One of my favorite things to do when I was in seminary was to make the short walk over to St. Peter’s Basilica. No matter how many times I entered, I couldn’t help but smile and feel a great sense of wonder and joy. I still remember the first time I entered the basilica. It wasn’t even thru the front doors; I had just arrived in Rome after my month of Italian studies in Assisi, and Bishop Vann was also in town at the time. He had scheduled a Mass in a small chapel in the crypt, which is like the basement of the basilica, and he invited my classmate Matthew and I to come along. We entered the crypt directly thru the sacristy and a connecting walkway, and had our Mass there just around the corner from the very tomb of St. Peter. Afterwards, we took a different corridor, up a narrow flight of stairs, and soon emerged from the floor into the center of the grandest basilica in the world. I was immediately awestruck, and I knew that even had I stayed for hours, I couldn’t have taken it all in. I had the sense from my classmates that they had seen St. Peter’s Basilica in pictures, and already had some knowledge of what to expect. But for me, I was blessed with the gift of mystery until the moment I walked up that twisting staircase. I am glad that I resisted the urge to search the Internet for pictures of the basilica before I had the chance to see it with my own eyes.
Of course, being in that towering basilica, one’s eyes are drawn up—up, into the dome floating overhead. And around the base of the dome is a golden ring with a Latin inscription, written in six-foot letters: TU ES PETRUS, ET SUPER HANC PETRAM EDIFICABO ECCLESIAM MEAM. Even though I had only had one year of Latin language studies, I knew exactly what it said. “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.” The words spoken to Peter in our Gospel reading today.
To tell the truth, I had memorized that Bible verse years before. I used to play guitar in a band at St. Elizabeth’s parish in Lubbock, and we would play Christian music every Thursday night. We called it “The Rock” and the band, of course, was called “The Rock Band.” It sounded generic, but we knew that it had a hidden meaning, because on the back of our t-shirts (yes, we had t-shirts) was written the verse, Matthew 16:18. Our band’s name was really an homage to St. Peter.
This verse, Matthew 16:18 was burned into my mind from years past, and for a very good reason. This verse and the verses that follow it form the basis for the governance of the Church on earth and the primacy of Peter among the apostles. In short, it is in this moment that Jesus gives Peter his authority. And authority is the “key idea” today. (see what I did there?)
We all have authorities in our lives. Our first authorities are our parents, who teach us good from bad, right from wrong, safe from dangerous. And for the most part, we trust them. When mom says don’t touch the hot stove, or dad says, don’t stare at the sun, we listen! If we don’t, we end up hurting ourselves, and we learn our lesson the hard way. The next time around, we might be more inclined to take mom and dad’s word for it.
Not only that, but our parents, having authority over us, tell us what we may and may not do. No, you may not watch TV until you finish your homework. Yes, you may go to the movies with your friends, but be home by 11. They hold the keys to the household, both literally and with regards to the way the household is governed. By their authority as parents, their word is the law of the house.
And authority makes all the difference. Without authority, the word has no effect. The ticket salesman in the box office may also say “be home by 11,” but he has no authority to enforce it. If you get pulled over by an ice cream truck, and the ice cream man says, “You’re under arrest,” you would laugh out loud and go about your business. You might also ask yourself, “How did I get myself pulled over by an ice cream truck?” Still some of you might be asking, “What’s an ice cream truck?” Point is, an ice cream vendor does not have the authority to pull you over and make an arrest, but a police officer does, because he has the authority.
When it comes to the law, authority makes all the difference. And so, we see an example of authority being handed on in our First Reading today.
Thus says the LORD to Shebna, master of the palace:
“I will thrust you from your office
and pull you down from your station.
On that day I will summon my servant
Eliakim, son of Hilkiah;
I will clothe him with your robe,
and gird him with your sash,
and give over to him your authority.
Now, Shebna was a steward of the throne of David who had favored an unholy alliance with the nation of Egypt and who also built tombs where he was not allowed to build them. For his abuse of power, God took his authority away and handed it over to Eliakim, complete with all the symbols of authority: his robe and sash, and, in particular, a key. He says,
I will place the key of the House of David on Eliakim’s shoulder;
when he opens, no one shall shut
when he shuts, no one shall open.
