Rorate Caeli

Peter and his Office - Sermon preached on the 11th Sunday after Pentecost - Fr Cipolla

Fr. Richard G. Cipolla
St. Mary's Norwalk

You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18)

Why Peter? Why does Christ make him the rock on which the Church is founded?  Why not John, the disciple whom Jesus loved in a special way and who was chosen from the Cross to take care of Jesus’ mother Mary?  Why Peter?  Peter, who tried to chatter on the mount of the Transfiguration and who did not understand that silence is the only response to the presence of God.  Peter, who faltered walking on water and had to be rescued by Jesus.  

Peter who refused to understand that Jesus had to go to Jerusalem to be mocked, spat upon, and to die on the Cross, Peter  the recipient of Jesus’ harsh words:  “Get thee behind me Satan!”
Peter, whose impetuosity sliced off the soldier’s ear in Gethsemane, Peter who—this is the deep betrayal—denied Jesus three times: “I do not know him.”  Why Peter?  The question may have no obvious answer. For our Lord saw something in Peter that is not obvious to us, and it is to him that those words were spoken: “You are Peter, and on this rock will I build my Church.  And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”.  And then gift of the keys of the kingdom of heaven, binding and loosing.    .

Why even ask the question , why Peter? , even if  there is no definitive answer.  And yet the question should be asked at this particular time in the Church, for much is at stake in the understanding of the Petrine Office today.   The current crisis in the Church has manifold aspects: liturgy, the onslaught of militant secularism, the almost instantaneous transition from modernism to post-modernism, the inability of the Church through theologians to articulate the problem and the solution in terms of the person of Jesus Christ . the collapse of the manhood of the bishops, the function of the papacy in today’s world.   It is the last that somehow encapsulates the problematic situation of the Church in today’s world.  

Yesterday in the Traditional calendar we celebrated the commemoration of Pope Zephyrinus, Pope and martyr.  He was Pope for 11 years in the early third century.  He was a victim of the persecutions under the emperor Severus.   As bishop of Rome he fought several heresies including one that claimed that Christ became God only after the resurrection.  He is numbered among the martyrs, but he was not directly killed by the persecutions.    Did Zephyrinus know that he was Pope in the modern sense?  Most probably not.  He knew he was bishop of Rome and the successor of Peter and that he had an obligation to keep true to the Tradition that had been handed down to him.  And what he knew is the basis of the Petrine Office, the wonderful gift of God to the Church.  He knew that the ministry of the supreme pastor of the Church is to be the guardian of the Tradition of the Church.

Now to talk about the infallibility of the Pope in terms of Zephyrinus is  totally anachronistic.  Zephyrinus was concerned to combat the many early wrong- headed understandings of the person of Christ and to stay alive under the Roman persecutions. His staying alive had little to do with the Bee Gees’ understanding of staying alive.  He wanted to stay alive to fulfill his role as the Bishop of Rome: to pass on the Tradition of the Apostles and to combat opinions and teachings that were contrary to that Tradition that had been handed on to him to keep and secure.  

The history of the papacy is the history of the West.  It is not always a glorious history.  There have been good Popes, there have been glorious Popes and there have been bad Popes, and “bad” as an adjective is not used merely in a moral sense, referring to popes with mistresses and children, to popes who were quite at home on a horse leading a charge against the enemy, the enemy that could be local as well as on a more global scale. The really bad popes forgot who they were in the deepest sense in their primary mission of preserving and handing down the Apostolic Tradition within whatever time of history in which they lived. But they all understood that one of the primary bearers of the Tradition was the Roman Mass, whose roots may go back to the Apostolic  Church itself. They understood the Roman Mass as the liturgical source and summit of the act of passing on the Tradition entrusted to them in terms of the heart of the matter: the Sacrifice of the Cross.  Alexander VI, probably never to be sainted, understood that when he was at the foot of the altar that he was the priest , whose function was to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as it had been handed down to him.  It never occurred to him that he had any authority to change or alter this living icon of the Tradition of the Church in its liturgical manifestation.

