Tuesday February 22, 2005 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Chair of Saint Peter
Reading (1 Peter 5:1-4) Gospel (St. Matthew 16:13-19)
Today as we celebrate the feast of the Chair of Saint Peter, it is really not a matter of a physical chair but rather it is the recognition of the authority and the power that Jesus has given to Saint Peter as the head of the Church. You recall that whenever a rabbi would sit down that meant the teaching he was about to impart was with authority. If he was standing up, that meant it was just his own opinion and nobody needed to listen to him. That is why in the Gospels over and over again we are told that Jesus sat down and began to teach. It does not seem to make any sense to us why the evangelists would tell us that He was sitting down, except for the fact that implies to us that what He was about to say was with authority.
Now the authority of Saint Peter we recognize very clearly in what Our Lord says to him, that it is upon Peter that Jesus is going to build His Church. He gives to him the keys of the kingdom of heaven, the keys being the symbol of the prime minister, of the authority of one who has complete authority to run the kingdom of God on this earth; and then tells Peter the extent of the authority that is given to him: Whatever you hold bound on earth will be held bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. In other words, God is going to make Himself obedient to this man, which is an absolutely astounding point, except for the fact that God is also going to give to Peter His Holy Spirit so that Peter will not be able to lead the Church into error. Therefore, of course, God Who is perfect and cannot err and cannot lead into error is not going to be held bound to something which is not true. So in this case we have the guarantee of the truth that is going to come forth from the formal teachings of the Holy Father. What a great blessing that is for all of us, that we can have an objective source we can look to, that we can know we are on the right track. As long as we are in union with the See of Peter, then we know we are in good order.
But we also need to recognize what Peter understood, that this authority was given to him by Christ as authority to serve, not as power to keep people under thumb. It is not something which is given as a personal thing to be able to say, “Here, you have all kinds of power and you can lord it over the people,” but rather, “I’m giving you this authority in order to serve the people.” And that is precisely what Saint Peter is telling us in the first reading, that those who share in the shepherding task have to give – to serve – the people willfully, and that they are not to be doing this for any kind of profit, they are not to be doing it for any kind of power trip, but rather they are to do it to serve so that the reward they will receive will come from the Shepherd Who came to serve and not to be served. He is the example that all of the shepherds are to follow.
This certainly is true for all of those who share in the shepherding task within the Church. It is also true for all those to whom God entrusts the souls of His little lambs, for every parent. As parents, you are given immense authority by God. It is not power to lord over the children; it is authority to serve the children. And that authority is given not only to serve them in the sense of taking care of their needs, but to discipline them and to do whatever is necessary for the good of the child, not for one’s own pride or power trip or anything else.
So the same principle is maintained from the highest office in the Church down to what one might consider even the more menial things in life – it matters not – all are given the authority to serve, which is why one of the Holy Father’s titles is Servus Servorum Dei (that is, the “Servant of the Servants of God”) because he is the one who is the highest; he is the one, as Jesus Himself tells us in the Gospel, who must serve the rest. All of us are servants of God, and the Holy Father is the Servant of the Servants of God. He is given this immense authority to the obedience of God Himself so that he can serve the needs of the people of the Church, and that as a good and true shepherd he will lead us to our One True Shepherd and bring us to the eternity which is promised to us if we are obedient, if we follow our Good Shepherd. And we will have union with Him, then, forever.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.