Fourth Sunday After Pentecost (12th Sunday in Ordinary Time)
"On The Papacy"
By: Rev. H. G. Hughes
While every word that our Divine Lord has spoken, dear brethren in Jesus Christ, is a word of life, there were various occasions on which He uttered sayings that were of very special importance because they concerned not only individual souls, but the constitution of the holy Catholic Church, the holy Sacraments and the means of grace. They are words of which the marvelous fulfillment and continuous ever-living effects are seen in the world, and will be seen to the end of time; and this fulfillment and effects are proof that He who spoke those words and thus fulfills them is Divine, and that the Church in which they are fulfilled is truly the Church of Christ. Such words, fulfilled to the letter in the holy Catholic Church and Roman Church are, for instance, the words of the commission given to the Apostles: "Go, teach all nations; preach the Gospel to every creature, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Ghost"; and the words, "Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven, and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained"; or again, "Except you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His Blood, there is no life in you; He that eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood hath eternal life; My Flesh is meat, indeed; and My Blood is drink, indeed. He that eateth Me, the same shall live by Me."
And amongst the number of those important utterances having such far-reaching effects is the one which I have taken for my text, the words in which Jesus Christ conferred upon St. peter and his successors that proud title which they still use, the title of the fisherman: "Jesus said to Simon: 'Fear not, for henceforth thou shall catch men.'"
This expression is, of course, metaphorical. It points to the Missionary Office which rests in its plenitude upon the shoulders of the Chief Pastor of the Church. To that office necessarily belong various prerogatives, without which the duties of the universal Teacher and Fisher of men could not be carried out. Hence, our Divine Lord, very fully and in unmistakable words drew out the position and powers of His Vicar upon earth. The classical utterance of Christ on this subject, which we Catholics may call, and accurately call, the charter of our foundation, is very familiar to you. "Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jonas, because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but My Father who is in heaven. And I say to thee that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shall bind on earth, it shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever thou shall loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven" (St. Mat. xvi, 17-19).
You remember the occasion on which these words of tremendous import were spoken. Our blessed Lord was with His Apostles at Caesarea Philippi. He put to them the question: "Whom do men say that the Son of Man is?" They answered: "Some John the Baptist, and other some Elias, and others Jeremiah, or one of the prophets." Then "Jesus said to them: 'But whom do you say that I am? Simon Peter answered and said: 'Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God'" Then came the wonderful reply of our Divine Lord, which I have already quoted to you; the words in which the supreme headship and government of the Church was given to Peter, and in him, to all his successors to the end of the world.
We can not familiarize ourselves too much with the full scope and meaning of this great utterance of Jesus, that means so much to all generations of Christians. We will therefore examine it again to-day; our time will not be wasted.
Note, first, that St. Peter's answer to our blessed Lord's question was due to a direct Divine inspiration and revelation. "Blessed art thou," our Lord declared, "because flesh and blood hath not revealed this (My Divinity) to thee, but My Father who is in heaven." This fact gives great importance to what follows, for it shows that the reward granted to the faith of the Apostle St. Peter was no ordinary reward; it was something more than a word of praise or commendation; precious though the least word of praise from his Master was to Peter, this was more and greater. Then notice, dear brethren, that both the blessing pronounced upon Peter and the reward promised to him were peculiarly personal to him; the reward of a personal act of faith in the Messiasship and Divinity of Jesus: "Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jonas; I say unto thee, that thou are Peter; to thee wilt I give the keys of the kingdom of heaven." But now let us examine the grant made to Peter. "Thou art Peter," said Jesus, "and on this rock will I build My Church."
What does this mean? It is very plain, after all, dear brethren; it is no subtle, mysterious parable, hard to interpret. In legislating for the practical carrying on of the Religion which He came to found, our blessed Lord always used plain and straightforward speech. He does so here. His words plainly mean that just what a solid rocky foundation is to building set up on it, such is Peter to the Church. Now a rocky foundation is to a building the principle and cause of its unity and its stability; that is, a good solid foundation keeps the building together, prevents it from falling to pieces. You will remember that contrast drawn by Christ Himself; in one of His parables, between the house built on a rock, which successfully resists a storm, and that built on the sand which quickly falls. And Christ says that Peter is to be to His Church and to do for His Church just what the rocky foundation is to and does for the house built upon it. As the house built on the rock is preserved by its foundation in unity and stability, so is the Church of God to be kept by Peter in unity and unconquerable stability in spite of all the assaults of hell. "On this rock I will build My Church, and the gates, that the powers, of hell shall not prevail against it." Peter, then, is the firm foundation of the Church, her principle of stability, her source and conserver of unity, that which keeps her together as one united Body, one compact and solid Building.
