GOSPEL: Matthew 16:13-20
When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah.
Gospel Commentary by Father Joel Jason:
The Church Built on Rocky (not Balboa)
This Sunday, hundreds of thousands of youth (Catholics and non Catholics alike) from the 5 continents of the world culminate World Youth Day in Madrid with a closing Mass to be celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI, the 264th successor of Peter the apostle. Interestingly, this Sunday we reflect on Simon, son of Jonah’s confession of faith on the person of Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (v16) and Jesus’ affirmation that Simon will now be called “Peter” (v 18), meaning “rock”, as he will be the foundation of the Church Christ will establish. Call it coincidence but I am typing this reflection as HBO is currently showing the fourth installment of an old boxing film about a never say die Italian boxer named Rocky Balboa.
Rocky faces the fight of his life in the scientifically trained and genetically enhanced Russian behemoth Ivan Drago. Surprised that Rocky is still standing after enduring a brutal beating no mortal could possibly survive, Drago murmurs to his corner, “He’s not human!”
“He’s not human!” captures an important aspect of the ministry and office of this simple fisherman turned fisher of men and the first of what is to be a long line of Popes (i.e., Jesus’ vicar on earth) enduring through two thousand years of Christianity.
In the Gospel, Jesus asks all the disciples a question: “Who do people say that I am?” The results of the opinion polls came in: some say John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. The polls were wrong. Jesus then asks the disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” The results came in: Dead silence. The apostles could not even give a common answer, which is as good as getting it wrong like the opinion polls. Then came the response of Simon: “ You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Only Simon got it right! Was it because Simon represented the majority? He alone got it. Was it because Simon was the most intelligent, an aristocrat? Duh!
Why did Simon get it right? Because “he’s not human”. Before you protest, let me explain. Simon’s profession was not a product of poll opinions. What Simon affirmed was not an insight of his own intelligence What Simon said was a gift (charis in Greek) from above: “…this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven”(v 18). Thus, Simon will no longer be called Simon, son of John but Peter ( from the Hebrew Cephas meaning rock). He will now be called Rocky:
“….and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (vv 19-20).
From this Gospel episode, we can derive several insights into the ministry of the Papacy and the Church. Here I borrow some insights from the late Bishop Fulton Sheen.
First, the Church is not a democracy. Democracy is founded on the power of the majority, the greatest number. While there is a legitimate good derivative from the majority, it is not always the case. The opinion polls in the Gospel got it wrong regarding the person of Jesus. It was the majority that preferred Barabbas over Jesus. It was also the majority that legalized the murder of infants by their mothers in America and elsewhere. While politics can be ruled by democracy, the Kingdom of God cannot be. The Kingdom of God is about the truth that saves and liberates. The truth cannot be turned over to the whims and caprice of the greater majority. Truth is truth even when no one believes it. Error is error even if everybody believes it.
In the recent Senate sponsorship of the Reproductive Health bill, a Lady Senator chided the Church by saying that a majority of Filipinos approve the RH Bill (as a side note, the way a question is formulated usually influences the results of a survey). According to her, “It’s time for the Church to listen to the majority.” In essence, she wants Church people to be like politicians. Well, politicians decide by the majority, by popularity. The Church decides by fidelity - fidelity to the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. She spoke of letting people decide by their conscience. This position is too simplistic. If you ask Hitler why he did the holocaust, I’m sure he would say he simply followed his conscience. It will be the same with Pol Pot of the Cambodia massacre. The real issue here is this. One can only decide with an informed and educated conscience. Is your decision of conscience informed and educated by the Divine law? Or if one is not a person of faith, by the natural moral law (which is nothing else, by the way, but the Divine law inscribed in the nature of persons and things and actions)? Are the provisions of the RH bill compatible to the Divine or natural law? The lady Senator will be hard pressed to prove it.
Second insight. The Church in essence is a Theocracy, i.e., the rule of God. Fr. Robert Barron rendered it as a “Charismatic Government”, a body given gifts (charis) from above to ensure that the truth of God, no more no less, is that which governs the people. Jesus Himself assured this in the Gospel: “…And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”” In season and out of season, the Church is spurred on, not by popularity, but by fidelity to Jesus’ message.
Oh yes, error has been found in the Church in the past. Evil has tainted the Church’s history. But this is the price of human freedom. The key to understanding is this. It is a Church man, not the Church that has committed error. It is a priest, not the priesthood in general that has committed evil. It is a Pope, not the papacy in general that has committed wrong.
Why has the Church survived for 2000 years despite particular human failings? Because in essence and as a whole, She is a charismatic (grace-filled and grace sustained) community, built on the foundation of Peter the Rock.
This is the mystery of the Church and the office of the papacy. “He’s not human” not because She is composed of perfect personalities. Far from it. “He’s not human” because there is something beyond human in Her. Despite the imperfections, the Church is “still standing after enduring a brutal beating no mortal could possibly survive” because She is sustained and maintained by a gift (charis) from above. This is why the gates of Hell will not prevail against Her.
Let us all pray that we keep ourselves open and receptive to that gift (charis).