O God, Who cause the mind of the faithful to unite in a single purpose, grant Your people to love what You command that, amid the uncertainties of this world, our hearts may be fixed on that place where true gladness is found... Collect for the 21st Sunday
First Reading: Isaiah 22:19-23 Responsorial: Psalm 138:1-2, 2-3, 6, 8 Second Reading: Romans 11:33-36 Gospel Passage: Matthew 16:13-20
The Keys by Msgr. Richard Henning
The person and role of the Holy Father is one of the distinctive characteristics of the Catholic Church. This worldwide body of diverse local churches and different rites is held in communion by shared submission to the authority of the Pope and fidelity to the teachings of the Apostles.
In addition to being distinctive, this aspect of Catholic faith is also controversial. There are those who reject the authority of the Pope and instead claim to rely upon the authority of Scripture alone. Others see the authority of the Holy Father as a mere human assertion of control that should be subject to popular opinion or correction by cultural and political elites.
In fact, the authority of the Holy Father in the life of the Church is deeply scriptural and does not rest upon human claims, but rather upon fidelity to the will of God.
The readings for this Sunday touch upon the nature of this authority in the link that they establish between an Old Testament model and a New Testament scene. The passage from Isaiah concerns the replacement of the royal official Shebna by Eliakim. Shebna’s offense is not precisely clear. It may be that he advocated a pro-Assyrian policy at court. In any case, he is now being punished by the Lord and threatened with exile. In his place the Lord raises up Eliakim. The verses may describe the symbols and ceremony of investiture: a sash, a robe, and a key. We should notice here that the passage gives little indication of Eliakim’s qualities. The emphasis is on God’s action and authority to dismiss and to appoint. The implied quality required in the office holder is faithfulness to God’s will.
The detail of the key and associated authority in the kingdom links this reading with the Gospel passage from Matthew. There, Jesus asks his disciples about his identity and Peter responds with a confession of faith. After Peter correctly identifies Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” Jesus invests Peter with a special role in the Church that he has already begun to establish.
The image of Peter as rock is a probably a pun on the name given to Peter by Jesus earlier in the narrative. Nevertheless, it is a fitting image for this role of leadership. The image of the keys hearkens back to the passage from Isaiah and the appointment of Eliakim. However in this case, the authority conferred is not merely in the earthly court of David, but the Kingdom of God. As was the case with Eliakim, Peter’s qualifications are less important than the will of Jesus who chooses Peter for the role. Peter will falter later in the narrative, but the Lord’s charge will remain valid.
It may be tempting for Catholics to point to this moment in the Gospel of Matthew as scriptural “proof” for the place of the Holy Father. It certainly is evidence, but the proof is broader and deeper. The office of Supreme Pontiff emerged from the Church’s reflection upon the whole of scripture. There, we find many examples of human persons chosen by God for a prophetic leadership role. Abraham, Moses, the many prophets, Kings like David and Solomon, and great heroes like Joseph and Joshua were all flawed human beings chosen by God and charged by the Lord with authority over the people. Their authority did not rest on their particular abilities, but upon the grace of God. Likewise, Peter, a man who demonstrated both passionate fidelity to Jesus and the failure of denial, received the power of the keys by grace rather than resume.
The fact that Peter, and all the Popes who follow him are merely human is precisely the point. The successors to Peter are chosen by “lot” in order to make it clear that the Lord’s will and grace are at work. The greatest Popes have always been those who give themselves over to in faithfulness and trust to the Lord Jesus. When Catholics submit to the authority of the Holy Father, they are engaged in this same deeply scriptural exercise of fidelity to the Lord’s will.
Fidelity to the Lord’s will, even when that will may appear mysterious or confounding, is the major drive of scripture itself. St. Paul captures this truth in the brief passage from Romans. As Paul struggles to understand the rejection of the Messiah by some of his own Jewish people, he acknowledges the mystery - more importantly, this faithful son of Israel gives glory to God.
Pope Francis continues this remarkable ministry, giving witness to the Christ and unlocking the liberating power of God’s grace with the very “keys” given to Peter so long ago. Thanks be to God for this gift of Peter, our Rock.