I Am Peter - The Authority of the Pope
August 25, 2002 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Isaiah 22:19--23) Reading II (Romans 11:33-36)
Gospel (St. Matthew 16:13-20)
In the Gospel reading today, Our Lord asks, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" His disciples respond by saying, "Some say you are Elijah. Some say you are Jeremiah or one of the prophets or John the Baptist raised from the dead." Then He asks the crucial question: "Who do you say that I am?" And that is a question that each and every one of us needs to answer for ourselves. Who do you say that the Son of Man is? Do you think He is just a prophet? Do you think He is just a nice guy? Do you think He is just our friend, just a buddy or a pal, as many Christians seem to think that He is? Or do you stand up and profess without shame, without embarrassment, and without the slightest bit of backing away, that He is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, the One who is to come into the world, the only One in Whose Name we have salvation? Do we believe that?
And if we do, then what difference is it making in our lives? Are we keeping that faith at an arm's distance? Is it just an intellectual assent to the truth that we have been taught and we say, "Well, yeah, I believe Jesus is the Son of God. So what?" If you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, then you are a member of Jesus Christ through your baptism. It should mean everything, because it defines who you are as a son or a daughter of God. It is not anything we can keep at an arm's distance, but it is something that affects us at the very depths of our being, and it changes our entire lives. But the problem is most of us do not want to be changed.
We read in the second reading that Saint Paul says, regarding the Lord, "How inscrutable are His judgments and how unsearchable are His ways." His ways we do not understand. His ways do not seem to make a whole lot of sense to us. How many hours and days and years we spend trying to figure something out that we know is the Will of God, but we cannot quite make it make sense; so we reject it, because on the natural level it does not seem to be logical. It does not seem, in our estimation, to make a lot of sense. This is exactly what has happened with many, many Christian people when they read the Gospel reading for today: "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church, and the jaws of hell will not prevail against it."
There are some who have become, in essence, Pharisaical Catholics. They look at what is going on in the Church today and they run. They look back to what was going on in the 1950's and they say, "But look! Everything was going so well back then. Everything was right. We need to go back and be like that again." And so they become very legalistic, very rigid, and very Pharisaical - and they leave the Church on the right end.
Then we have what is probably the vast majority of Catholics today who want to do what they want to do. They want to define their own religion. They want to call themselves Catholic without really being so. They will make up for themselves their own minds as to what is right and what is wrong, what is truth and what is false. And basically, when it comes to the Pope, they just simply look at him as this frail old man over in Rome who is out of touch with reality, who doesn't have a clue. They say stupid things like, "Maybe he should just retire; it's time for him to step down. If he would just get with it then we could have women priests, then we could do all these other things." And they fall off the left end of the spectrum.
Jesus Christ founded one Church. You will note in the Gospel that it does not say, "Upon you I will build My churches." It says, "I will build My Church." One. There is only one true Church of Jesus Christ, and there is only one truth. But because human beings do not want that truth, because they do not want to change their lives to live according to that truth, they reject it. They reject the Church of Jesus Christ and they reject His Vicar on earth because they cannot make sense of it in their own minds, because it does not seem logical.
Isn't it amazing that the young people in the world recognize the truth, but those of us who think we are so smart and so advanced, we don't get it? The Vicar of Jesus Christ - an 82 year old man with Parkinson's, bent over, shaking, and walking with a cane - came to Toronto, Canada about a month ago and half a million young people came to see him. If every rock 'n roll group in the world came to Toronto, Canada a half million young people would not come to see them. But a little old man from Poland comes and a half million kids come to see him because he speaks the truth and they know he is the Vicar of Jesus Christ on earth. They came to listen to the truth. They came to him because they wanted to hear the truth and they wanted to change their lives to live the truth. And if that was not enough, then he went to Mexico City and 12 million people came to see him.
Now we have to ask ourselves, on the natural level, what is it that this man has to offer? In our society, anyone who is over 70 we just write off as somebody who is antiquated, over the hill. "Their mind is starting to slip. What good are they? Throw them in the nursing home! We don't need them around!" That is garbage. And above all, this one particular individual, he alone out of the entire world is chosen by Jesus Christ Himself to be the visible head of the Church on earth, to be the Vicar of Christ, which means the "mouthpiece" of Jesus Christ. We must understand that. We do not need to rationally grasp all the points of what it means. If we look at it just on the natural level, it is not going to make a whole lot of sense to us.
