The readings have a lot to say about Peter,
and on Friday, the successor of Peter,
Pope Francis, issued a long-awaited document
on questions of family life.
So let’s talk about what Pope Francis said, and did not say.
And let’s see what we can learn about his office as the Bishop of Rome
and the successor of Saint Peter.
But I have to explain a lot of things, so this will take time.
Some might think I’m going into too much detail;
but lots of people really don’t understand these things.
So it’s necessary to spell things out.
Three or so years ago, Pope Francis invited bishops
from around the world to meet with him
to discuss various questions about family life.
They met for several weeks in the fall of 2014 and again in 2015.
In the context of these meetings – and all that surrounded them –
there were people raising very specific questions.
What about people who are divorced and enter into new marriages?
What about people who are living together,
and perhaps have children, but are not married?
What about people who are attracted to the same sex?
And people were asking – including some prominent bishops –
should the Church change her teaching, or her approach,
to all these situations?
And, of course, these questions were what got almost all the attention
during the past two years, especially in the news media,
that don’t really understand what the Catholic Church is,
or what dogma is.
They think it’s all up to the pope – he can do whatever he wants.
And, of course, they are wrong.
One question in particular came up.
What about people who now can’t receive Holy Communion at Mass
because they are living in a situation that contradicts Church teaching?
And very specifically, people who are divorced and have married again.
So let’s ask the question:
why can’t some people receive communion at Mass?
Why shouldn’t everyone come to communion whenever they wish?
The answer is found in what Saint Paul said.
He explained that when we eat and drink
the Body and Blood of the Lord, we must examine ourselves,
to see if we are living as Jesus taught.
If not, we have to repent and turn back to the Lord –
which we do in the sacrament of confession.
And Paul said something we cannot ignore:
“whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily…
eats and drinks judgment on himself.”
What Paul said applies to everyone, regarding all the commandments.
If I am stealing at work, and I go to confession,
if I am not willing to change my ways,
can the priest absolve me of my sins,
when I admit that I’m going to continue stealing?
The answer, of course, is no, he cannot.
And the same is true if someone is violating any other commandment.
We can always be forgiven, if we are willing to repent of the sin;
and that means to turn from it.
Of course, there are special complications
when we’re talking about a second marriage, we all understand that.
Nevertheless, what Jesus said about remarriage,
in Matthew, chapter 19, could not be clearer.
He said absolutely no to it.
Now, there’s a lot more that needs to be said, but time is limited.
So all this is the focus, even as the Holy Father
is trying to give attention to broader questions about the family.
And now he issued a letter – which is lengthy, over 250 pages –
that has a lot of things to say about God’s plan for the family,
for marriage, for children,
and about how important it is for the Church
to help people prepare for marriage and to support them in marriage.
I haven’t had a chance to read the whole thing,
but I’ve been looking through it.
It has beautiful and powerful things to say.
The pope could not be clearer when he reaffirms Church teaching –
Jesus Christ’s own teachings, I might add! –
when it comes to all these issues.
So keep that in mind when you hear various media reports.
Contrary to what you may hear,
the pope has completely reaffirmed
what we believe about marriage being permanent,
and being always open to the gift of life.
And he was completely clear about marriage being a man and a woman,
and he explained why.
Of course, folks who have an agenda will ignore all this.
They want to look for something new.
And they think they found it,
when the pope emphasizes compassion, and understanding,
of accompanying people who aren’t where God wants them to be.
These are good things to say, but they aren’t new.
Pope John Paul said the same, and so have many before him.
You’re going to see that some people are criticizing Pope Francis
for being less clear than he might have been.
They are saying that the pope may have given people some loopholes
to ignore what the Church teaches.
And already, there are “progressive” folks looking those loopholes.
So it may be that the pope, or someone else,
will have to come back and clarify some things.
This is a good time to explain, again,
just what we believe about the pope.
He has many titles, but the one that matters most –
in terms of Scripture – is that he is the successor to Peter.
In the Scriptures, we see how Peter was at his best and at his worst.
In the Book of Acts, he could not be bolder
or more solid in standing up for what is right.
Meanwhile, in the Gospel, we see the uncertain side of Peter.
This episode comes a few days after Jesus’ resurrection.
Peter is fishing again. Is it because he’s hungry;
or is it because – after denying the Lord – he’s going backward in his life?
And then Jesus asks him, three times, “Do you love me?”
In the Greek, the word for love Jesus uses is much stronger
than the word Peter uses in response.
It is as if Jesus said, Peter,
do you love me completely, unreservedly and totally?
And Peter said, I love you in the usual sort of way.
When Jesus asks the third time,
he uses the same word Peter did.
What does this mean?
I think it means this: that Jesus knows Peter’s frailty,
but that won’t stop him, the Lord, from building his Church on Peter.
This pope, any pope, is just as frail and limited as Peter was.
What we believe is not that the pope is a kind of divine oracle,
and every word he speaks will be divine.
In the letter that Pope Francis issued, as good as it is,
even he acknowledged that he was not attempting
to do anything but reiterate the Church’s constant teaching,
and to propose some ways to be more effective in our times.
Is it possible the pope didn’t get it exactly right? Of course it is.
We believe that God will protect the pope from teaching error.
That doesn’t mean we believe God will ensure
that every decision of the pope will be perfect.
The other thing it might be good to remember
is that what has changed the world isn’t Peter by himself,
or any of his successors – whether Sylvester, or Leo, or Gregory,
or Boniface or Clement or Celestine or Adrian or Pius
or John or John Paul or Francis.
It is Christ who acts, Christ who reigns.
That’s what the Book of Revelation was written to convey
to early Christians who faced perils we cannot imagine.
If you are troubled by our times – and they are troubling! –
remember the Book of Revelation.
It was written to reassure Christians in bad times.
Pray for the pope. Listen to the pope.
Read what he said; I certainly shall.
He is calling us to support people and help them
find the purpose of their life in Jesus Christ.
That sounds exactly right to me.