Posted October 28, 2003
Msgr. Peter Magee, St. Patrick's Church, Washington
Silver Jubilee of Pope John Paul II, October 16th, 2003
"Who do you say that I am?" This question of Jesus is the key question of the entire Gospel, for on it depends the value of all that Jesus accomplished. And in accepting Peter's answer, Jesus makes it clear that to give the true answer to that question is only possible as a gift of faith from God the Father.
Jesus puts his nearest to the test with great courage because He could have been rejected by them. At the same time, hearing this question was an immense challenge for them because, in answering it, the apostles too had to define themselves, had to say "who they were". Note that Jesus does not ask them just to say who He is "for them": He asks more: "who do you say that I am?", full stop. Indeed, Peter does not answer: "For me, You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" as if the rest of the sentence would run, "but for others I cannot really say". Certainly, Jesus is the Christ the Son of the living God for Peter, but the meaning of Peter's profession goes far beyond himself and the other apostles. Peter is declaring that Jesus is in Himself, for everyone, everywhere, at all times, the Christ, the Son of the living God. Peter's profession of faith is therefore catholic; catholic does not mean by reason of the number of people by whom the faith is professed. It is not we humans who confer catholicity on the faith. The faith is rather catholic by reason of Him whom it professes: Jesus, the Christ, the only-begotten Son of the living God. Peter's response to the question of Jesus qualifies him as the first Catholic believer, the Catholic "par excellence".
One can see the eyes of Jesus light up with exultant joy when He hears Simon's answer, for Jesus recognized in Simon's voice the voice of His Father and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Jesus' joy is heard in His response to Simon: "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for it was not flesh and blood", it was not human thinking, "that revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven." It is clear that Jesus was waiting on this sign from His Father to begin a new and decisive stage in His mission, because He responds to Simon by giving him a new name and appointing him to that ministry in the Church which we know today as the Papacy. The mission of Peter finds its source therefore in a special grace of the Blessed Trinity, who drew Simon son of Jonah to Jesus and prepared him for the moment when Jesus would ask the "question of all questions" of the Gospel.
All that Peter has and is as Pope comes from Jesus and is referred back to Jesus. Peter is not the Rock if Jesus is not first the mountain in which that Rock is embedded, from which it is hued; on Peter the Church is built by Jesus - Peter Himself is neither the founder nor the builder of the Church; the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church only because they do not prevail against Jesus; the keys of authority to bind and loose are entrusted to Peter, but they belong to Christ. The Catholic faith puts no opposition, rivalry or even complementarity between Peter and Jesus. Without Jesus, Peter is simply a nobody; but by the grace of the Father of Jesus, by the joyful will of Jesus Himself, and by the work of the Holy Spirit, Peter is all that Jesus proclaims him to be until such times as the Kingdom will have come in its final consummation.
And so, for those who are true Catholic believers in mind and in heart, the Pope can never be considered as a monarch, a president, or an emperor. The Papacy is not a function invented by human society to promote its own efficiency or, however well-intentioned, to sanction its own values. Certainly, you can study the history of the papacy, of the popes, their role in the formation of the West, of civilization in all and any of its aspects. But no matter how thorough your historical analysis, you will not grasp the essence of the Petrine ministry unless you approach it with a heart open to Peter's own catholic faith, with great love and respect for the special intimacy of grace that flows between the Heart of the Trinity and the heart of poor, poor and, yet, blessed Peter. Only a true, believing Catholic, be they well-educated or not, can understand the heart of the Pope.
Yet it is undeniable that the Papacy has been invested in Popes who have, as sinful men, often failed, sometimes grievously, in their behavior and in their use of the powers entrusted to them. We know that Peter himself, within minutes of receiving such special grace, would be called "Satan" by Jesus for trying to dissuade Him from the Cross; within months, in the face of that same Cross, he would actually deny His Savior, not once, not twice, but three times. We also know, however, that Jesus prayed for Peter's faith never to fail, that he might confirm his brethren once he himself had repented and known the tender mercy of His Lord. Jesus entrusted the mission of Peter to a weak man, a confused man, a passionate man. But the inscrutable choices of God and the power of grace far outweigh the machinations of sin; to Peter were entrusted the keys of the Kingdom of heaven, yet Peter sinned, Peter failed. Even so, Jesus did not withdraw His commission to Peter because He knew that Peter's heart would ultimately respond to repentance and forgiveness. Jesus paid the greater attention not to Peter's sin, but to the fidelity of His Heavenly Father to that initial gift of grace Peter had embraced. Where Peter's sin abounded, Christ's grace superabounded. And Peter had the humility and commonsense to accept it.
Through Peter, Jesus gave the gift of the papacy to the Church, and that gift will neither be revoked nor fail, no matter which man is called to bear it for the Church. When President Nixon was impeached in the 1970's, no-one for a moment thought of abolishing the presidency itself. Yet even if such were to be the case with a human political institution, it will never be the case with the papacy as instituted and intended by Christ. For such a papacy does not hinge on the sunrise or the sunset of any earthly kingdom, or on historical circumstance, or on socio-political approval; such a papacy depends only on the effective will of God and remains in the Church by the power of God and at the service of God's work of salvation.
The Gospel shows that the Papacy blossoms from a mysterious dialogue of grace between Jesus, His Father and the Spirit concerning this man, Simon Peter, who had let himself be drawn by the Father into the most intimate recesses of Jesus' own self.
