3rd Sunday of Lent 2013

March 3, 2013
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church, Springfield, Va.

The saying goes: “All roads lead to Rome.”
It’s been interesting to see this come to life in the last few weeks,
as the whole world seems to have been drawn to the events
transpiring in Rome, as Pope Benedict retired
and Church began its preparations to elect the new pope.
It reminds me of today’s first reading, as Moses sees the burning bush and says:
“I must go over to look at this remarkable sight,
and see why the bush is not burned.”

In a certain way we welcome this world-wide media attention.
After all, Christ did command us to,
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…”
What better way to teach all nations and bring them to the Church
than to have them come to Rome via the media,
and to focus on the faith of the Church.
Even if it is initially just out of curiosity, like Moses, to,
“look at this remarkable sight.”
Because like Moses, if they come
they may see much more than they bargained for
—the divine fire of Christ and His Holy Spirit
that does not destroy but enlightens the world.

In the Christian Tradition Moses is seen as a precursor or foreshadowing of Christ.
Moses comes to free the Israelites from Egyptian slavery
and offers the Passover or Paschal sacrifice of the Old Covenant;
Jesus comes to free all mankind from the slavery of sin.
and offers the new Paschal sacrifice of the New Covenant—the Cross.
We can go on and on.
But let’s just add one more: both Moses and Jesus are shepherds:
Christ is the “Good Shepherd,”
and as today’s first reading begins:
“Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro.”

And just as Moses is prefigurement of Jesus,
St. Peter, and his successors in the papacy—the Popes—
are a “post-figurement,” if you will, of Christ:
they stand in the world today representing him,
unique in authority as leaders of God’s holy people.
So we see Christ make Peter the chief shepherd of His flock,
commanding him: “Feed my lambs…tend my sheep….feed my sheep.”

And yet, Peter is much more than Moses.
In the words of Jesus:
“I tell you, you are Peter [Rock],
and on this rock I will build my church,
and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven,
and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven,
and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Now, Christ is ultimately and intimately in charge of His Church.
Peter merely tends Christ’s sheep.
So that when a pope dies or resigns,
we still have our True Shepherd and Spiritual Rock,
Christ, who never leaves his sheep untended,
and is, “with [us] always, even until the end of time.”

But even so, it is the will of Christ that there be one shepherd on earth
to lead One Catholic Church on earth in His name.
And so today, the world fixes its gaze on the Vatican waiting for a new pope,
and, as ever, all roads lead to Rome.

That saying, by the way, goes back to the ancient Roman Empire,
expressing the idea that Rome was the center of the world,
which was vividly seen in the vast Roman system of roads,
many built specifically to get to and from Rome.

2000 years ago St. Peter came to Rome,
perhaps on one of these ancient Roads.
Legend tells us that he at least left Rome on one of those roads,
the Via Appia, the Appian Way.

Roughly 33 years after the death of Christ, around the year 66 AD,
a fire broke out in Rome and raged through city.
To deflect the blame from himself the Emperor Nero accused
the strange new religious cult—the “Christians”—of starting the fire
and began to arrest and execute their leaders.
As the legend goes, and I believe the legend,
somehow St. Peter managed to escape from Rome into the countryside. But as he fled down the Appian Way he suddenly looked up and found himself
face to face with the Lord Jesus walking in the other direction
—toward Rome.
Peter froze in his steps and asked,
“Quo vadis, Domine?”—“Where are you going, Lord?”
And Jesus responded:
“Eo Romam iterum crucifigi”—“I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” So Peter turned around and went back to Rome,
where he was crucified by Nero on Vatican Hill.

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It’s interesting: today if you leave Rome on the Appian Way,
and continue for about 12 miles past the Church
that marks the spot of Peter’s encounter with Christ,
you come to a little lakeside town named Castel Gandolfo.
This last Thursday to signify his retirement
Pope Benedict left Rome and made this trip down the Appian Way
—albeit in a helicopter—to Castel Gandolfo.

Some say, in doing this he’s running away from his responsibilities as pope
—like St. Peter tried to do.
But the reality is quite different.

8 years ago, when he was 78 year old “Cardinal Ratzinger,
he wanted to retire and leave Rome.
But Jesus wanted him to stay, and made him Pope.
For 8 years he’s suffered on the cross of Peter.
And even now, as he steps down for the good of the church,
he promises not to leave and go home to his beloved Germany,
but to go back up the Appian Way,
returning to Rome to be with the new successor Peter,
living out his life in prayer, sacrifice, and obedience
—only yards away from the site on Vatican Hill where
St. Peter himself was crucified.

Like Peter before him, Benedict, Pope Emeritus, has asked the Lord:
“Quo Vadis Domine?” “Where are you going Lord.”
And he has followed where the Lord has led him.

And now the Church must do the same thing, asking,
“Where are You going Lord?”
“Where will You take us now?”
“Who will you send to replace the brave and bold St. Peter,
and the brilliant and humble Benedict,
to hold the keys to the kingdom,
to bind and loose in your Holy Name?”

Even now the Lord knows the name of that man, but he alone knows.

