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Faith in Christ Shown by Loyalty to the Pope

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

There are certain events in the Gospels that synthesize what a Catholic is supposed to be. These events are at once both mysteries and challenges. They are mysteries because, though revealed, we cannot fully understand them. That, by the way, is what a mystery is. It is not something we know nothing about. It is something we do not know everything about. But they are also challenges, because especially in our day they bring to the surface what needs to be, sometimes desperately, emphasized in our times.

One such event, that might almost be called the test of Catholicism, is described by Saint Matthew and may be called “Peter’s Confession,” which really means “Peter’s Profession.” From another viewpoint, it is the promise of the primacy. Many of us have memorized the text.

Now Jesus, having come into the district of Caesarea Philippi, began to ask His disciples, saying, “Who do men say the Son of Man is?” But they said, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered and said, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Then Jesus answered and said, “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to thee, but my Father in heaven. And I say to thee, thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

There are four logical features in this passage from the Gospel of Matthew, each one of which deserves not a few minutes, but months of prayerful meditation. First, Peter’s profession of faith in Christ; then, Christ’s acceptance of this profession; third, Christ’s promise to make Peter the visible foundation of His Church; and finally, the awesome description of the power of papal authority.

Peter’s Profession of Faith

It began with a double question from Jesus. He asked, “Who do other people say that I am?” And then, clearly not satisfied, Christ went on to say, “Who do you say that I am?” People said different things. This is already the sixteenth chapter of Matthew. By now, Christ had been preaching and working miracles for quite some time. What did some people say? They said, “John the Baptist come back to life; or Elijah, also as promised, come back to earth; or Jeremiah.” Judging from some of Christ’s strong statements to the Pharisees, He sounded every bit like Jeremiah! Or, not being sure which prophet to name, they said, “One of them.” But clearly, Christ was not these.

So then He asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” Now Peter assumed his place. This, mind you, is before the promise and also before the conferral of the primacy. Christ picked a natural leader. Peter never doubted that he was in charge. Of course, Christ was there. Peter spoke for the rest, as usual, nobody objected.

Peter said two things: “Thou art THE Messiah” and “Thou art THE Son of the living God.” In both cases, the Greek text has a definite article. There is only one Messiah, and only one Son of God.

What was Peter affirming? He was first saying that Jesus was the One who for centuries had been foretold by the prophets. He was indeed the One who was to come. In other words, the Old Testament was finished and the New One had dawned. The word “Christ,” since we are so used to it, may not bring out the full flavor of the meaning behind the word. “Christ” is simply the English equivalent to Christos in Greek, which means Messiah in Hebrew. “You are THE Messiah.”

But on the heels of that, Peter added still more, saying that Jesus is the natural, the only Son of God. Besides the definite article, there is the expression “Son of the living God.” This too had been foretold in the Old Law, dimly or as the expression goes, “adumbrated.” But the Jews of Christ’s time were looking forward to a different kind of Messiah than the one Jesus turned out to be. If they missed that, you may be sure they would have totally missed the allusions to the divine transcendence of the Messiah, foretold for example in the Psalms. In any case, what Peter was saying and what faith this took was this: “You are a man like me, whose face I can see, whose hands I can touch, whose voice I can hear; and you are my God.”

Christ’s Acknowledgment

Faith is only possible where there has first been a revelation. Had this been untrue, were Jesus not what Peter said He was, it would have been blasphemy twice over for the Savior to have accepted the profession. But He did. Now we can begin to apply some of this to ourselves. He further went on to say, “Flesh and blood could not possibly have let you know who I really am. Flesh and blood see only a man, like yourself. But my heavenly Father has inspired you by His grace. You are able to see by faith what the eyes of the body, or even the eyes of the mind, could never perceive.”

Jesus is telling us a great deal. Think of the things we believe, about which Jesus can say, “Flesh and blood did not reveal these to you, but only my heavenly Father.” Make a list sometime, at least mentally, of the astounding things we believe. Most of us have believed in the Real Presence since the dawn of reason. Our parents told us. But when a newly ordained priest genuflects for the first time at his first Mass, how astounding it seems indeed. He, a sinner, can change bread into the Body of Christ, the Son of the living God! We believe that Christ gave power to men like us of forgiving sins in His Name. And so across the whole spectrum of our faith. How truly Jesus is telling us, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you. You believe only because my Father has given you the grace to believe.” It is a sheer, undeserved gift!

This faith of ours is a supernatural gift, totally unmerited. Though it came to us through no claim on our part, we won’t be able to keep the faith without doing something about the faith we already have. We are to better understand the faith. That is a duty, not an academic luxury. We must meditate on the faith. We must put this faith into practice and live the faith, which can mean a thousand things, but especially it should mean living a life of prayerful union with Christ.

How much we priests need to be told this. Why have so many lost their faith? They have lost it because so many had foolishly, stupidly, failed to breathe that air without which a believer suffocates. That is the air of humble, constant prayer.

Christ’s Promise to Peter

Having accepted Peter’s profession of faith in Himself as the Messiah and the Son of God, Christ then makes the promise that He was to fulfill shortly after His Resurrection from the dead. Jesus had just called him “Simon, son of Jona,” which means “John.” That was his first and his family name, frankly, Simon Johnson.

