Reading (1 Peter 5:1-4) Gospel (St. Mark 9:41-50)
Today as we celebrate this feast of the Chair of Saint Peter, we have to recall that we are not honoring a chair per se, but rather what this feast is about has to do with the authority that is given to Saint Peter and his successors. We see that very clearly in the Gospel reading today. Saint Peter is made by Our Lord to be the prime minister in His kingdom. Jesus is the King, but every kingdom in the ancient world had a prime minister. The symbol of the prime minister was the keys. They keys represented the fact that the prime minister had the full authority of the king to be able to speak, to be able to make laws, and to be able to dispense from laws. The keys symbolized the fact that he could open any door or lock any door.
So Jesus says, Whatever you hold bound on earth will be held bound in heaven, whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. He gives that kind of authority to a human person. This is an astounding thing; however, it makes perfect sense at the same time because being human we have to have somebody we can look to as the head, as the leader. Jesus is in heaven. He is the Head of the Body. Yet because we cannot see Him and we cannot hear Him with our ears, we need somebody who is going to be a point of unity. We all know that. Humanity just by nature tends that way. Every culture is set up in such a way that there has to be somebody who is going to lead. That is what the purpose of the papacy is. It is to guarantee the unity of the body, because as long as we are united with the Pope we have the guarantee that we are united with Jesus.
If we separate ourselves from the teachings and the person of the Holy Father, then we do not have that guarantee any longer. Then we are out there on our own being blown around, as Saint Paul would say, by every wind of doctrine that comes along. Then it is up to us personally to decide what is true and what is not, what the teaching of Jesus really means and what it does not. We become our own infallible authority. We become the one who is the head of the Church. We cannot do that. There can only be one head. If all of us are running around trying to be the head, we are going to get a little top heavy and collapse. It just cannot work. Knowing this, Jesus established authority within His Church and gave that authority squarely to Peter. And because the office of the prime minister is one of succession, when Peter would die, the keys would be passed on to the next one, to the one who would succeed him.
It is very interesting to note from a historical perspective that even in the early Church they did not keep track of any of the episcopal lines of succession of any other apostle except Peter. We do not know who the bishops were that the beloved disciple ordained and who their successors were. We do not know the names even of most of the bishops that Saint Paul ordained and who their successors were. The only ones who have been kept track of right from the very beginning are Saint Peter and his successors. It demonstrates clearly that the early Church understood this. This can be found most clearly in the letters of Saint Clement, when the bishop from Corinth, one of the churches Saint Paul founded, wrote to the Bishop of Rome to ask him to intercede and to help solve the problem they were having in Corinth. He did not go to any of the bishops around him in any of the churches that Saint Paul had founded, but rather he wrote to Rome to ask the Pope to deal with their problem. That is the kind of thing we see in the early Church, and that is exactly what has carried on throughout.
Saint Peter, in the first reading that we heard today, recognizes what this authority is about. It is to serve. It is not about power; it is about authority. Power is something which is oftentimes exercised selfishly. Authority is given for the service of others. That is exactly what Saint Peter tells the presbyters (the elders or the priests) to do: not to lord it over the flock entrusted to their care, but to serve them willingly and be a good example. That is exactly what the Pope is to do. He is called to serve. In fact, one of his titles is the Servus Servorum Dei, “The Servant of the Servants of God.” That is what he is called to do. The one who is the greatest is the one who must serve the rest, Jesus said. And so if He has elevated a person to that position, then that person has to be humble and has to serve the rest.
Unfortunately, there are many examples throughout history where there has not been that humility or service. But, thanks be to God, in our day we have seen great examples of precisely what it ought to be: someone who is humble, someone who serves, someone at the same time who is going to be strong and corrective to discipline what needs to be disciplined within the Church, someone who is truly a father and is going to lead the flock with care, loving them and being a good example, and leading the people to the Chief Shepherd, as Saint Peter calls Him, Jesus Christ, our true King and Head of the Mystical Body.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.