Thirty-ninth in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles
Readings: Acts 12:1-11; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18; Matthew 16:13-19
At the end of the 18th century, when Napoleon captured Rome, he famously remarked to one of the representatives of Pope Pius VII, Cardinal Ercole Consalvi, that he intended to destroy the Catholic Church. This Cardinal simply replied, “In 1800 years we clergy have failed to destroy the Church. Do you really think you’ll be able to do it?” And this quip does manage to capture, in its dark whimsy, an attitude with which even the most devout can view the organizational aspect of the mystical Body. We’ve seen these flawed men countless times tripping all over themselves and each other to the seeming detriment of their congregations. Some can be overly legalistic in their application of Church teaching. Some flippantly disregard any authority, including their own. And many are guilty of any and every misstep in between. We may even wonder sometimes just what third-rate theology school this weekend’s homilist kept falling asleep in for 8 years. And for some who have a tenuous relationship with the Church at best, it is due in no small part to the fact that the bedside manner of some pastors leaves much to be desired.
Yet we put up with them, ultimately for two reasons. First, these flawed men are no more flawed than the rest of us. The Church is “the sinless one made up of sinners,” and our priests’ every ignorant misstep can be – and should be! – an occasion of compassion on our parts, for they remind us of our own. And second, and perhaps more to the point today: it’s because He wanted it this way. He actually wanted flawed and fallen men overseeing His Church on earth, sinners governing sinners – sinners called to something much more, but sinners nonetheless. He wanted them too, these men upon whom He sets His seal to act in His person, to be ordinary people leading extraordinary lives. After all, at its very beginnings He put in charge an uneducated coward and an overeducated murderer – two very flawed witnesses of the Gospel whose martyrdom we celebrate today, two unlikely evangelists who would become what Bishop Robert Barron calls “the Church’s indispensable men.”
The First Reading and the Gospel “re-introduce” us to the first of these two men – Saint Peter, the uneducated fisherman whom the Lord set up to oversee the earthly Church. The familiar and sometimes controversial passage from Matthew’s Gospel account reminds us of this idea, as we read of Jesus bestowing upon Peter “the keys to the Kingdom.” This is not some vain imagery of Matthew’s own invention; it hearkens back to the role of the chief steward of the royal household in the days of the monarchy. The steward was entrusted with the keys to the royal family dwellings, and therefore with protection of it; as the ritual language indicated, “what he opens none shall shut, what he shuts none shall open.” This language is echoed in the Book of Revelation where Jesus Himself, the eternal King and Servant of the renewed Israel, is referred to as “the Key of David.” By entrusting this prerogative of protection to Peter, Jesus is entrusting to him His own authority as Shepherd of the flock. While many analysts of this passage get caught up in academic and schismatic exercises concerning what binding and loosing really mean and in what sense it applies to Peter versus the other Apostles, the deeper meaning for us is clear: Peter’s awesome responsibility of guardianship over the Church – and that of his successors – is not a power that he himself possesses but is a free gift and grace of God Himself.
The events recounted in the First Reading illustrate how this meaning was constantly yet mercifully reinforced throughout Peter’s life. During Herod’s first great persecution of the Church in Jerusalem – in which James the brother of John became the first of the Apostles to die – Peter was arrested, bound in double chains, and thrown in jail to await trial. But during the night an angel freed him and led him out past all the guards and into the city. Peter himself thought the entire affair was a dream until the angel vanished and he found himself alone in an alleyway. He could no longer deny the reality, but acknowledged that the Lord had rescued him. The same God Who had promised him that “the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail” against the Church he has been commanded to shepherd had delivered him from the iron gates of Herod’s jail to continue his work. Peter was once again free to act, not because of his own power but because of His Lord’s – and that power would be there as long as necessary for him to fulfill his task.
The second of these two men, the former Pharisee Saint Paul, would echo this idea beautifully towards the end of his turbulent life. Writing to his disciple and companion Timothy, Paul looked back on the events of his life knowing that he had “finished the race” and “competed well.” And he was looking forward to “the crown of righteousness” – that is, of justification – that he was destined to receive from his Lord and God. Yet he knew he could not attribute this fact to his own merits. Indeed, how many times in his letters had he referred to himself as an unworthy servant, someone who persecuted the Church out of misplaced zeal, someone to whom Jesus appeared “as to one born abnormally”? He knows Who his Judge is, and Who his Savior is. And so he wrote: “The Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the proclamation might be completed.” Like Peter, Paul had to acknowledge that the presence of God is what enabled him to do the impossible – in his case, taking the Gospel through the Gentile world, helping to establish the Church’s communities, and reconciling local customs with Gospel truth. Through them we know that it is God Who gives wisdom to the unschooled and refines the knowledge of the learned. It is God Who can make anyone a Saint, including ourselves if we let Him. It is God – the Father through the Son in the Spirit – Who, as the saying goes, “qualifies the called” every hour of every day.
While Peter is always reckoned first among the Apostles, and is the more prominent in authority of the two men celebrated today, we tend not to see or hear too much about him over the course of the year during our Mass readings. One could argue that is part of his shepherding role: he is there to draw us back when we stray, not to hover over us like a micromanager. But Paul is a near constant presence throughout the year with his commentaries and reflections that make up our Second Readings. And it is he who unveils for us the meaning behind the experiences in which the Old and New Testaments reflect and reinforce each other. And one could argue that that is part his role too: he is there to apply understanding and counsel to the given situations of life, not to preside officiously or to enforce his own opinion upon many and varied communities. But it took the witness of both of these men working in concert with the grace of God to give us the tradition and teachings that have guided the Church for 2000 years. Go back through the history of the Church, through the persecutions and schisms, past the political intrigues and personal agendas and all the flaws and foibles that are the hallmark of social order and global citizenry. Go back through the development of the Church’s doctrines and dogmas, Her debates and councils. You will find that not only is the process not nearly as “from the top down” a journey as is conventionally accepted but that when the truth shines through the murkiness it always comes back to the rube-turned-teacher and the legalist-turned-counselor. Our ship of state sails most straight when following the direction of Peter and Paul.
We’re going to get fed up with our frenetic clergy or our clunky hierarchy all the time. And we should, because more is expected of those entrusted with more. But remember too: they’re people, just like us, just like Peter and Paul. Remember that they have to be a little bit of both Peter and Paul to everyone they encounter. Remember that the religion of the “both/and” is all about balance. And remember to pray that the Lord will stand by them and give them the strength and the grace to make it all work, “for the praise and glory of His Name, for our good and the good of all His holy Church” – against which, we have been promised, sin and death will not have the last word.