Sts. Peter and Paul
A Homily - B Cycle - 2002-2003
First Reading - Acts 12:1-11
Responsorial Psalm - 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7, 8-9
Second Reading 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18
Gospel - Matthew 16:13-19
Matthew wrote to show that Christ
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.
When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" They replied, "Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter said in reply, "You are the Messiah, 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. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth
shall be loosed in heaven."
Looking at my calendar this past week while I was away with 80 of our teens at Workcamp in West Virginia, I noticed that this week marks my first year anniversary of my time here at the parish. You may not believe this, but there's a running joke among some of my classmates from the seminary - you see, I have the dubious distinction of having received the most letters of complaint about my homilies than the rest of my classmates combined. It's really horrible. I can't really account for this phenomenon, except to say that not much has changed since our Lord was rejected at Nazareth - the message of the Gospel still challenges us to this day. But I don't mind the letters, really. Like they say, what doesn't kill you just makes you stronger. When my classmates ask me how my first year's gone here at this parish, I like to respond with the tourism motto of West Virginia - wild and wonderful.
Today, we celebrate the Solemnity of two of the earliest and finest foundational heralds of the Gospel - Sts. Peter and Paul - our first Pope and the great apostle to the Gentiles, respectively. This is a truly magnificent holiday and holy day in Rome. Some years ago, when Fr. Christ Pollard, my predecessor, and I were seminarians in Rome, we had a special guest staying with us in the seminary, George Weigel. Weigel is a syndicated columnist who is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Institute in Washington and at the time that Fr. Chris and I were in Rome, Weigel was invited by the Pope himself to write the authoritative biography on the Holy Father. Some of you have perhaps read this work, Witness to Hope or as Fr. Chris likes to call it, Witness to Pope.
Some time ago, I had a chance to ask Weigel if there was any particular story that he'll always remember about the nearly three years he spent interviewing the Pope and writing the biography. He said that he will always remember one afternoon when he was invited to have lunch with the Holy Father and four bishops from the United States who were in Rome on official business. The six of them sat at a single table on one end of a dining room in the Apostolic Palace. As the main meal was being cleared away, a member of the Papal Household came racing across from one side of the aula to the Holy Father's table, quickly whispered something in the Holy Father's ear and raced back across the room. Immediately, the Holy Father got up and apologized to the four bishops that he had to attend to a call in his office. Weigel and the four bishops walked with the Holy Father to the other end of the hall, knelt for his blessing and as the Holy Father walked through the doorway leading to his office, one of the bishops yelled out, "You are a terrific Pope." The Holy Father, without hesitating, turned and said, "Ego sum servus inutiles" - "I am a worthless servant." When the five men returned to table to have their dessert, the four bishops began to weep. Weigel asked them to explain their tears. One bishop remarked, "None of us here can say that we didn't angle or position for the office we now hold, but John Paul II never wanted to be Pope. That's why he is who he is - God chose Him."
Ego sum servus inutiles - I am a worthless servant. The Holy Father is very clear on the difference between power and authority. In Latin, power or potestas means brute force; almost suggesting a coercive influence. Meanwhile authority or auctoritas, has always been understood in the Christian dispensation as connoting service in exercising an office. This service is expressed in the Pope's threefold office of governing, teaching and sanctifying the Church. In the Acts of the Apostles, we read this morning that prayer was being made to God on Peter's behalf while he endured imprisonment. In our day, we are called to continually pray for the Pope, that He will continue to exercise his charisms, especially that of Infallibility in teaching in matters of faith and morals with wisdom and courage. Even St. Paul witnessed in deference to the chair of Peter at the Council of Jerusalem in 53 AD recorded in Acts, when the question arose of whether or not salvation was accessible to the Gentiles. St. Paul, who had a huge following and exercised much influence in the early Church, deferred to Peter because he knew that the teachings of Christ made known through the Church have Peter as their reference point. This also suggests that we ought to remind ourselves that we are not members of the American Catholic Church. Rather, we are Roman Catholics who live in the United States. Without Rome and the Apostolic See, we loose our grounding and the authentic teaching, governing and sanctifying tradition rooted in obedience to the Holy Father. Yet, the Holy Father does not exercise brute, coercive power over us. Rather, he invites us in community to the truth - his authority lies in guarding and serving the truth - the deposit of faith of the Church.
We know that both Peter and Paul experienced imprisonment by different civil authorities at different points in their lives. By no mere human power, they were freed from their chains on various occasions. This historical fact also serves as a wonderful metaphor for our need to be freed from the bondage of despair and discouragement from suffering and our sinfulness. Our prison may be our habitual sins; difficult marriages; rebellious children; embittered parents; lust; greed; pride; anger or just indifference. We should be encouraged by those in our midst who are striving to free themselves, by God's grace, of these prisons - persons in our midst who really desire and strive to live out the Faith in its entirety, not just those teachings that suit them. There's a real freedom in the struggle to be holy - to be ever more faithful. When each of us desires to struggle to be a saint, we give the only appropriate answer to our Lord's question to Peter in today's Gospel - "Who do you say that I am?" We answer that question well every time we cooperate with God's grace in virtue and return His love for us with our love for Him in friendship and trust and humble obedience.
The first place that we ought to go to be freed from our prisons is the Sacrament of Penance. In our Gospel today, Christ gives the Apostles the authority to bind and loose sins. This authority has been handed down to the bishops, the successors of the Apostles, and the priests who collaborate with them for the very purpose of setting people free of the cycle of doubt and despair and sin that breaks our hearts and keeps us from being truly free. We ought to approach our spiritual lives with greater seriousness because everything, EVERYTHING depends on it.
And, when it is all said and done, may we, like St. Paul, be able to say with humility and the confidence of supernatural hope, "I have competed will; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearance."
Praise be Jesus Christ, now and forever!
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