Homily August 27th, 2023

Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A – Is 22:19-23, Ps 138:1-2, 2-3, 6, 8, Rom 11:33-36, Mt 16:13-20

            We all know the phrases, “appearances can be deceiving,” and “you can’t judge a book by its cover.” In a sense, these sayings aptly apply to what takes place in today’s Gospel. There, Jesus takes a quick survey of popular opinions about His identity and, by all accounts, He fares pretty well: He might be John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or another prophet. Based on what they’ve seen, everyone is pretty certain Jesus is someone special; however, it’s only Peter who, with the help of grace, sees beyond mere appearances, and gives the right answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

            This Gospel passage is known as The Confession of Saint Peter, and it’s one of the key passages for understanding why we have a Pope at the head of the Catholic Church. Sometimes it happens that what happened to Jesus in His day, happens to our pope today; people have trouble seeing who or what the pope is, and why His position matters. So, let’s consider two things: first, what it is that Jesus tells Peter, and why it matters, and, second, how to live out this belief.  

            First, after Peter makes his confession of faith, Jesus makes three powerful statements: first, He gives Peter that name, Peter, and tells him that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. Then, Christ uses two different images: Peter will be given the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever he binds or loosens on earth will remain that way in heaven.

            That name, Peter, is very familiar for us, but it would’ve been unheard of in Jesus’ day. Literally, it means “Rock,” and indicates the strength of that foundation upon which Christ will build His church. The meaning of this name was very important for the early church. In the New Testament, Hebrew or Aramaic names are simply transliterated into Greek, meaning that they take the name, and simply spell it with the letters of the other alphabet so the sounds match up; for instance, there’s the apostle Nathaniel, which is a Hebrew name, and in Greek New Testament, his name is Nathaniel, just spelt with Greek letters. In Peter’s case, however, that name is Πετρος in Greek, but Kephas in Aramaic. Both names mean “Rock.” What was important, then, for the early Church, was the meaning of the name, and not the name itself. For them, there was no doubt that Peter was to be bedrock, the solid support on which Christ would set His church.

            The idea of keys is more familiar to us, and we usually think of keys as connected to authority. Indeed, as the Catechism tells us [533] “The ‘power of the keys’ designates authority to govern the house of God, which is the Church.” This is good, and we can also learn a lot if we consider the importance that keys would’ve had for those who heard Jesus, because, for them, it meant more than just authority. Keys are only mentioned twice in the Old Testament, and one of these times is today’s first reading taken from Isaiah. The prophecy concerns Shebna, who was the master of the palace; it was an important office, because he was the one man who stood second in authority to the king, and who looked after the household on the king’s behalf.[1] God warns him that his downfall is at hand, and tells him, “I will place the key of the House of David on Eliakim’s shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut when he shuts, no one shall open.” This passage is very important: Shebna had the key, and now it will be taken from him and given to Eliakim, the new steward. The key, then, refers not only to power to open and close, but also to an office. Keys last much longer than any one person; they are passed on over time.[2] Thus, if Peter is given the keys, he’s not only given power, but also entrusted with an office that is meant to be passed down. Note, too, that keys are unique; if you change them, they become useless. The Petrine office has an authority that Christ gave it; if we try to diminish it or disrespect it, it ceases to make sense.[3]

            The same holds true for the binding and the loosing: again, the Catechism tells us that “the power to ‘bind and loose’ connotes the authority to absolve sins, to pronounce doctrinal judgments, and to make disciplinary decisions in the Church.” The words were used by rabbis, who would obligate their followers to practice certain observances, or release them from certain obligations.

            This leads us to our second point: how do these teachings affect our lives? What does this matter for us? As Catholics, it means loving our Pope, even one we might not like. It means respecting him, praying for him and for his work, and trusting in God’s providence. We place our trust in the office that the pope holds. Many saints have held that office, and have lived up to the high standard set by Peter. In the past century, for instance, we’ve been blessed with a number of holy popes: Pope Saint Pius X, Venerable Pius XII, Saint Paul VI, Pope Saint John XXIII, Servant of God John Paul I, Pope Saint John Paul II. . . .  In the past, as well, we’ve had the opposite extreme: there have been popes who have failed to live up to the dignity of their office. And yet, no matter what, God has stayed with His church, and He hasn’t allowed it to stray in an official way from the teachings that His Son revealed and established. There might be times of confusion or of difficulty, but Christ’s promise to remain with His church is still valid.

A good example of this loyalty to the Pope can be found in the life of the Servant of God, Ignatius Cardinal Kung. Bishop Kung had been Bishop of Shanghai and Apostolic Administrator of two other dioceses for only five years when, during the night between September 7th and 8th, 1955, he was arrested by the Communists, along with over 200 other priests and Church leaders. He was told he would be let free, if only he would break his allegiance to the Pope and agree to lead the Chinese Patriotic Church. Kung’s answer was clear: “I am a Roman Catholic Bishop,” he said. “If I denounce the Holy Father, not only would I not be a bishop, I would not even be a Catholic. You can cut off my head, but you can never take away my duties.” Kung was sentenced to life in prison, and he spent 30 years in the strictest solitary confinement. The seal was so tight that he never heard of the Second Vatican Council; when he entered prison, Pius XII was pope, when he left, it was John Paul II. Think about that: he simply missed the entire pontificates of John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul I; he was in prison because he was loyal to a Pope he didn’t know by name, whom he never celebrated Mass for, and whom he had no assurances even know about his plight. It wasn’t the person who had the office that mattered; what mattered was that Christ had set up Peter, and his successors, to care for His church. In recognition of his example, in 1979 Pope John Paul II secretly made Kung a cardinal. It was ten years before Kung was told, and only in 1991 did Kung officially become a cardinal at the age of 90. It is difficult to understand God’s providence, but Kung knew that whatever God’s plan was for him, it entailed loving the one who Saint Catherine of Siena called “the sweet Christ upon the earth.”

In Mark’s version of today’s Gospel, both times that Jesus “asks” His disciples questions, namely, “Who do people say that I am?” and “But who do you say that I am?,” Mark puts the “asks” in the imperfect tense, meaning “the action happened continually or repeatedly.” Along the way, Jesus kept asking those two questions to His disciples, time and time again, until finally Peter gives his confession of faith. In a similar way, too, time and time we’re asked that question: who is Jesus Christ? For us, that answer in part relies on knowing who Peter is, as Saint Jerome wrote so many years ago to Pope Saint Damascus: “As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none but your blessedness, that is, with the chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the rock on which the church is built!” Peter, the Pope, is the visible sign of Christ’s love for us, which provides us with a shepherd to guide us to enteral life. Through the intercession of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, let us ask for the grace to always live with Peter and under Peter.


[1] Cf. Father Ray Ryland Catholic Q&A: Essentials of the Faith Explained (Huntington, Indiana: OSV, 2015).

[2] See the fantastic article at http://www.catholicfidelity.com/apologetics-topics/papacy/the-peg-of-isaiah-22-by-steve-ray/

[3] See David Currie, Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996).

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