Father Donald Senior, CP

Aug. 27: 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Is 22:19-23; Ps 138:1-2, 2-3, 6, 8; Rom 11:33-36; Mt 16:13-20

This Sunday’s Gospel reading is a portion of Matthew’s Gospel that has particular significance for Catholics. At a crucial moment in Jesus’ ministry — before he starts his fateful journey to Jerusalem and the cross — he gathers his disciples in the Galilean town of Caesarea Philippi, and asks them: “Who do you say that I am?” 

This probing question has been at the heart of Christian inquiry forever after. In Matthew’s scene, it is Peter who offers the unambiguous answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

Because of his answer, Jesus blesses Peter, up to this point called Simon. “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.” Jesus’ words play upon the name “Peter” which in both Aramaic (the language Jesus normally used) and in Greek means “rock.”

From the earliest centuries of the church, Catholic tradition has viewed Jesus’ special blessing of Peter, as well as his leading role among the original disciples of Jesus and his prominent place in the mission of the early church, as the biblical foundation for the Petrine ministry carried out now by the pope as the bishop of Rome. As Jesus’ words indicate, the steadfast faith of Peter and the historic role he played in helping the Jewish Christian church of Jerusalem reach out to the wider Gentile world (this is the role attributed to Peter in the Acts of the Apostles), still stand at the heart of the Petrine ministry. 

For 11 years I was privileged to be a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, which gave me an opportunity to see up close the last three popes: St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict and Pope Francis. Each had different personalities and on some issues had different perspectives and emphases, but each one of them were men of profound faith and, as I experienced in meeting them over an extended period of time, full of genuine warmth and kindness. Watching the crowds of pilgrims from all over the world who fill St. Peter’s Square on a regular basis to receive the pope’s blessing left me with a clear impression of the pope’s role as a sign of unity for our Catholic community. 

Pope Francis, like his predecessors but in such a vivid way, has reminded us of the Jesus of the Gospels, the Master the original Peter loved and followed. Pope Francis’ love for the poor and the vulnerable, his call for the church to be a community of mercy and compassion, his personal warmth and his outreach to the wider world are Christ-like qualities that remind us what authentic Christian life is meant to be.

Matthew’s scene, though, reminds us of another dimension of the church, namely its human qualities, including its weakness and failures. As we will hear in next Sunday’s Gospel, after Jesus blesses Peter in this extraordinary way, he has to also chide Peter, the “foundation rock,” as a “stumbling rock” who tries to stand in the way of Jesus’ mission to Jerusalem. Who can forget that it is this same Peter who, on the eve of Jesus’ death, would deny he even knew him? The history of our beloved but very human church is also filled with failures and betrayals, sometimes even on the part of popes.

As we gather this Sunday as a community of faith, we realize that the Risen Christ is with us until the end of time so the threats of evil will not prevail, as Jesus promised. But we are also a community of sinners who stand in need of God’s lavish mercy and compassion. 

When a journalist asked Pope Francis right after he was elected pope, “Who is Jorge Bergoglio?” Without hesitation or any false humility, the pope replied, “I am a sinner.”