Is it an accident that the momentous development of the doctrine of the papacy occurred in the nineteenth century with the declaration of the Infallibility of the Pope in matters of faith and morality?  It is no accident that this development of the understanding of the Petrine Office was defined towards the end of the confluence of the Enlightenment and the great period of Romanticism that encouraged revolutionary fervor.  Against the prevailing notion of truth as individualistic and relative and man-centered, the promulgation of the doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope at the First Vatican Council was the Church’s No to the deeply flawed understanding of the nature of things  that was the mark of the mid and late nineteenth century.  The quirky Anglican church historian, Charles Williams, said that with the proclamation of the dogma of infallibility at the First Vatican Council  the Church regained her manhood.  Chew on that phrase. “HER manhood”, for a while.  

And yet it was men like Blessed John Henry Newman, who opposed the definition of infallibility. He did not oppose it on personal grounds, because he believed in the doctrine as a valid development of dogma.  But he feared that defining this doctrine would lead to terrible excesses in understanding of and the practice of the Petrine Office, the gift of God to the Church.  And he was right.  The definition of Infallibility of the Pope at Vatican I was in a real way a minimalist definition that disappointed many of the Ultramontanists of that time. It was clear that the Pope could define a dogma as infallible only on the basis of what the Church has always believed, however nascent that belief was.  It is clear in Vatican I that the Pope has no power to define infallibly anything that the Church has not always believed and the Pope has no power to define any doctrine that is not consonant with the teaching of the Church for the past two thousand years.   Development of doctrine-- YES.  Innovation that is not consonant with the Tradition--  NO.

I doubt if Newman could have forseen the development of the papacy into a global phenomenon that, fed by the omnipresent instantenaity of the multi media, has turned an office in the Church into part of the incessantly available informational culture in which we live.  A hundred years ago many Catholics did not know who the Pope reigning at that time was.  They knew he existed, that he lived in Rome, and was doing his job to protect the truth of the Catholic Tradition.  Today everyone knows who the Pope is and every word he speaks, be it in his daily homilies at Santa Marta , or on airplanes with the press (most of whom have no understanding of the Christian faith and the Catholic Church) or in tweets, or in some other medium. The instantly recognizable Pope has made people forget the fragile humanity of the first Pope.  Peter’s non-understanding and lack of fidelity was overcome only by the sheer grace of God.  Peter can never be idolized or made a rock star.

But that is not the greatest problem we face on this Sunday. What we  face is the destruction of Catholic Tradition by those entrusted with the passing on of this Tradition.  Passing on the Catholic Tradition is not a mindless exercise in keeping things as they are. Nor is it a matter of doctrinal bookkeeping. Nor is it driven by a fear of the world as it is today. It is a matter of love. Passing on the Tradition, the teaching of the Church, based solely on the teaching of Jesus Christ, is the job of every Catholic, but most acutely it is the job of every deacon, priest and bishop and above all the Pope.  The nonsense that we hear spouted at the highest levels of the Church about mercy trouncing all of the moral teaching of the Church, is evidence of the deep failure and the lack of courage to be faithful to the clear and difficult teaching of Jesus Christ himself.  

And yes, this sermon will conclude with a reference to the Mass we are celebrating here today.  The gainsayers will write it off with a movement of the hand, signifying the reductionism of everything by the pastor to the Traditional Mass.  This is how Father ends all of his sermons.  I wish that were true at a personal level.   But it is not.  Because the most powerful antidote to the dangerous and futile nonsense that goes on in the Church today is the proper celebration of this Mass.  What we do here together today vibrates in eternity. It is much more important than an eclipse of the sun.  What we do here together, priest and people, is to make present the whole Tradition of the Church in the only acceptable worship of God within the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the essence of who God is: infinite love.