People ask questions like, "Who does he really think that he is? What kind of power does this man think he has?" Jesus gave him the power: "Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven, and whatever you declare loosed on earth will be loosed in Heaven." This man, in speaking the word of God, has so much authority that God Himself is obedient. What about us? If God is going to be obedient, and if the Pope binds something up on earth and God declares it bound in Heaven, and if the Pope declares something loosed on earth and God declares it loosed in Heaven, who do we think we are to stand up and say that we know better? "We need women priests. We need contraception. We need married priests. We need to get rid of these antiquated forms of worship. We need to get with the 21st century." The Holy Father was in the 21st century 25 years ago; it is about time we catch up with him - he does not need to catch up with us!
This is the man who speaks the truth, and we need to listen to it. To him, and to him alone, has been entrusted the task of the leadership of the Church, the one Church that Jesus founded and gave a guarantee that the jaws of hell will not prevail against it. It does not matter how bad things get in the Church; the jaws of hell will not prevail against it. Jesus did not say that the jaws of hell will stay a mile away; He said that it will not prevail.
So the question really is not about the Holy Father nor is the question about the Church; the question is about each one of us. Are we going to be humble enough to conform ourselves to Jesus Christ and to His Will even when, on the natural level, it might not seem to make a whole lot of sense? But I ask you to do simply one thing, that is, look right there above the altar at the crucifix, and tell me how much sense that makes on the natural level. The Church is Jesus Christ, and the Church is heading to Calvary to be crucified. And if you do not want to be united with Jesus Christ in His crucifixion, then you will have no part of Him. The Church, on the other hand, embraces the Cross - and She is running toward Calvary. That does not make sense to worldly people who want to live on the natural level; it only makes sense if we look at it in a spiritual way.
But if we try to do it our own way, then I suggest that we are going to become like Shebna in the first reading. Shebna was the Prime Minister in Israel and Shebna became arrogant. He started taking authority that he did not have. He started trampling upon people simply because of the power he had in his office. He was called to serve the people and instead he became self-serving. God pulled him down from his place, took the keys from his shoulders, and put them upon the shoulders of Eliakim. That passage from Isaiah 22 is the root passage for the Gospel reading today from Matthew 16, and it must be understood properly.
The reason why the prime minister wore a set of keys upon his shoulders was not only to demonstrate who he was, just like if we look at someone in the military today, the officers wear their rank upon their shoulders. You can look upon their shoulders and you will see what rank they are. That is the way it was in the ancient world. The prime minister wore two keys that were crossed right above his shoulder, and that was to demonstrate the authority that he had. And so, as it says in Isaiah 22, "He will open and no on will shut; and he will shut and no one will open." He had the authority to make laws and to dispense from laws. He had full authority to run the kingdom. The king himself had other things to do and so the day to day life of the kingdom was run by the prime minister. And we see that it is an office of succession: The keys are taken from one and they are given to another.
That is exactly what we see in the papacy. The authority of the Pope is to be the prime minister of Jesus Christ, who is King of kings and Lord of lords. And so the day to day running of the kingdom of God in this world - the Church - is entrusted to the Pope. He has full authority to bind and to loose, to open and to close - and no one will be able to say otherwise. It is ours, then, to be obedient, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, and to allow the Lord to do it the way He wants to, not the way that we think it ought to be. If we make that profession of faith that He is the Son of God, and He is the One who decided that this is the way things are to be, who are we to suggest that it ought to be otherwise?
We need to be humble. We need to be obedient. And we need to follow Jesus. That is really all that matters. We need to look into our own hearts, into the depths of our own minds, and ask ourselves, not whether we can make perfect sense out of everything, but rather, are we willing to accept? Are we willing to say "yes" to the Will of God and change our lives accordingly? Are we willing to do it His way instead of trying to tell Him that He should do it our way? He has given a guarantee to us and we need to learn to take great consolation in that guarantee: that as long as we remain faithful to the Church we will be victorious. The jaws of hell will not prevail against the Church; that is a guarantee from the mouth of Jesus Christ, who is the Christ, the Son of the living God. All that is left for us is to be obedient, to listen to the voice of God and to obey. That is the challenge the Lord puts before us today and everyday.
We know who we need to follow. Pope Paul VI, when he came to New York City back some 30 years or so ago, went to the United Nations, stood up before the representatives of the entire world gathered together in one place, and he started his speech with the most wonderful words. He looked out over this body and he said simply, "You know who I am. My name is Peter." John Paul II and his successors afterward can say the same. We know who he is. He is not merely Karol Wojtyla; He is not merely just John Paul II; his name is Peter. He is the successor of Saint Peter, the head of the Church. To him has been given authority to bind and to loose, to speak on behalf of Jesus Christ. Do you believe that? That is a guarantee from Jesus Christ. We do not have to understand. We do not have to make sense of it because it is not something on the natural level - it is something supernatural. It is the Will of God, and it is for us to obey.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.