In today’s Gospel the Apostles face a choice:
Play it safe; or a put everything on the line.
First the Lord asks an easy question:
“What are folks saying about me?”
And they all have something to say.
Then, Jesus puts them on the spot: “And who do you say that I am?”
Now 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,
Letting you step up alone—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 stepping up is to do,
Do you know what feels worse?
The shameful regret that comes from knowing
what you should have done or said,
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. We know his story.
He had a business, a family; he had a lot to lose.
Now let me give you two bits of history.
This Gospel scene happened in Caesarea Philippi.
You can visit the runs; and if you do,
you will see two things that surely Peter saw:
First, a huge hill of rock.
And at the base of that hill were pagan temples.
The city was a monument to the emperor of Rome.
This is where our Lord said, “upon this Rock”:
meaning Peter and his profession of faith.
Now, move forward 30-35 years,
and a persecution is underway in Rome.
Peter was arrested and crucified in Nero’s circus.
After his death, his disciples moved quickly
to gather his body so the soldiers didn’t throw it in the Tiber.
They took his body to a nearby cemetery,
marking the grave with a red stone.
At some point, someone wrote, in Greek, Petros eni,
which means, “Peter is within.”
Around the year 320, the Emperor Constantine built a church there.
The current basilica replaced it around the year 1600.
Now, fast-forward to the 1950s;
it had been centuries since anyone had seen Peter's tomb;
as a result, many claimed it wasn't really there, it was just a legend.
Some workers were digging underneath the basilica,
when they struck something.
Someone ran upstairs and told the Holy Father.
Down came Pope Pius XII, and there was the red stone;
there was the Greek words, Petros ini!
If you go there today, you can visit the tomb;
you can see the bones of Peter with your own eyes.
Walk a few steps to a chapel, look up through a grate,
and see, written in huge letters that are four feet high,
in Latin and Greek, the words we heard today:
“Upon this Rock I will build my Church”!
The Church is literally built on Peter.
Now we believe Christ protects the Church,
in a supernatural way, from teaching error.
This is what we call “infallibility.”
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.
To say the Church and the pope are “infallible”
has to be understood correctly.
It doesn’t mean he’s a know-it-all, even about our Faith.
If you asked Pope Francis a question about God,
about the angels, about heaven and hell—
it’s quite possible he would say back, “I don’t know.”
Yet he’s still infallible.
But what it means is that on those special occasions
when the pope needs to give teaching about God,
about right and wrong, then God will act to prevent 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, the most anyone can “prove”
is what we already knew:
that Christ built his Church not from angels,
but from sinful people.
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.
The really amazing thing is how often
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 was ignored.
You’ve heard the charge that the Church
didn’t do much to oppose Nazism. Again, that is a lie.
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 else besides 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
Was a grave moral evil that would be destructive in many ways.
When immorality and abortion spread—as Pope Paul foresaw—
The Church has stood almost entirely alone on this one:
and now, she is being proven 100% right.
So the Church continues to be that lonely prophet:
Whether against research that destroys tiny, unborn children;
Against the death penalty; against war and torture;
Or now on the great experiment of redefining marriage and family.
It’s hard to stand up against the crowd.
How alone Peter might have felt, standing in the center of pagan Rome,
with everyone jeering, “what a fool!”
Yet where is Nero? Where is mighty Rome?
Gone; plundered; turned to dust.
And if we find it hard to accept the teachings of the Church, remember:
everyone likes a prophet when he tells us we’re right;
And we can’t stand a prophet who tells us we’re wrong.
But isn’t that exactly what we need a prophet for?