keys to the kingdom

Today, February 22, is the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter.

I’ve been to Rome many times. When you enter St. Peter’s Basilica, you can’t miss the famous “Chair of St. Peter” hanging on the far wall. The relic appears miraculously suspended in mid-air, floating among Bernini’s golden clouds and cherubs. As with many relics, the authenticity of the chair may be questioned, but the belief in the central role of Peter and his papal descendants is on clear display.

chair of st peter

Today’s gospel reading tells the story of Jesus asking Peter, “Who do YOU say I am?”

Peter replies with, “You are the Messiah. The Son of the Living God.”

Jesus rewards Peter with what seems to be an over-the-top gift.

“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.” (see Matthew 16)

Wow! I was lucky to get a holy card from Sister Francis for giving the right answer in catechism class. The keys to heaven is some powerful reward!

Reminders of Jesus’s gifting of the keys to Peter are all over Rome. The keys are central to the papal insignia shown below. The keys, gold and silver, represent the power to loose and bind. They are part of the Vatican flag, and are included in each pope’s individual coat of arms.papal keys

 

In all honesty, I struggle with this gospel reading and its interpretation over the years. The power of the keys gave popes and bishops the rationale to claim ever increasing power throughout church history. Imagine having an unscrupulous leader who was granted this kind of divine right. What could possibly go wrong?

The keys have been used as tools of intimidation, bludgeoning the faithful into submission while emptying their pockets to fill church coffers. Who wouldn’t be intimidated by richly dressed, powerful men who claimed to be judge and jury over all things earthly and divine, threatening you with eternal hell-fire and brimstone?

Peter, himself, was a sinner. Sure, he had one shining  moment of inspiration. One right answer. The gospels also show him as a doubter. A denier. A cowardly man who ran from the cross with the other disciples, fearing for his life. How many times have we heard that this is what made Peter so special? Jesus didn’t choose him because he was perfect. Jesus chose him despite his sins and imperfections.

But, why would Jesus give God-like power to one man? Was absolute power his intention? Was it his intention that this absolute power would be passed down an unbroken line of popes through the centuries, claiming unarguable validity from a couple of scripture lines? Surely, Jesus knew enough about human nature to realize that this was a recipe for disaster?

Miraculously, the church has survived centuries of popes, both sinners and saints…and there were some humdinger sinners! By the 1960’s, Vatican II focused on the collegial nature of papal power. The pope rules in union with his bishops, guided also by the sensus fidei, the sense of the faithful. You and me. The church is the Body of Christ, composed of all the people of God with Jesus as its head. WE are the church.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t need leaders. We do. We need popes, bishops, priests, religious and lay people who embrace servant leadership, not autocratic, absolutist power. We need this in our church. We need it in our world.

We need true servant leaders.

From the moment he was elected, Pope Francis showed the world that he was a different kind of pope, determined to reform church leadership from the Vatican to the parish level. He never tires of preaching about humility, faith of the heart, integrity and sincerity in word and deed.

On this feast day,  I pray that Pope Francis will lead us with his service and example for many years to come.

 

 

 

another modern day papal saint….really???

I’ve already shared my thoughts about papal canonizations, especially the increasing desire to crown all recent popes with saintly honours. At the moment of their election, popes automatically become the most prominent and visible Catholic in the world. They are each greatly loved by some, and not so loved by others. When they die, they are memorialized in grand monuments and remembered in history books. Is it really necessary to beatify and canonize them also?

Politics have played too great a role behind these papal canonizations, as ideological groups in the church vie to have their heroes named as official saints. Now, Pope Paul VI is to be beatified by Pope Francis. The timing and location of the beatification has undeniable political overtones. Paul VI, the author of Humane Vitae, is to be beatified at the close of the Synod for the Family in October. Here is an excerpt from my latest Prairie Messenger column,

Pope Paul VI courageously oversaw the completion of the Second Vatican Council, which was no easy task. But, he is perhaps best known for the damning condemnation of all artificial means of birth control in his encyclical Humanae Vitae. The greater truth of the dignity and beauty of human sexuality that was meant to be the core of his teaching was overshadowed by the loud “thou shalt not” that was heard around the world. Women and men of faith were forced to choose between unbending moral teachings and the practical realities of life. Understanding priests tried to lessen fears of eternal damnation by counselling the right use of conscience. Eventually, most Catholics simply ignored the teaching.

