The Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
Isaiah 22:19-23 + Romans 11:33-36 + Matthew 16:13-20
“… you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church ….”
Most of us probably wonder why anyone would bother with a hobby such as rock collecting. Doubtless we wonder because we don’t know enough about the hobby to appreciate it fully. Nonetheless, it’s challenging for the average person to appreciate this pastime. It’s not just that rocks are lifeless. To the unenlightened, rocks seem dull in more ways than one, and seemingly good for little except holding things down as a paperweight.
So is Jesus insulting Simon when He gives him the name “Peter”, which literally means “rock”? Is Jesus suggesting that Simon is hard-headed, lifeless, dull, and good for little? The Gospel accounts that feature Simon Peter show that, in terms of temperament and traits, he was hard-headed and occasionally dull of mind, which might remind us of a rock. So why would Jesus appoint such a man to the key earthly role within His Church: the office of the Pope?
The answer has more to do with Peter’s office than his personality. In other words, “Peter” is a job description, as Jesus explains in the same sentence in which He names Peter. Jesus tells Simon Peter: “… upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.” Jesus’ description of Peter’s new job makes it clear how important it is, and how literally foundational. Upon a single rock Jesus wants to build His Church, and Simon Peter is the right man for the job.
This key role evokes a similar image that St. Paul wrote about to the Ephesians: “you are … members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone” [Ephesians 2:19-20]. There seems to be a conflict here. St. Paul calls Jesus the cornerstone of the household of God, while Jesus Himself says that Peter will be the rock upon which He will build His Church. How can the roles of Jesus and Peter be reconciled?
One of the most common titles of the Pope clarifies the seeming conflict. The Pope serves the Church as the “Vicar of Christ”. Jesus’ role as the Church’s cornerstone is given concrete form in the person of the Pope who walks this earth. A vicar is one who speaks and acts in the name of a higher authority. So the Rock who is Peter—through the office of the Pope—serves as the earthly, bodily representative of Christ, the cornerstone of the Church.
Given this, the appointment of Simon to the office of “Peter” is clearly a great honor. However, there’s another truth about this name “Peter” that might seem a diminishment of Peter’s role, though in fact it’s essential to the office.
One of history’s most vicious persecutors of the Church was the nineteenth-century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. During his Kulturkampf, Bismarck attacked the First Vatican Council’s definition of papal infallibility. The bishops of Germany courageously responded in defense by asserting that “the pope cannot be called an absolute monarch, since indeed he is subject to Divine Law and is bound to those things which Christ set in order for his Church. He cannot change the constitution of the Church which was given to it by its divine Founder.”
Some in Germany feared that the bishops’ assertion had weakened the meaning of the Council’s teaching about the Pope. But the reigning Vicar of Christ, Blessed Pius IX, wrote that the German bishops’ description of the role of Peter deserved “Our most fulsome congratulations.”
This brief window into history seems to reveal a second conflict. If the Pope is the Vicar of Christ, and Christ is the divine Son of the Omnipotent Father, how can the Pope not be an absolute monarch? How can the Pope be infallible, but at the same time not all-powerful?
The reasons for Pope Pius’ praise, and why no actual conflict was present in the words of the German bishops about Vatican I, become clear when we pick up the First Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church. The Council decreed about the Bishop of Rome that “the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter that by His revelation they might make known new doctrine, but that by His assistance they might inviolably keep and faithfully expound the Revelation, the Deposit of Faith, delivered through the Apostles.”
The British priest-scholar Fr John Hunwicke wrote an essay for the ecumenical journal First Things titled “Peter Says No”. He explains the article’s title when he writes: “When Peter speaks, he says no. It is true that he also offers words of affirmation, comfort, and encouragement, as all pastors do. But when he exercises the role most typical of the Petrine mystery—the safeguarding of the faith—he speaks in the negative.”
The occupant of Peter’s chair is the Vicar of Christ not in bearing Christ’s omnipotence, but in teaching in the current day what Christ has already gifted to His Church. Far from an exciting office of innovation, Peter holds down the Church against the currents of faddish ideologies and fashionable trends. If the Church were merely a building, this office would mean mere maintenance. But since the Church is something living—the Mystical Body of Christ—this office is a living mission.
Jesus didn’t ask Peter to be a star, but a rock; not brilliant, but solid; not popular, but the unwavering voice of Christ to His People: the voice calling each person to take up his cross and follow Him.
Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter, Pietro Perugino (c. 1446-1523)