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.




synod for the archdiocese of winnipeg

The Archdiocese of Winnipeg is embarking on a synod journey. Archbishop Richard Gagnon made the formal announcement in a letter read from all pulpits and available online.

Pope Francis has called for a more synodal church,

“a listening church, aware that listening is more than hearing. It is a reciprocal listening in which each one has something to learn.”

Synodality, according to Francis, is

“walking together — laity, pastors, the bishop of Rome.” It is “an easy concept to express in words, but is not so easy to put into practice.”

synods a step towards a more inclusive church

For those of us who yearn for more inclusive leadership in our church, synods could offer a concrete strategy for allowing all voices to be heard. The recent Synods on the Family made an attempt to open the dialogue to the greater church, albeit a clumsy attempt at times. Surveys were sent, but difficulties were understandable considering the work required to accommodate the sheer numbers, languages and cultures inherent in the world wide church.

Local synods can provide the necessary foundation for future world synods. When  dialogue is organically present in local churches, bishops will be better equipped  to represent those they serve at national and international meetings and synods

Diocesan synods can also provide a concrete response to the lack of personal involvement in our church today.  Much needed personal investment in the future of our church, not just obligatory attendance, can be achieved when those in the grass roots participate actively in ideas and decision making.

But, true and active participation must come with a sense of empowerment and this is often missing in the official language and tone of the church concerning the role of lay persons in councils and synods.

role of laity – consultants or active participants?

Canon law, which is clearly referenced in the Archbishop’s letter, stresses the consultative-only role of lay women and men. The bishop, in his “ministry of governance of the local church”, calls the synod, oversees the synod, and decides the eventual outcome of the synod.

This is the first diocesan synod in Winnipeg, and a learning curve is inevitable. On the other hand, parish or pastoral councils have been around for decades and can offer some valuable lessons.

Parish or pastoral councils, according to Canon Law, are also consultative bodies. But, the line between consultation only and effective, collaborative decision making can move drastically depending on the priest.

Some priests know that the parish community is not there to serve them. These priests seek to build community together with the people they are called to serve. Dialogue and collaborative decision making ensure that leadership is shared.

Other priests are quick to remind the faithful that the priest is in charge.  Parish councils, in these circumstances, often consist of a core group of parish faithful who are more than willing to rubber stamp anything that Father requests. In some cases, pastors have even disbanded parish councils. A consultative body, after all, exists only at the pleasure of the those in charge.

If we are to be truly “walking together” in the synodal process, than it is time to let go of our hierarchical thinking. It is time for women and men to be given an active role in the governance of the church, not merely as consultants. A diocesan synod can do this, despite Canon law directives, if it is truly inclusive, listens deeply, ponders prayerfully, and responds effectively to the dialogues that will take place.

who will participate?

Which brings us to the question of who will participate in this diocesan synod. The first step of the synod will be to encourage as broad a dialogue as possible on the local level. The onus will be on us all to attend and actively participate in any discussions that take place close to home.

The next stage will be the formal synod process. Who will participate in this stage? Will there be a diversity of voices, representing not only the many interests in our church but also those on the fringes? What will be the balance between ordained and lay among the synod members? Will lay women and men be given the right to vote on any decisions made, or will they have only observer status as in the Synods in Rome?

The simple call for a synod brings hope for a more inclusive church, a hope for greater dialogue. Yes, it is easy to express in words, but much harder to put into practice. But, the first step has been taken. And, this is a good thing.

Next post…..diocesan unity or uniformity?


pondering a more centralized church


Pope Francis is promoting a more centralized church. In my latest PM article, I ponder the good and the bad of giving bishops more power.

A decentralized church is not always a good thing. What if your local church is ruled by iron-handed episcopal edicts, focused on creating a purer church? What if your bishop spends more time delivering judgmental diatribes than compassionate messages of gospel love and hope? Would you want your bishop to have even more decision-making power in your diocese?

Read more here, at the Prairie Messenger.