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Chair of St. Peter (February 22)

February 22, 2007

Blessed Feast!

I apologize for missing yesterday. With all that’s going on for RCIA I
don’t know if I’m coming or going! (in the next 6 weeks, we have 8
ceremonies & 2 retreats to prepare for, besides the weekly
presentations, personal meetings with three of our candidates, etc.).
These are going to have to be reruns!

Readings:
I Peter 5:1-4 (Priests, shepherd your flock generously and lovingly)
Psalm 23: 1-6 “The Lord is my Shepherd; there is nothing I shall want”
+Matthew 16:13-19 (Peter identifies Jesus as God and is given the keys
to the Kingdom of heaven)

We interrupt this regularly scheduled season of fasting to bring you a
feast!

Those of you who have the privilege of participating in the Mass today
may have noticed that the priest’s vestments were white, not the usual
Lenten violet. It takes a particularly important event for the Church
to set aside Her penitential clothing during this penitential season,
and today we celebrate such an event! We celebrate feast of the Chair
of St. Peter, using the term “chair” as a designation of leadership, as
in the term “chairman of the board” or “chair of the math department”
(although there is an actual chair, which St. Peter used when presiding
over early Christian liturgies, which has been preserved for special
veneration). Since we will honor Sts. Peter and Paul with a Solemnity
on June 29th, we will leave the more personal details of St. Peter’s
life for then. Today we focus on St. Peter’s authority, on Christ’s
gift to His Church of a visible head on earth, through whom God gives
His Church the further gifts of unity, infallibility and spiritual
protection (the gates of hell shall not prevail against it, Matthew
16:18).

This feast is foundational to our identity as Roman Catholics. Without
the chair of St. Peter, the Roman Catholic Church would exist (if at
all) only as an Italian oddity. History shows us what happens to those
who reject St. Peter’s primacy. Unity is lost very quickly as splinter
groups multiply. Denominations tend to become divided by nationality as
well as by ideology. Heresies flourish, and the faithful have no way of
knowing which interpretation of Jesus’ words is correct. They have no
assurance about the very requirements for getting to heaven! Further,
they have no clear guidance regarding modern issues, things Christ
didn’t explicitly address.

We as Catholics tend to take so many of these things for granted,
sometimes even to object to them. This is a good time for us to
re-examine just what a treasure Jesus left for us and to thank Him for
it.
*******
Let us thank God for having called us to His holy faith. It is a great
gift, and the number of those who thank God for it is very small.
-St. Alphonsus
******
In giving us the papacy, God has given us a living office through which
He still speaks to us today, guiding and guarding us where it matters
most. It’s the key to the renewed sacred order we talked about during
Advent. When we wonder which interpretation of Scripture is correct,
we can look to the Church for God’s answer (Jesus said, “He who hears
you, hears Me”, Luke 10:16). When we wonder what’s right or wrong in a
given situation, the teachings of the Church steer us away from evil.
The information we need for salvation has been handed down, clarified
and adapted to changing times for over two thousand years. We can count
on the Church’s teaching to be Truth, based on the Word of God who can
neither deceive nor be deceived. When Jesus told St. Peter that the
gates of hell would not prevail against the Church, He was declaring
that lies (the devil is a liar and the father of lies, see John 8:44)
would never win out against Truth in the Church. In addition, Jesus
gave St. Peter the keys of the Kingdom, the power of binding and
loosing. This means that if the Church declares that our sins are
forgiven in the Sacrament of Confession, they’re forgiven! We don’t
have to wonder if God has accepted our repentance.

All this is possible only because of the unifying gift of the papacy,
and especially the gift of papal infallibility. There are those who
call themselves Catholics who will still try to lead people astray, but
they can be recognized when we ask whether or not they’re in unity with
the pope, whether they accept his authority. If not, they’ve come out
from under the mantle of protection God gave us, and we can expect them
to steer us wrong.

Since the topic of infallibility has come up, let’s clarify what the
Church does and doesn’t mean by that. Infallibility doesn’t mean that
the pope never sins or that he never makes a mistake. Nor does it mean
that the Holy Spirit whispers in his ear when a decision needs to be
made. The pope has to come up with what he’s going to say the
old-fashioned way, through prayer, study and discernment. Infallibility
is a negative gift, a prevention. It means that God will protect the
pope from error when, as the Supreme Teacher of the Universal Church, he
proclaims a matter of faith or morals which is to be binding on the
faithful throughout the world. If necessary, God will strike the pope
dead rather than let him err in such a situation (which may actually
have happened). As you can see, the pope says many things which do not
fall under the heading of infallibility. That doesn’t mean we can just
blow those off. To do so would be to despise (and rupture) the sacred
order God has established for us in His Church. It just means we
shouldn’t be scandalized if the Church’s understanding of something
that’s not a matter of infallibility develops along new lines over time.

Our readings today describe the main encounter during which Jesus
appointed St. Peter as the head of His Church (there are many other
Scriptural references to Peter’s primacy, but this is the most direct)
and give us a glimpse into Peter’s attitude toward leadership. Jesus
first asked His apostles to report to Him what other people were saying
about His identity. After they gave various answers, He asked, “Who do
you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). When Peter responded, “You are the
Christ, the Son of the Living God.” (Matthew 16:16), Jesus pointed out
that this was not mere human understanding. Only God the Father could
have revealed this. In union with His Father, then, Jesus gave Peter a
new name (he had previously been known as Simon) in connection with a
new vocation. The importance of Peter’s name change can be seen more
clearly in light of the Old Testament. God changed Abram’s name to
Abraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah when He promised to make Abraham the
father of a multitude of nations and to make Sarah’s womb fruitful
(Genesis 17:4-16). He changed Jacob’s name to Israel when He renewed
with him the covenant He had made with Abraham (Genesis 35:10-12).
Jesus changed Peter’s name in anticipation of the New Covenant, in which
Peter (literally, “Rock”) was to act as the father of nations, as the
visible head of the Church, the new Chosen People.

In accepting this new responsibility, Peter took Jesus’ instructions
about holy leadership seriously. Jesus said, “You know that the rulers
of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise
authority over them. Not so is it among you. On the contrary, whoever
wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever
wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; even as the Son of Man
has come not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom
for many” (Matthew 20:25-28). St. Peter, who lived out this command in
his own life through his teaching, preaching, healing and finally
martyrdom, echoes Jesus’ words when he instructs priests to shepherd
their people eagerly, not looking for personal gain, but rather leading
by example (see I Peter 5:1-4). Since the sixth century, popes have
referred to themselves as the “servant of the servants of God” in
recognition of their obligation to exercise their authority for the
benefit of God’s people rather than for selfish gain.

In response, then, to God’s gift of leadership, let’s take to heart
these words from the letter to the Hebrews:
“Obey your superiors and be subject to them, for they keep watch as
having to render an account of your souls so that they may do this
with joy, and not with grief, for that would not be expedient for
you”. (Hebrews 13:17).

St. Peter, first pope of God’s holy Church, please pray for us,
and for those who must render an account of our souls!

May we grow in gratitude for the great gift God has given us
in the Chair of St. Peter.

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