Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Church, the lonely prophet (Sunday homily)

In today’s Gospel the Apostles face a choice:
Play it safe; or a make a commitment
that changes everything.

When the Lord asks an easy question:
“What are folks saying about me?”
They all offer the safe answer: “a prophet.”

Then, Jesus puts them on the spot:
“And who do you say that I am?”

They all fall silent. Waiting for someone else to answer.
Simon steps out alone:
“You are the Anointed One: the Son of the Living God.”

Even early in life—when we’re kids in school—
we face the choice of melting into the crowd,
or standing up and standing out, for what is right.

It’s not fair that others hang back,
waiting for us—but that’s life.
That gnawing in your stomach? That’s normal.
That voice that tells you to speak up?
That’s your conscience.

And however hard it is to do,
what feels even worse is the regret
that comes from knowing what you should have done,
but didn’t find the nerve to do.
Simon commits himself.
That’s when Jesus says: “You are Peter—you are Rock—
And upon this Rock I will build my Church.”
Jesus makes a promise here:
The Rock will stand, the Church will stand; and she has.

Peter was not super-human. Remember his story.
He was a fisherman; he was part of a small business
with his brother Andrew, as well as James and John,
who all joined him in following Jesus.

Peter had a wife and likely had children.
So, like a lot of us, he had a lot to lose.

One of the things this brings up
is what this passage tells us about the Church.

We believe that Christ has promised
the Church would stand firm till the end.
We believe Christ protects the Church,
in a supernatural way, from teaching error.
When we talk about the pope,
or a council of the whole church,
being “infallible,” this is what we mean.

The first reading helps us understand why.
God’s People were in trouble;
God empowers a new leader,
to be a “peg in a sure spot”; a father to Jerusalem.
The pope is our “holy father,”
But not for his sake; for our sake.

To say the Church, the pope, are “infallible”
has to be understood correctly.
It doesn’t mean he knows who will win the World Series.

It doesn’t even mean he knows the answer to every question
about God, or Jesus, someone could ask.

But it does mean this:
on those special occasions when the Church as a whole,
or the pope acting for the Church,
gives formal teaching about God, about right and wrong,
then God acts to prevent the Church, or the pope,
from including error in that teaching.

Now, if you want, you will find popes
whose lives were far from admirable.
And you don’t have to look long for a story
that claims the Church messed up on this or that matter.

First, I’d say, don’t believe all you hear.
The facts are often otherwise.
But ultimately, all anyone ends up “proving”
is what we already knew:
that Christ built his Church not from angels,
but from sinful people.

As important as the popes are as leaders,
Christ has kept his promise through more than popes.

We’ve had bold popes; but sometimes they need help:
Here comes St. Catherine of Siena!
Here comes a Little Flower, a St. Francis, a St. Benedict;
Jesus has kept his promise!

Again, it’s not surprising that too often,
too many in the Church—including ordinary folks like us—
were willing to melt into the crowd,
rather than speak up and be alone.

But what we ought to notice is how often,
how constantly, the Church has done what Peter did:
speak up, even when all alone.

You may have heard the claim
that the Church approved of slavery. That’s false.
What’s true is that the Church was often alone
in condemning it; and wasn’t listened to.

You’ve heard the charge that the Church
didn’t do much to oppose Nazism. Again, that is false.

What’s true is that the Church
condemned anti-semitism and fascism.
No less than the New York Times called Pope Pius XII
“a lonely voice” in the darkness.
The Church took great risks in hiding Jews
and others from the Holocaust,
and saved more than anyone other than the Allied armies.

That has often been our role; to be the lonely voice,
the prophet who speaks up to defending human dignity—
and when we do, we are attacked as opposing “progress.”

Pope Paul VI was very alone when he said contraception
wasn’t going to work out very well for society.
When abortion spread—as Pope Paul foresaw—
The Church was often alone in opposing that.

Lately, we are told that research
that destroys tiny, unborn children is justified,
once again, as necessary for “human progress”!

Nevermind that it’s not true.
Research that does not take life
is actually working better.

Everybody likes a prophet we agree with;
We can’t stand a prophet who says we’re wrong.
But that’s exactly when we need the prophet, isn’t it?

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