Peter to fulfill this specific role of being the guarantee and support of the faith of the whole Church on earth, Jesus grants to His office this unique share in His own authority, so that what Peter binds in relation to the Church’s faith and life is at once Christ’s act of binding, and the same for what Peter loosens. In other words, what Peter declares to be part of the faith of the Church is guaranteed to be true because Christ is speaking through Peter, and what Peter judges not to be part of the faith of the Church or her moral life, likewise this is Christ speaking through Peter.
Thus it is Peter’s specific role to secure the unity of the Church on earth, and Christ absolutely unites His word to Peter’s in three areas. First, what Peter solemnly teaches on matters of faith and morals in the name of Christ, is guaranteed to be the truth of Jesus Christ. Second, What Peter decides on matters of divine worship is guaranteed to protect the worship of the Church as the authentic worship offered by Christ to the Father. Third, what Peter decides in terms of discipline is to be obeyed as the rule of Christ, so long as it is not contrary to moral virtue.
By this actionb of Christ through Peter, the unity of the Church is guaranteed in this world until the end of time. Peter supremely teaches with the authority of Christ in a way that secures the faith of his brother bishops and all the faithful. Peter ultimately regulates the life of worship to guarantee that Catholic worship is always the worship offered by Jesus to the Father. Finally, the Pope governs the whole church to guarantee the essential unity of common life among the people of God even though they come from so many different peoples and cultures.
In a world that values power more than life itself, this grant of such an authority to one man seems to be way too much power to be granted to any one man in this world. We Catholics agree that it is too much power for one man to carry by himself, and we know that this is why ity is his union with Christ that enables him to do so. Moreover, the Pope always begs all of us to accompany him and support him by our prayers, to ask that God may lighten his burden and guide his steps.
In Christ’s Kingdom, power and authority are always to be understood as a burden borne for the sake of the others, not something to be sought after as in the political arena of this world. No one who really understood the burden of the pope or bishop who is faithful to his duties would ever desire this office for it’s own sake. That is why we pray at every single Mass for those who bear this terrible and weighty responsibility, the Pope and Bishops, and our own parish pastors, that they may serve Christ, and serve us His people, by the faithful exercise of the powers given to them for the sake of building up the Church. Christ established the Church on the rock of Peter’s faith that day outside a little village in nothern Israel names after an earthly monarch, Caesaria Phillipi. But the scope of that gift would one day reach the whole world.