Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time: Our very human Church

The Lord could have found many different ways of establishing His Church. He could have entrusted it to the angels. He could have worked out a Church of some sort of direct inspiration where every move on earth was exactly dictated from heaven.

Aug 22, 2020

21st Sunday of Ordinary Time
Readings: Isaiah 22:19-23; Romans 11:33-36; Gospel: Matthew 16:13-20

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!

How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!

For from him, through him and for him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

This is from today’s second reading, Romans 11.  God knows what he is doing, even if his reasoning is beyond our understanding.  Today’s Gospel reading gives us a clear example of the inscrutable judgement of God. In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives the keys of the Kingdom to Peter.

As you know, the name Peter comes from the Greek word, Petra, meaning rock.  Jesus named Simon, “Peter”, the rock upon which the Church would be built.  Authority in the Church was entrusted to Peter: “whatever you declare bound on earth will be bound in heaven, whatever you declare loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

The Lord could have found many different ways of establishing His Church. He could have entrusted it to the angels. He could have worked out a Church of some sort of direct inspiration where every move on earth was exactly dictated from heaven. Instead, the Lord put the Church in the hands of people of faith. Good people, like Peter, but still people with all the limitations of being human. As with all human beings, sometimes the humanity of individuals got in the way of their divine charge.  Peter tried to keep Christ from going to Jerusalem and was called  “Satan” for he was doing the work of the devil.  After boasting that he would never deny the Lord, he did in fact deny him three times. Peter was a good man, a man of faith, but sometimes his vision became clouded. He was a man who walked on water to the Lord, but then started thinking about what he was doing and started to drown. That was very much the story of his failings. He often started out well but then let his humanity affect his actions.  For example, after Pentecost when the Church was in its first days, Peter realised that Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians were equal. Yet at Antioch, he ignored the Gentiles in favour of the Jews, for which he was berated by Paul. Peter was a holy man, but still, a man, and as a man he made human mistakes.

On the positive side, Peter was a man who grew in his faith.  He was a determined fisher of men. He accepted the obligations and responsibilities of leadership over the other Apostles, many of whom were far better educated than he was. Think about Paul, who was educated at the feet of the great teacher Gamaliel. Yet Paul laid his teaching out before Peter to be sure he was proclaiming Christ properly. Peter’s authority was given to Him by the Lord and confirmed by the action of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and through the remainder of Peter’s life.  Peter may have denied Jesus before Pentecost, but after Pentecost, he embraced suffering since that was what the Gospel entailed. Peter, this man of Galilee, whose longest trip had  been to Jerusalem, travelled all the way to Rome. This man, who fled the crucifixion of Jesus, accepted his own crucifixion asking to be crucified head down because he didn’t deserve to die as the Lord died.

When we consider the human failings of all the popes who followed Peter, including those who would be canonised saints, we have to recognise the hand of the Holy Spirit in the very life of the Church. Christ gave His authority to the rock, even though some of those who exercised this authority let their humanity get in the way of their responsibility. Still, because we do have a concrete authority, rock-solid, we know who we are when we say we are Catholic. We know the fundamental beliefs of our faith and the basic dictates of our morals. We are so firm in our faith that even if those in authority should give us a poor example of living the faith, as some of the popes of the distant past did, we still maintain our Christianity. The Church still flourishes. Why? Because the Church is far more than individuals. It is the Body of Christ guided by the Holy Spirit.

Human frailty is not more powerful than Divine Grace. When I think of some of the ways in which I, as an ordained leader have let my humanity get in the way of my responsibility, and yet still witness the wonderful ways the Lord uses me for others, I  realise that God’s power is far greater than my own limitations. After forty three years as a priest, I am still shocked at the way the Lord uses me despite my continual human failings.

I am sure that there are situations in your own lives that you feel the same way.  I am sure that you recognise the Lord’s presence in your decisions despite your own human failings. Many parents fear that they are acting like hypocrites when they do everything they can to prevent their children from engaging in actions that those parents themselves had done. But really, they are not hypocrites.  They are concerned parents who want to protect their children from repeating their mistakes.

We, the confirmed, are entrusted with the responsibility of leading others to the Lord. We recognise that we do not do this alone.  We realise that we must allow the hand of the Lord to work his wonders through us.

Today’s gospel reading, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church” leads us to make an act of faith in the Lord who uses human beings, you and me, to proclaim his wonders. ––By Msgr Joseph A  Pellegrino

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