21 February 2013

Feast of the Chair of Peter

Tomorrow is the Feast of the Chair of Peter and there have probably not been many occasions to reflect on the Primacy of Peter which are as significant as this one. Four elements in particular confirm this opinion for me.

First, there is Vatican II and its focus on collegiality which was meant to contextualize and correct any notion of primacy which might separate Peter from the College of Bishops or make the Bishops mere "branch managers" with the Pope as CEO.  During this 50th anniversary year of the Council, we must remember this.

Second, there is John Paul II's encyclical Ut Unum Sint --- an encyclical which put Christian Unity ahead of uniformity and called upon the Church to help him reform the papacy/curia and the way these routinely did business.

Third, just last week we were presented with the resignation of Benedict explicitly offered for the good of the Church. Through this act of humility he reminded us that the papacy is a demanding ministry requiring expertise, skill, and stamina, not the role of a monarchical figurehead, the focus for a personality cult, nor an honorary ecclesiastical post necessarily held for life. Benedict, like his predecessor in Ut Unum Sint, acted to signal that the papacy was not necessarily exercised in the same way in every age, and in fact called us to let go of the notion that "business as usual" is synonymous with living Tradition. 

Fourth, we as Church are called on to reflect on the primacy of Peter and the way Jesus called on it to be exercised in light of the coming conclave to elect a new Pope. He (and those who elect him) will, we pray, take the Gospel passage we are looking at tomorrow as well as the reading from 1 Peter with absolute seriousness. After all, we all have ideas of what we would like and, more, what we truly need a Pope to be. In tomorrow's readings we are given a brief summary of Jesus' and the early Church's ideas of what is necessary for fulfilling the Petrine ministry.

Three things are particularly striking for me: 1) the absolute primacy of Peter's faith in Jesus as Christ and Son of God. This faith, this ability to entrust all Peter is to Jesus as Messiah and Son of God, and which itself is explicitly noted to be the result of God's grace, is the source of the authority Peter is invested with. If Peter is Vicar of Christ (as all Bishops are) it is first of all in light of the centrality of Jesus in his life and the degree to which he truly sees reality as Jesus Christ did/does. All of Peter's vision and courage come from this faith. It is the reality which will prevent Peter's primatial ministry from being distorted into an entirely worldly reality like the emperorship's of Caesar, et al. It is, in fact, the ONLY thing which makes such an incredible commission possible or reasonable in our world and the only thing which ensures the gates of the netherworld (including that realm's embodiment in human person, structures, and institutions) will not prevail against it.

Peter's faith fails only when he ceases to trust in the One who, by the power of God, he has come to know Jesus to be. It fails (and has failed in his successors in history) to the extent he allows fear and human weakness to make something else (e.g., the power of the Sanhedrin and the Roman Emperor, or the approval of James and his peers) his functional Lord. It succeeds or has the ascendancy whenever Peter allows Jesus to be God's anointed One and Son in Word and Deed and exercises the keys entrusted to him --- beginning with his own acceptance of the Risen Lord, his forgiveness of Peter's sinfulness and betrayal of Jesus, and continuing on with Paul's significant correction of his meal practice and instruction on freedom from the Law and the scandal of the Cross. As an integral part of this faith then, the NT demonstrates that Peter succeeds  in his pastorate only to the degree he allows his himself to be challenged by and to grow in his own obedience to others, including the "least of the apostles and untimely born" like Paul or the Churches whose lives of faith Paul, Barnabas, Timothy, and others (including many women) witness to. Peter is called to faith in Jesus Christ and to the openness and responsiveness this faith makes possible. It should not be a surprise then, nor go unsaid that the next Pope needs to be a man of profound and personal faith in Christ with ALL that implies.

Thus, also striking is 2) the pastoral nature of Peter's commission. It is so important that the flock of God's Pilgrim People not be left without a visible, living, breathing shepherd who effectively symbolizes God's abiding presence with us. (We especially need to remember that in these days of dwindling priests and closing parishes; these (and any number of other significant crises) signal a tremendous failure in Peter's ministry as shepherd and calls for the Church to find fresh and effective ways to deal with the fact that so many in the People of God are going unfed and unled. We truly have to admit that wolves which were supposed to act as sheep dogs and shepherds have gotten to the flock, but also that many are starving or wandering bereft and alone for lack of creative and pastoral care that seeks them out and provides for their needs. When Jesus speaks of the true shepherd he does not speak of  the one proposing to get by with a "leaner meaner flock" but the one who, at the risk of much, creatively, flexibly, and faithfully searches out even the least and the lost and brings them home.)

Though it is foundational, faith is not enough. Peter had to learn to open his mind and heart to an ecclesia which was truly universal and quite diverse precisely for this reason. He had to come to an understanding of God's will which seemed to break all the rules of religion as he knew it; he came to know first hand a divine reign which turned the order of this world on its head, and which was both foolishness to the educated and a scandal to good religious folks of his day. He had to develop humility, docility, and the abilities to collaborate, empower, and confront at appropriate times and in varied situations. Peter failed when he caved into peer pressure (e.g., James and his group of Judaizers) or failed to see things in a new way in light of the Cross, his experience of the resurrected Christ, and his sincere hearkening to the needs of the People and the wisdom of theologians like Paul. As tomorrow's responsorial psalm implies, the Petrine Primacy is a great gift to the Church. However, it is a demanding ministry which must combine personal faith with the ability to PASTOR effectively, empathetically, and collegially if the Church is to continue living indefectibly in the truth and power of the Gospel.

3) Finally, I am struck by the incredibly far-reaching nature of this commission and mandate Jesus gives Peter and I have to ask myself how it came to be narrowed down or limited to the interpretation/translation, "whose sins you forgive will be forgiven and who sins you retain will be retained?" Of course sins are included here, but the text reads "what ever" you retain or loose. It does NOT say, " whatever you bind or loose with the exception of x or y".  In short, while it is not a mandate for recklessness or "whatever goes", it outlines an authority limited by the reality and Gospel of Jesus Christ themselves. While Peter's life and ministry is constrained at every turn by true faith in Jesus Christ, they are also freed by the Gospel for a love that does justice in both new as well as traditional ways despite the immense shifts in perspective and even  reform of ecclesial structures this might entail in each and every period of history. This commission seems to me to be the basis of an historically sensitive papacy capable of responding in fresh ways to the signs and needs of the times precisely because of its rootedness in the Risen Christ.

When Christ promises Peter that this is Christ's own Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it we come back to that foundational, ecclesial AND personal faith which must underscore the also-necessary courage, skill, and prudence required of a true pastor. It is a risky thing to truly respond to the needs of the times while honoring a living Tradition. Mistakes will be made --- though the really catastrophic errors will come (as in the Middle Ages) because of a papacy/curia which feared and missed the opportunity for real reform or who fails to be truly collaborative. The Church requires a Pope with profound faith, pastoral knowledge, skills, and a shepherd's heart, along with a sense both of the wide-reaching scope of his mandate and the REAL limitations which constrain it. In the days and weeks to come that is the kind of Pope I will be praying for.