Dear Beloved in Christ
Our readings today, for Roman Catholics, are ones that are often referenced when it comes to one figure within the church, the Pope. If you don’t know what I’m referring to, the gospel, in particular, is the source of what we call papal authority. When Jesus handed the keys to Peter, we believe it was the first “handing off” that has continued, uninterrupted, through the centuries to Pope Benedict the 16th. I couldn’t help but think of a seeming parallel in today’s headlines. All week long, all the political shows that I’ve been listening to have been trying to figure out who the running mates of John McCain and Barak O’bama would be. In particular, Senator O’bama’s running mate was a huge source of consternation as it seemed he took forever to announce who it would be. Finally, at three o’clock on Saturday morning, O’bama supporters received their text messages or emails letting them know that Senator Joseph Biden would be his running mate. All the pundits had advice for Senator O’bama as to who should be his running mate and I have no doubt that that topic has been the subject of numerous meetings for both Senator O’bama and Senator McCain. And now the pundits can switch their focus to who Senator McCain will choose and continue offering advice.
I can’t help but contrast that with what happened in the gospel today. Jesus asks his disciples a simple question: “Who do people say that I am?” It’s direct. It’s simple. It’s a question that seeks to gauge how his ministry is going. The response is that people are comparing him to a prophet, a wise and learned individual who deserves admiration. But, Jesus then seeks their own opinion. He asks, “Who do you say that I am?” We know what Peter’s response was. I wonder what the other apostles were thinking. Maybe James and John were thinking, “You’re the guy that’s going to put us in charge.” Maybe Thomas was thinking, “I’m not sure who you are. I’m here to figure that out.” Judas may have been thinking, “You’re a self-important, pain in the behind faith healer who doesn’t know when to shut up.” But, who knows. Maybe they were all thinking the exact same thing that Peter was thinking but for some reason, it is Peter who says it. The others may have been thinking it. It may have been on the tips of their tongues but they were too afraid to say it. Peter, in typical fashion, is willing to put it forth, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And, just as God rewarded his faithful servant, Eliakim, in the Old Testament first reading from today with the keys to be able to control access to the King, so Peter and his successors have had the job of making sure that they make God accessible to us.
That’s why we, as Catholics, hold such high esteem for the Pope; because we believe that he wants to make God accessible to us not just as a concept but as a friend. There have been numerous times when this present pope has reminded us that the encounter with God that the Christian has is different because it is an encounter with a person, the person of Christ. The Pope wants us to be able to get in the door and he’s here to help us. The members of the clergy take our cues from him as to how to do that. And we, Christians, take great pride in the fact that the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. This means that, even though historically there have been bad successors to Peter, bad Popes, we trust that the Holy Spirit continues to bless us with the leadership necessary at any given moment in time to keep leading us to the gates of heaven and away from the gates of the netherworld.
By now, most of us have probably forgotten the fear that people had when Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger came out of those doors of the Vatican and was announced to the world as Pope Benedict XVI. People were afraid of das Panzer Kardinal, or the tank cardinal, as some referred to him and feared that he would ruin the church with harsh words and teachings. Four years later, on his visit to the United States, we cheered for Papa Bene, as some have called him and realize that Pope Benedict is less the blood-thirsty attack dog that everyone thought he would be, and more the German shepherd that we needed him to be. On this day, in this church dedicated to St. Peter, the Pope’s successor and St. Paul, whose festival year we celebrate as decreed by Pope Benedict, let us make this a year of prayer for our Holy Father, that he may continue to bring the church together in unity and be the gate keeper who helps us all come closer to God through Christ.