Scheduling the beatification of Pope Paul VI at the conclusion of the Synod of Bishops on the Family, whether intended or not, can be interpreted as once again closing the door on much-needed dialogue around the question of ethical and responsible reproduction. It also shifts the intended focus from families back to the hierarchical leadership. Paul VI was the pope who founded and promoted the modern Synod of Bishops, but the bishops are meant to meet not for their own sake and promotion, but for the service of the greater church. It seems rather disingenuous to speak of the importance of the family, only to cap off the synod with another papal beatification….read more

pope francis teaches servant leadership by example

Francis 4

“just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve…” Matthew 20:28

Pope Francis has spoken out against careerism in the church. He is a living example to priests and bishops about the call to serve, not to be served. The world’s media is enthusiastically sharing images of Francis carrying his own case into the plane, or opening his own car door. And, the door is attached to a simple Ford Focus. These aren’t big gestures, but they are having a big impact.

While in Rio de Janeiro for the World Youth Day, the National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen produced two interesting interviews; one with Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia and the other with Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. Both bishops are known as head-line making (and head-line seeking) culture warriors in the American church. Some view them as classic examples of clerical careerists.

When asked why there were only 40 pilgrims from his diocese attending WYD, Archbishop Chaput responded that, “There was fear that it would pose a risk to people’s health and well-being by coming to Rio de Janeiro.” He admitted that “a number of dioceses in Pennsylvania actively discouraged their young people from coming and didn’t sponsor diocesan pilgrimages on purpose.”

Contrast his fearful attitude to that of the pope who visited one of the poorest slums, or favelas, of Rio called Varginha. According to John Allen,

In his native Argentina, Francis is already known as the “pope of the villas,” the Argentine equivalent of the Brazilian favelas. Both substantively and symbolically, Francis on Thursday made himself the apostle of slum-dwellers everywhere.

Francis is a bishop who never tires of telling his priests that they must be where the people are…to take on the “smell of the sheep”.

Chaput also made a puzzling comment about the right wing of the church that, “generally have not been really happy about his election, from what I’ve been able to read and to understand. He’ll have to care for them, too, so it will be interesting to see how all this works out in the long run.” Really??? Astute commentators on the discussion boards voiced the obvious. Previous popes didn’t seem too concerned about appeasing the left wing of the church. The desire for a smaller and purer church was pushing away more Catholics than it was welcoming.

The Archbishop also believes that the most enthusiastic support for the new pope comes not from committed Catholics who are “ordinarily impressed with the pope”, but from non-Catholics and those who have been alienated from the church. He seems to believe that it is a shallow admiration rooted in a hope that Francis will be less doctrinal than John Paul II or Benedict XVI. What Chaput seems to miss is that the new pope is modeling the brilliant simplicity of the new evangelization; reaching out to all with the gospel challenge of faith, love and justice.

An enormous amount of time and energy goes into writing, translating and publishing papal encyclicals, exhortations and letters. I doubt that any of these theologically dense – and too often painfully lengthy – documents are moving as many hearts as Francis’s daily pontifical sound-bites and images. In our fast-paced, attention deficient world, his simple lessons are not only being listened to. They are being absorbed.

In the Cardinal Dolan interview, John Allen asked if Pope Francis was having a personal impact on him. Here is Dolan’s reponse,

I find myself examining my own conscience … on style, on simplicity, on lots of things.

For instance, I saw the pope open his own car door, close his own door, and carry his own carry-on bag. That says something to me. I used to do those things for myself, and it’s not that I think I’m above it now, but it’s just that as archbishop of New York people are doing it for me all the time. That’s a very down-to-earth example, but I’m beginning to say that I need to watch this guy closely because he’s a good example for me.

I also find myself thinking about living arrangements, because that’s a pretty nice house I’m living in. In some ways it’s not clear what I could do about it, because it’s the historic, traditional residence of the archbishops of New York, and it’s not like we can sell it. [Note: The residence is attached to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.]

In general, I find myself thinking about some of the perks, the cushiness, we associate with being a bishop. He’s pushing me to ask whether they’re necessary, and if they might actually be counterproductive.

No, we don’t all associate cushiness with the episcopacy. But, at least the Cardinal is being honest. And, he seems to get it. There is a new CEO in town, and the executives have to seriously consider re-working their play-books.

Pope Francis is slowly nudging the church onto a new path where the last become first; where the humble will be exalted, and the exalted humbled. If this is the case, there are many priests and bishops who will be quietly selling their black luxury vehicles and perhaps seeking newer, simpler digs.