And so it is not surprising to find in Peter's mission traits of fatherhood ("Pope, Papa" - father), and traits of identity with divine sonship ("the Vicar of Christ"; the "servant of the servants of God") and traits of idenity with the Holy Spirit ("father of the poor" ("Pater Pauperum", the meaning of the "P.P." after the Pope's name; infallibility, the indefectibility in the Truth as guaranteed by the Spirit). The solidity of Peter's faith comes from a singularly profound certainty about the identity of Jesus Christ. It is as if God the Father, seeing how Simon had opened himself to Jesus, decided to set the divine Seal of His Spirit upon Simon's heart, a Seal which finds almost visible if not audible reflection in the words of Simon's profession of faith. Jesus recognizes His Father's Seal in Simon's words and confirms it by calling Simon "Blessed" and by renaming him "Peter". This name of Peter seems to express what God desired to see in all who would come to believe in Jesus: unhesitating firmness, ready acceptance of Jesus as the Christ. Our identity as believers is all the more sure when it is "hued from the Rock of Peter". At heart, every true believer is petrine.
Peter is given the role to let Christ, and to let us lean on him: it is Christ who builds the Church leaning on, depending upon Peter's firmness of faith. Christ asks Peter to let every believer lean on him, find certainty and reassurance in his faith. You need only take one look at Pope John Paul II today, 25 years on, to know what it means for Christ and the Church to have leaned, and leaned heavily, on Peter. And, as Jesus foresaw so well, it would not only be He, the builder of the Church, and the members of the Church, who would lean on Peter: also the "gates of hell", the destroyer of the Church would seek to assail and prevail upon Peter. Does not the very physique of John Paul II reflect the various attempts of the destroyer over the years to prevail?
But Jesus not only leans on Peter: He trusts him and empowers him. That day at Caeserea Philippi, Jesus knew that the Father's gift of faith in the Spirit to Peter was so sure that, for ages to come, the successors of Peter would be able with clarity and certainty to understand, decide and teach the whole truth and nothing but the truth of the Gospel. It is Peter who guarantees that the doctrine of the Church on matters of faith or morals is in conformity with the mind and heart of Christ. This doctrine is taught not as a show of earthly power or domination; it is not the dogma of an ideology disseminated by subtle and blatant propaganda to imprison our minds or hijack our freedom; it is not the authoritarianism of tyranny or dictatorship; it is not the pathetic arrogance of self-appointed ombudsmen who claim greater infallibility than the Pope simply because they "feel convinced" of what they are proposing: rather, the doctrine taught by the Pope finds its source in the Spirit of Jesus and is taught to free the human mind, heart and conscience from the lying insinuations of evil. Nor is doctrine taught simply to satisfy intellectual curiosity as if it were some sort of "interesting official opinion" of the institutional Church; no, doctrine is taught with the loving authority and saving grace of Christ to illumine the path towards truth and moral behavior which lead to life, not to death, which secure and give hope to the true dignity of the human person and unmask all that would disfigure that dignity or lead to individual and collective despair. By definition, then, Peter's mission also involves the clear understanding of, decision about and exclusion from the Church of all that is contrary to the Gospel, contrary to Christ, contrary to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus uses an image of the OT to express this facet of Peter's ministry: the power of the keys. Like the father of the home, protecting his family, deciding what and who can come in or stay out, Peter is entrusted by Jesus with the power to know and decide who and what belongs to the Truth of Christ, to the Mystical Body of Christ, and, indeed, to the Kingdom of heaven. This is an important way of understanding the infallibility of the Pope: it is Christ's power and fidelity to His double promise to Peter that the power of Hell will not prevail against the Church and that the use of the power of the keys on earth will be ratified in heaven. Just as Christ has destroyed sin and death, He gives to the Church in Peter the victory over all error that would destroy Her. Not, then, as a private individual is the Pope infallible, but as the Successor of Peter in the exercise of the mission entrusted to Him by Christ, a mission of paternal teaching and love, filled with compassion and understanding, but clear, unambiguous and certain, because it is a mission of unadulterated and saving truth.
Jesus knew that many among the crowds would oppose Peter as they opposed Jesus Himself. He also knew that Peter would have to face those who doubt, those who are ambiguous, those who would try to usurp his office even inside the Church, like an insolent or rebellious son who seeks to steal the keys from his father's hand; or like a confused or wayward-hearted son who seeks to undermine respect for his father among his brethren, or to disrupt the home by behavior or talk that belong in the street; like a stubborn son who will not be taught or disciplined for his own good's sake and fails to see that his father only disciplines him because he loves him. But Jesus upholds the authority of Peter, "father of the Church", and so ensures that the family of the Church will never be disintegrated.
Like Jesus, Peter is called to love, feed the sheep, until the end. At His end, Jesus was so disfigured He seemed no longer human; he was someone to make people hide their faces, a man of sorrow and familiar with grief. We are blessed because the Successor of Peter who leads the Church today has followed faithfully the example of the Master and of him whose office he bears. Especially on this day of his Silver Jubilee as Pope, with grateful hearts we give thanks to God for our Holy Father Pope John Paul II and for his burning desire and petrine tenacity to give himself until the end, until he too seems disfigured. We should not seek to understand with worldly minds or hearts God's ways with this man He has chosen: rather we approach humbly and with grateful hearts the mysterious intimacy of grace between this man and the God whose love has sent him to us, and we pray for him with the filial love and devotion of faithful sons and daughters. God preserve our Pope, God bless our Pope, the great, the good! God be praised for our Holy Father the Pope who has traveled to the ends of the earth to proclaim, teach and defend our Catholic faith: "Jesus, You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!"