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.




blessed john paul II – the day after

I watched the moment of beatification of John Paul II live on CNN. It was about 3:30 am our time. The commentators repeated the ongoing controversies surrounding his fast-track to sainthood in the midst of the sexual abuse scandal. Meanwhile, the cameras showed waves of supporters flying flags and ecstatically welcoming the present pontiff, Benedict XVI, as he circled St. Peter`s square in the pope-mobile. It was reminiscent of the Royal wedding just days before. The cheering crowds on the TV screens seemed to make a mockery of the negative media coverage.

Of course, only die-hard Royal or Papal fans would brave the inconvenience of long lines and claustrophobic crowds to be physically present at either event. And much money was spent at each for effective security measures. Both the wedding and the beatification were blessed with sunny skies despite dire forecasts. Both were beautiful, photogenic moments for the history books.

As the tapestry was unveiled at the moment of beatification, I had an unexpected emotional moment. The portrait chosen was of JPII in the early years of his papacy. This was the strong, athletic Pole who had survived World War II and helped to bring down the iron curtain in Eastern Europe. This was the younger Pope who had inspired so many on his energetic travels around the world. These were exciting years of hopeful renewal, of reminders to `be not afraid` because our faith will help to conquer all the evils of the world.

We need hope in our church and world today. And, we all need our heroes. As we change with the growing years, our heroes may change with us. When the halos of our heroes are tarnished, we yearn for the nostalgia and passion of earlier times. And because we are a diverse people, we will never share the same depth of affection or acceptance of the heroes that the Church offers to us. We should accept this without undue or harsh judgment of each other.

Yesterday was a moment of great celebration for many in our church, and indeed in our world. We need celebrations to lighten the heart and energize the spirit. But all parties end. The true test of a celebration comes in the morning after.

good pope john

You can tell a Catholic`s political stripes by the popes they admire. Pius X is the hero of the traditionalists. John XXIII is the standard bearer for liberals.

I was born in the same month and year that John XXIII announced the convocation of the Second Vatican Council. In 1967, my family moved and joined a parish that bore his name. At the time, we gathered in a school gym for mass while the church was being constructed. The church was built and owned in partnership with an Anglican congregation. At the time I didn`t realize the significance of this ecumenical venture. We attended the laying of the cornerstone which read `That they may be one`. The parish is now Blessed John XXIII.

For me, a visit to St. Peter`s Basilica always includes a moment with the man who announced to the world that it was time to open wide the windows of the Church, so that the Holy Spirit could blow freely. After the beatification of John XXIII in 2000, his incorrupt body was transferred to the main level of St. Peter`s under the altar of St. Jerome. He lies peacefully in a glass coffin, looking much smaller than the jolly, round fellow portrayed in photographs. The few pews in front of the altar are always full, and there is a steady stream of pilgrims filing past to get a closer look.

The vision of Vatican II continues to be challenged. To some, those opened windows were a grace of God. To others, they were an experiment gone bad. In the presence of the body of the man who started it all, a prayer is raised….that they may be one.