But the Church of Christ is not a building of stone; she is a corporate Body, a society of human beings; a "Temple not made with hands, but built of human souls; a great Association comprised of the many millions of the People of God. And to understand the position of St. Peter as the Foundation of this Body of living souls, to know how he is the rock upon which they are built up and preserved as a Church, we must ask the question: How can an individual man be the foundation of such a corporate body, for this society of Christ's followers; how carry out the functions of a foundation towards this great association of believers in Christ? In other words, how can Peter do for the whole Church of Christ what the foundation does for the house; how can he keep the Church and the faithful who make up the Church in unity, how give stability, how prevent disintegration and falling to pieces?
Brethren, this can be only in one way - by Peter being endowed with Authority; by being Supreme Head and unquestioned Ruler. For, my brethren, a community such as a nation or a society, can be kept together only by some kind of authority; authority varying in kind according to the nature of the society, yet only by authority. States, for instance, are kept together by some form of political rule and authority, so that we say rightly that authority is the foundation of the state. So, if Peter is the foundation of the great kingdom of Christ on earth, the holy Catholic church, he is so by the possession and exercise of authority.
But of what kind is the authority which forms the foundation of a society? As I said just now, that depends upon the nature of the society itself. A political and civil society rests upon civil and political authority. Now it is of the essence of Christ's Church that she is a society in which God's Truth is taught, and right rules of conduct according to God's Law are laid down and effectively insisted upon. If the Church fails in these two things, or in either of them, she fails in her very essence; she ceases to be what God intended; she ceases to do that for which Christ created her. And these two things comprise what we call faith and morals. And the Church would fail altogether if she spoke with uncertain voice in these matters of faith and morals in which it is her divine mission to instruct men. But Christ's Church can not fail in this; because she is built upon rock Peter. "Thou art Peter; on this Rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."
Peter, then, as the Foundation of a special kind of society, the Christian Church, must be endowed with a special kind of authority suited to the nature of the special society, the Church, of which, by the possession of authority, he is the foundation. And that authority if obviously authority in faith and morals, authority in teaching, and authority in spiritual government.
It is on that two-fold authority in Peter that Christ's Church is built; by that she stands, by that she is kept in unity, and in truth, and in sanctity of morals. That foundation in the personal authority of Peter it is which gives her that certainty, that confidence, that consistency, that unchangeableness in teaching, that boldness and magnificent courage in resisting moral evil which are her distinguishing marks, without which she could not carry out her work. Without that authority of Peter, without Peter as her permanent foundation she could have no unity, no agreement in faith and morals; without a firm and permanent foundation that society specially instructed by Jesus Christ for the teaching of truth, the inculcation and effective production of Christian morality and holiness would fail; corruption and disintegration would set in.
But "thou are Peter, and on this Rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." And our Divine Lord Himself has interpreted for us the meaning of these words about Peter as the foundation of the Church; for He goes on, "I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven," that is, by an obvious figure of speech, power, rule and authority; so that "what thou shall bind on earth, it shall be bound also in heaven; and what thou shall loose on earth, it shall be loosed in heaven."
I have mentioned more than once, dear brethren, that Peter must be the permanent foundation of the Church, lasting as long as she lasts, that is, till the end of the world. To say otherwise would be to commit an illogical absurdity, and to render Christ's words meaningless and futile, for the constitution of Christ's Church can not change; and what she was at first, that she is in essence now. From this it follows that Peter must have successors. Peter is gone; the Church remains; and Peter's office, too, must remain. Christ implied this clearly when He said, "I am with you all days, ever to the consummation of the world." Christ's appointments for His Church are permanent.
Thank God, dear brethren, that you are upon that Rock which Christ planted firmly and securely as the foundation of His Church, not tossed about by winds of varying doctrine. Let your lives be worthy of such privileges as are yours, and so live that by your example so the net of the Fisherman may be spread wider and wider to catch many souls for Christ.