Bishop Anthony B. Taylor delivered this homily June 29.
In today’s Gospel we have Jesus’ famous declaration of his intention to found his Church on Peter, the first pope, and to give Peter and his successors authority to govern the Church: “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
We Catholics take the pope’s “power of the keys” so seriously that we represent it on the Vatican flag. A gold key for binding and loosing in heaven and a silver key for binding and loosing on earth. But there are two other things in this passage to which I would like to draw your attention today:
When Christians who do not accept the pope interpret this passage, they often try to downplay its obvious reference to the person of Peter — obvious because Jesus even goes out of his way to change his name from Simon to Peter (which means “rock”) in order to emphasize that Peter is the rock to which he is referring. They try to avoid this by saying that the Church is founded on the belief that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” and that faith in Jesus is the rock on which Jesus is founding his Church. And of course this is true too.
This is a both-and situation, not an either-or situation. It is because of this faith that Jesus chooses Peter and his successors in office to govern the Church and it is because of this faith that Peter and Paul — whom we also celebrate today — gave their lives for Christ.
The “gates of the netherworld” shall not prevail against the Church, but the Church has always been under constant attack by the forces of evil. In our first reading James was martyred and Peter imprisoned, but evil did not prevail. James’ death served God’s purposes — it gave glory to God and led others to faith.
By contrast, Peter’s remaining alive also served God’s purposes — so he sent an angel to rescue Peter miraculously, allowing Peter to continue to proclaim the Good News courageously despite murderous opposition. In our second reading St. Paul rejoices in how he too has been “rescued from the lion’s mouth” and he expresses his confidence for the future, writing: “The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat and will bring me safe to his heavenly kingdom.” The gates of the netherworld shall not prevail.
All of this remains true today. Is our belief in “Christ, the Son of the living God” merely a matter of pious words with no real impact on how we live our lives? If we truly make doing God’s will our no. 1 priority, it will have a decisive impact on every decision we make, and the forces of evil will not like it. That includes temptations from within — Satan fights harder when he starts losing ground — and opposition from without.
Peter and Paul were not persecuted for nothing. They were opposed by those who had a vested interest in maintaining and promoting an evil status quo contrary to God’s plan for the world. And the same is true today. I could give you a long list of points of conflict between Church teaching and our increasingly secular society: pro-life issues, social justice issues, attacks in the media and now same-sex marriage.
Which is why my second point is so important: “the gates of the netherworld” shall not prevail against us. Isn’t our 2,000-year history, which no Church not founded on Peter can claim, proof of that? We’ve faced hard times over and over again: Corruption from within and persecution from without, but “Christ, the Son of the living God” prevails.
And I can attest from personal experience that there is no way of life more exciting — and challenging — than a life lived serving him in the Church which he founds today on the rock of Peter and the rock of Peter’s faith.
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