This phrase is peculiar. It may seem redundant and unnecessary to reiterate how a key works. But this is to emphasize the absolute authority of King Eliakim. But that in itself is not remarkable. What is remarkable is the direct parallel of these words to the Gospel reading today. Jesus says to Peter:
I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven;
and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Jesus, echoing the words spoken to Eliakim, passes on his authority to Peter, using the same grammatical structure, and the same symbol of a key. This is the moment when Jesus clearly hands over to St. Peter the authority to govern his Church. He changes his name from Simon to Peter, and calls him “The Rock.”
The authority of supreme governance was given to Peter alone. That is why we say that he is “first among the Apostles.” He was, in the absence of Jesus, their leader. And so, we call him our first Pope. It was Peter to whom the early Church leaders turned when there was a question or a dispute. We can prove it thru the writings of the Church Fathers like Saint Optatus in the fourth century.
As we know, the Apostles had successors. They chose men from among the Christians to carry on the missionary work of the Church. They passed on that authority down thru the ages. Peter to Linus, Linus to Cletus, Cletus to Clement… all the way to today, to Pope Francis, our 266th pope.
According to St. Cyprian of Carthage, the reason for this singular authority of Peter, passed down to the Popes over two millennia, was for the purpose of unity. The whole of Christianity was intended to be united under the authority of one leader, imbued with the authority to teach, govern, and sanctify the Church of Jesus Christ. St. Cyprian wrote, “If someone [today] does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he [should] desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?”
These are strong words from the early Church Fathers. They are especially difficult in a time when so many of our family members, coworkers, and friends have left the Catholic Church. Still, so many more belong to Protestant denominations. While Protestants share in some limited unity in sacred things like Baptism and Holy Matrimony, we still lack a visible unity, the unity for which Christ himself prayed.
I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one….
We still long for this unity, and we pray and work for this unity thru dialogue with our separated brethren. We do not condemn, we do not hate, we do not act self-righteous. We inspire others by our acts of love and we invite others to share in the fullness of truth and the wisdom of the saints.
I bring this up because I think one of the biggest stumbling blocks for our Protestant brethren is this question of authority. Especially for us Americans, and most especially for us Texans, we tend to be suspicious of authority. After all, both Texas and the United States were born out rebellions against authority. So, it may seem strange for any red-blooded Texan to willingly submit to authority. It is really no surprise, then, that most of our neighbors refuse the authority of the Pope and hold up the authority of the Bible. After all, the Bible is God’s word, isn’t it? So why do I need a Pope to tell me what God says?
Well, it’s not as simple as that. Ask any two Protestants what they believe on a current moral issue, and chances are you will get two different answers. Both may claim the Bible as the source of their response, yet they arrive at different conclusions. How, then, are we to know who is right and who is wrong? We need an arbiter, a referee, if you will. And the ultimate referee in matters of faith and morals is, in fact, the Pope. He doesn’t make up the rules out of nowhere; rather, he has the responsibility to uphold the Bible and Sacred Tradition and the authority to deliver teachings derived from them.
Furthermore, it is worth pointing out that the Bible itself indicates how Jesus intended for us to resolve such disagreements. Jesus didn’t say, “Here’s a copy of my book; good luck to you all.” Rather, he left his Apostle Peter in charge, giving him the authority to bind and to loose.
Authority, then, is essential to the Christian life. The Church, which is the Body of Christ, is governed by the divine authority that flows from Jesus Christ. The authority given to Peter and the Apostles has been carefully handed down to the bishops of our present day. The bishops possess that authority to govern, teach, and sanctify the local Church. They, in turn, entrust the sacraments to Christ’s priests, who are to be generous distributors of God’s manifold grace.
It is from the authority handed on from Jesus to Peter that the Church is constantly renewed by grace, guided in the truth, and governed in righteousness. It all fits together in those words inscribed both on the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica and on the back of a t-shirt: You are Peter, and upon this Rock I will build my Church.