Then Christ proceeded to change Simon’s name. He said, “Thou art Peter.” To see that in the Basilica of Saint Peter’s in Rome, Tu es Petrus, is to realize that we are standing on rock. The Savior spoke Aramaic, in which language the word was kepha. But in Greek, in which Matthew’s Gospel has come down to us, the term became petros, although the normal Greek word is petra. But Petros was evidently a man. Jesus broke the law of language. He gave him a masculine name, appropriate to his gender, in order to bring out what no one dare forget: behind the gender was the meaning, and the meaning was “rock.” This is no pebble, no little rock. This is a stone, the kind you quarry. The Greeks had a word for every shade of distinction.

Having given Simon his new name, “The Rock,” Jesus went on to declare what would be Peter’s [the Rock’s] role in the Church that Christ was founding. The word “founding” in the context we are examining has a much deeper significance than we commonly give it. There is the sense in which a founder is one who starts, and that is true. But even on that level, even before Christ left this world, He had made Peter His created, visible Vicar on earth. Moreover, after Christ’s Ascension into heaven, the Savior was the invisible head or, if you wish, the invisible foundation of the Church no less than He was during His visible stay on earth.

The key to understanding Peter’s role relative to Christ’s is the word “visible.” This Church that Jesus was establishing was no hierarchy of angels; it was no community of disembodied spirits. It was a society of human beings, who would need a visible basis or foundation to which they could adhere. They had to hear an audible, sensibly perceptible voice. They would have to see these sensibly perceptible words expressed in doctrine and laws. It was not for nothing that, as far as revelation records, Jesus wrote nothing that He left to posterity. But since Christ wanted His Church to be a visible, sensibly perceptible society, just as in any other human visible society, there must be someone who is in charge.

We must take note of various biblical translations. Some modern English Bibles translate the Greek basilea as “reign.” Not so. Basilea is “kingdom.” “Reign” is an abstraction; “kingdom” is sensibly, visibly perceptible. Especially in our day, how necessary this is, to stress that apart form the See of Peter there is no certainty, no security, and no unity in Christianity.

Let us give a few examples from issues that are being violently debated today. The priesthood is no mere function or ministry, but a consecration that endows the one who receives it with the power of changing bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ and the power to forgive sins in Christ’s Name. No mere ministry that! The priesthood is reserved only to men, since Christ had first decided in first century Palestine. Moreover, the religious life is no mere temporary commitment, but a lifetime dedication to follow Christ in the practice of sincere, interior chastity, actual poverty and a humble obedience to real flesh and blood superiors. Also, the sacrament of marriage is a permanent and exclusive union of one man and one woman until death, not dissolvable by any power on earth, whether civil or ecclesiastical. Sins against chastity, like homosexuality, masturbation and fornication, are grave sins, and when fully consented to, deprive a person of the state of grace.

These and similar questions have been decided by the See of Peter in our times. For those who accept the Vicar of Christ as indeed Christ’s Vicar (which means Christ’s delegate or representative), there can be no doubt. The others we pray for and leave to the mercy of God, though we wish that they would leave the rest of us in peace.

How we should beg the dear Lord that Catholics might rally behind the Pope in these difficult times. Nowhere else can we find the certitude of possessing the truth, or the security that we are doing God’s will. We can be united among ourselves as Christians on one condition: there is one center of unity in the world and that is in the Vicar of Christ.

Peter is no rival to Christ. Having promised to make Peter the foundation of His Church, the Savior went on to describe how strong, because of Peter, the Church would be, and what power she would have over the sons and daughters of men. Christ said, “The gates of hell will not prevail against this Church.” We need this reassurance today. Yet, as we reflect on the nineteen centuries of opposition and oppression the Church has suffered, we must embarrassingly admit that her worst enemies are not those outside. The Church’s worst enemies are within her own household. Only God knows the damage done to the integrity of faith by priests teaching theology that is so contrary to what Christ revealed. A large contingent of seminarians told me after a recent lecture, “Father, we’ve been crushed. We were just recently forced to witness a laywoman concelebrating Mass with one of our professors.”

No, “the gates of hell will not prevail” and that, too, is the only correct translation of the Greek. But we should especially pray for Christ’s bishops and priests, because on them, more than on anyone else in the world, depends the soundness of faith and the security of the means of salvation.

But Christ went on, telling Peter, and through him his successors, that they would have the astounding power to judge, and the way they judged, heaven would confirm. The verbs “bind” and “loose” stand for everything. Christ was saying to Peter, and is telling Peter’s successor today, “Whatever you bind, that is, whatever you declare is true; whatever you declare is forgiven; whatever you declare should be done; whatever you declare is God’s Will; whatever you declare is effective; whatever you declare is valid — in all of these, God ratifies your decision. Correspondingly, whatever you loose on earth, that is, whatever you declare is untrue; whatever you declare is not forgiven; whatever you say is forbidden; whatever you say is sinful, useless, wrong, or invalid — God ratifies. He stands behind your decision.”

This short prayer is familiar, but expresses all the sentiments that we should daily offer to God, in these words or similar ones, praying for His Vicar on earth. “O God, the Shepherd and Ruler of all the faithful, mercifully look upon your servant the Bishop of Rome, whom you have chosen as chief pastor over your Church. We ask you to grant him by word and example, so to lead those under his charge, that he will reach everlasting life, together with the flock, committed to him through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Father Hardon is the Executive Editor of The Catholic Faith magazine.

Copyright © 2003 by Inter Mirifica

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