The Petrine Ministry is the backdrop for this 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time. In the first reading (Is 22:19-23) we heard of God, speaking through Isaiah the prophet, electing Eliakim to exercise headship over Israel. The word of God was: “And I will place on his shoulders the key of the house of David; he shall open and none shall shut; and he shall shut and none shall open.”
In the Gospel reading (Mt 16:13-20) we heard God in Christ speaking about St. Peter: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
To these two readings, I would like to add another. This one is from another Gospel passage found in the Eighteenth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel in which Christ is addressing all His apostles, not just Peter. “Truly, I say to you,” He declares, “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
My first point today is to note the symbolism of the keys, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. In the Old Testament we know that the person who was given the keys by the king was the highest official in the king’s court; he was the chief executive officer of the king. That was always clearly and unmistakably understood by all the Israelites.In the New Testament Christ used this well-known Jewish symbol to constitute Peter as His chief executive officer among the apostles. The symbolism of the keys could not escape them or admit of any other meaning.
My second point concerns the granting of the keys. In both the Jewish Testament and in the Christian Testament the grant of the keys comes from God, it comes from no one else. The conferral of this office did not come from popular election. The office was not granted by the people, it was granted only by God. Authority was not granted to any individual by any sort of popular choice; it was conferred by God who alone has authority to give it. Authority, in both Old and New Testaments comes only from God. He and he alone granted and conferred it on individuals of His own election.
Here I want to note that our own nation’s Declaration of Independence recognizes that all authority comes from God when it states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The third factor that I would like to bring to bear is found in St. Matthew’s Gospel, the 18th chapter. Here we find God in Christ speaking not just to St. Peter but rather to all of His apostles. He gives them, along with Peter, the power to bind and loose, telling them that what is bound on earth will be bound in heaven, and what is loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven. What we have here is a break from the Old Testament tradition. We have a special granting of authority not only to one individual, Peter, but also to a college of leaders with whom he must work and with whom he must share the power of the keys. This is a remarkable and innovative departure from the Old Testament custom and tradition of the Jews. It places authority in a new form of corporate leadership with one of their number being their leader in holding them together in unity and charity. It places authority squarely in the Church. It’s conferral and exercise, it’s authentication and recognition, are now placed by Christ in His Church and subject to the processes of conferral and authentication that are to be developed by His Church. This is truly an astonishing shift.
The practical consequences in our own lives ought to be examined in the context of these understandings. The first and most obvious ramification is one that we witness when, in Rome, a new Bishop of Rome is elected by the College of Cardinals. Clearly the selection process is one that is extraordinary. To be sure there is a form of so-called politics involved, but it was not politics in the usual sense of the word. The discernment process was one filled with prayer, invocations of the Holy Spirit, and with the absence of the usual form of political factions and power blocs commonly understood by our use of the word “politics.” The inspiration of the Divine and the election by God are clearly present. If we put all of our cynicism aside and mute our prejudices, I think that we all must admit that God’s election is in evidence. The Cardinals make a clear statement that authority does not reside in them, it resides in God, and they made a good faith attempt to not only recognize that fact but to act upon it.
The second ramification is to note that in the selection process not only of the pope but also the selection and ordination of deacons, priests, and bishops, the power of the keys operates through twenty centuries of the Church’s life. One is called by God to be a deacon, a priest, or a bishop. One does not take authority in the Church upon himself by his own choice. Nor is there a popular election in the usual sense present in these instances. If one feels one has a vocation, a calling from God, one submits to a centuries-long developed process for authentication conferral of these offices. In plain and direct language, headship over Christians, at least in the Catholic Church, is conferred by the Church’s processes in which the power of the keys resides, and not through anyone else’s process. One does not by himself choose to be a priest – the Church, relying on the power of the keys, chooses who is to be a priest, deacon, or bishop.
This brings me now to God’s gift to us of confidence, a gift we should hold dear in these times of loss of confidence, loss of confidence in our government, in our economy, and, yes, loss of confidence in some of our bishops. We should not lose hope. We should turn again to the promise of Christ: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” Along with this promise came also Christ’s promise of the Holy Spirit who would protect His Church in spite of its failures.
We need to see Christ’s promises in the light of the failure of some of our bishops to properly manage some priests who had abused and severely damage some of our children. What I ask you is to keep in mind that these failures were not failures when it comes to preserving and maintaining our doctrines, our fundamental Christian teachings. They were failures in administration, failures in oversight, and failures in personnel management. The basic doctrines of our Church have, throughout all of our recent crisis, been maintained. We can remain confident that our beliefs which that have come to us down through 2,000 years of our Church’s history remain intact. All of this needs to be seen in light of our shaken confidence in our government and in our economy.
There is much about which we are anxious and concerned, and rightly so. But in spite of all that we are facing we should not let our anxieties undermine our fundamental faith in Christ’s promises to us. The failures of a few bishops should not lead us to believe that all of our bishops have failed. What some of them have done is indefensible and we should not attempt to defend the indefensible. Nor should we condemn the innocent. Nor should we ignore all that is good in our Church.
Having said all of this, let me conclude by telling you that our seminary system has been overhauled and that today’s seminarians are examined and scrutinized as never before. Along with that our American bishops are holding themselves accountable as never before. While our confidence in them may have been shaken, our confidence in them should not be lost.
“Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” That promise does not come to us from a politician; it comes to us from Our Blessed Lord Himself. Upon Him our confidence and hope for our future rests.
REVEREND CHARLES IRVIN, or “Father Charlie,” as he is known, was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on January 6, 1933. He was raised and educated there, graduating from the University of Michigan’s Law School. After a brief career as an attorney he entered the seminary and was ordained a priest in 1967. Shortly thereafter he began an eleven-year ministry at St. Mary’s Student Chapel in Ann Arbor. A rich variety of ministries followed including appointments to many advisory positions in the Church and three other pastorates. In the early 1970s he began writing columns for several Catholic newspapers in Michigan. In 1999 he was appointed founding editor of Faith magazine, published by the Diocese of Lansing, Michigan. Today, the magazine serves seven dioceses.