This is a very unusual Mass. Normally we would be celebrating a Sunday Mass derived from this year’s cycle of Gospel readings taken from St. Matthew’s Gospel. Today, however, the Church puts Sts. Peter & Paul before our eyes, more specifically the relationship between them. In our ordinary days, what can we say about them that affects how we are living out our lives? That’s the challenge I face in presenting today’s homily to you.
To begin with I want to note that Sts. Peter and Paul had to deal with the problem of unity and diversity. So do we. Anyone who pays attention to what’s going on in the political scene in Washington cannot fail to notice that it is a huge problem in our present day American political life. We have a fractured government. Not only do we have a fractured government but our political parties are being torn apart by factionalism. We have hardcore Democrats and we have hardcore Republicans. We have a Congress in which it is presently difficult, if not impossible, to get vitally needed legislation passed. We have a president who finds it necessary to issue Executive Orders in order to put programs in place because the House of Representatives and the Senate cannot seem to get significant laws passed. It appears that our system of government is broken, that diversity has morphed into division, and unity is seemingly unattainable.
Sts. Peter and Paul had to deal with that problem. They had to ask themselves if unity and diversity could co-exist. They had to deal with the question: Does unity require uniformity? Can we have diversity without division? We need to see that this very same issue is present amongst the various Christian churches that comprise Christianity, within the Catholic Church, and between parishes, and even within individual parish life. Must diversity bring division with it? Do all Catholics have to act in the same way and worship in the same way? How can Christians preach love and unity, forgiveness and reconciliation to the world when they themselves are living in disunity, without any forgiveness or reconciliation among themselves?
Our Blessed Lord called Peter and gave him a charge, a charge that we Catholics consider a real blessing. Immediately after St. Peter acknowledged that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Jesus declared to him: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 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.” (Matthew 16: 17-20)
St. Peter’s job was that of giving us unity and the rock-like strength that is found in unity. That was St. Peter’s job and it is likewise the job of St. Peter’s successors… the popes, the successor Bishops of Rome.
St. Paul was tasked by Jesus to bring the diversity of the gentiles into what had begun as an essentially Jewish community of believers. The first believers were, of course, Jews. He became known as the Apostle to the Gentiles, he himself having been a Jewish Pharisee. But Paul was careful to carry out his mission not on his own but as a member of the College of Apostles. Paul’s message and teachings were not his own; they were the message and teachings of the Apostles led by St. Peter. St. Paul was careful about that.
There is a common saying, expressed in various ways and attributed to various authors, that calls us to seek: “In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; and in all things, charity.” That sounds nice, doesn’t it? But often there are problems when it comes to determining what is essential and what is not. In many situations distinguishing what is essential from what is non-essential isn’t as easy as it might seem. That becomes clear when we take an over-view look at Christianity. The number of Christian church denominations that identify themselves as Christian is quite astonishing because there are fundamental disagreements among them as to what is essential in order to be called a Christian. Some even hold to the notion that it doesn’t matter. If you like Jesus then you are a Christian!
But being a Christian involves more than warm fuzzy, sentiments. That is one of the reasons why Jesus gave Peter His famous charge about binding and loosening, the commission that we just heard in today’s gospel account. That was in the 16th chapter of St. Matthew’s gospel. It’s also interesting that in the 18th chapter of St. Matthew’s gospel Jesus gave the same charge to all of the apostles. Jesus was speaking to them about division and discord among His followers and declared to His little college of apostles: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church…. “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 18: 15-18)
As Catholics we have both the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. We profess and affirm either one of them in every Sunday Mass and in other important Masses throughout the year. In addition we have the teaching office of the Church called The Magisterium. (The Latin word for “teacher” is “magister”) Finally we have the accumulated body of beliefs and teachings, known as Tradition, spanning over the past 2,000 years of our Church’s history. All of these keep us glued together.
It was St. Peter and St. Paul who brought Christianity to pagan Rome and established the Christian Church there. Both of these towering apostle-saints were put to death there for their beliefs and for their teachings among the citizens of Rome. As Christianity spread throughout diverse nations and peoples they looked to the Church of Rome for guidance and direction when they encountered problems precisely because of the martyrdoms of Sts. Peter and Paul in the Church of Rome. Throughout the Catholic world of today the same holds true.
So let us, you and I, give thanks to God for the great gifts He has given us, particularly the unity and diversity we enjoy and celebrate in our present day Universal and Catholic Church. For in it we find Greek Catholics, Byzantine Catholics, Maronite Catholics, Russian Catholics, along with twelve other branches of Catholics and Roman Catholics in this worldwide Church of ours. God cared for us and loved us so much that He gave us these marvelous gifts, diverse gifts held together in unity.
So may we once again in gratitude to God profess and affirm the fundamental beliefs we all, in our unity and diversities, share today throughout the whole world.