I mentioned earlier that in a certain way we welcome
the world-wide media’s attention to the conclave.
But on the other hand, not so much.
Because most of them come not in search of Christ, but of a story.
And in doing so they grasp on to rumors and allegations of scandals
in the Vatican and the Church.
Some of these may be typical media frenzy,
some may be standard anti-Catholic bias,
and some may even be an effort to influence the election.

But unfortunately, some of them may be will founded, even true.

Should this cause us concern?
Yes, inasmuch as we want every bishop and priest to be holy men.
But on a more circumspect basis,
we should neither be surprised nor overly concerned.
After all, one of the first twelve apostles actually sold Jesus to His enemies
and then hung himself.
You can’t get more scandalous or sinful than that.

But the Resurrection still happened and the Church continued without him.
And when it comes to the papal election,
ultimately we trust that Jesus will pick the next pope,
and the Holy Spirit will guide the cardinals to that man.

But at the same time, history tells us that in centuries past some very sinful men
have been elected to the papacy.
First to mind comes Pope Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia,
who famously made 2 of his illegitimate sons cardinals.
And then maybe Pope Leo X, Giovanni de Medici,
who is quoted as telling his brother:
“Since God has given us the Papacy, let us enjoy it.”

God alone knows exactly how these and other sinful men ever got elected pope.
But history would seem to indicate it was because other men
caught up in their own sins and weaknesses,
and led astray by temptation and distraction,
rejected the guidance of the Holy Spirit in choosing these popes.
For example, in some elections
the threats of kings or riots of mobs or bribes of princes
had more sway than the Spirit.
In short, in some elections not enough of the electors asked: Quo vadis Domine?

Now some of us may be discouraged by all this past,
and by the rumors currently floating around in the media—true or not.
Some may be afraid that the cardinals who are not holy and pious men
may elect a bad pope.

Like I said, it’s happened before.
But you know, it’s been hundreds of years since that happened.
Because beginning with the Council of Trent in the 16th century to Benedict,
the Popes have developed a system of carefully crafted rules,
refined over centuries,
to assure that the cardinals suffer the least temptations and distractions.

Some laugh at all these rules, and call them “medieval.”
Actually, they very specifically post-medieval—and they work:
for the last 400 years only good and devout men have been elected pope.
Not perfect men, but men who tried their best to serve God and the Church.

But it’s not just a bunch of rules that make this happen.
During Lent we make a bunch of extra rules for ourselves—penances—
to help us overcome the sins in our lives and control our temptations.
But in the end, all these penances can do is prepare us to receive and respond
to Christ’s grace and the movement of the Holy Spirit.
Like the gardener in today’s gospel, who approaches the fruitless tree and
“cultivate[s] the ground around it and fertilize[s] it.”
preparing it to be able to bear fruit.

For almost 2000 years the Church has been filled with sinful people
—both in the hierarchy and in the pews.
In spite of all that, over all those years the Catholic Church
has constantly proclaimed the truth of Jesus Christ
handed down from the Apostles through apostolic succession,
and in particular the Petrine succession.
This “miracle of the Church” is a radical witness
to the presence of the Holy Spirit and the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise:
“the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”

But to be part of that miracle, and to make it fruitful in their lives,
the people at any given point in history must do everything they can
to prepare themselves for that grace.
And so one of the most important rules for the conclave,
that is made all the more clear in this season of Lent,
is that the cardinals do penance and pray;
not treating the conclave like some secular election,
but removing sin and temptation from their lives
and preparing their hearts to cooperate with the Holy Spirit, and asking “Quo vadis Domine?”
“Where are you going Lord,
and who have you chosen as Peter to lead us there?”

And as we see them do this, and pray it’s truly from their hearts,
we remember that it’s Lent for us too,
and that there are no fewer sinners in the pews or the pulpits
than there are in the college of cardinals.
And just as we fear how their sins may corrupt effect the life of the Church,
we realize the same applies to us.
And so we renew our penances, and look at Christ crucified and ask:
“Quo vadis Domine?”

And perhaps in all this,
by the holy decision of the cardinals, and by our holy lives,
when all roads lead the world to Rome
—both in the sense of Vatican City
and our individual Roman Catholic lives—
those who come to “look at this remarkable sight,” of this burning bush
may discover the light of Christ and the fire of his love,
in the living, breathing Body of Christ on earth, His Church.
And then with his Church, be drawn to Him, and perhaps, perhaps, ask:
“Quo vadis Domine,”
and follow him to Rome, to the Roman Catholic Church.

As we continue in this Holy Mass, and the season of Lent,
and in this holy time when all roads are leading the world to Rome,
let us pray for all those who come to see this remarkable sight.
And let pray for the cardinal-electors, that they may be free of sin,
and commend them to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
And let pray for our next pope, whose name is already known, but to God alone.
And let us pray that all Catholics,
from 7 year old first-communicants to 77 year old Cardinal-electors,
will continually ask the question,
“Where are you going Lord?” “Quo vadis Domine?”
And united with Peter, follow Jesus wherever he leads.