21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 16, 2020
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
I was raised in a very devout Catholic home:
we prayed as a family every day;
we talked about the faith, sometimes very intensely, at the dinner table;
and we all went to Catholic schools.
But in my late teens and early 20s
I wandered away from the Church for several years.
I figured the Church didn’t seem to have the answers I was looking for,
or at least the answers I was interested in.
Then when I was about 25, over a period of a few months,
things came together to make me admit that I did believe in God,
and in fact, I did believe God was Jesus Christ.
So then the question came up: what church would I go to?
Over the years several of my protestant friends tried to convert me,
inviting me to go to their churches with them, and things like that.
I remember a conversation with one of these well-meaning friends.
I told them there were two reasons I could never be a protestant.
The first was the Eucharist.
They were confused, until I quoted John 6,
“unless you eat the flesh of the son of man you do not have life in you.”
And then I quoted the Gospel’s and St. Paul’s record of Last supper,
“And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body …”
Not much he could say to that, except, “what’s the second reason?”
And so I cited today’s gospel text, Matthew chapter 16, versus 18 and following:
“And so I say to you, you are Peter [which means “Rock”],
and upon this rock I will build my church,
and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
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.”
He started giving me some lame arguments
about how “peter” means “little rock”.
Of course, it doesn’t… it means simply “rock.”
But rather than get into intricacies of the meaning of an ancient Greek word,
I instead stopped him and asked him if he knew who Eliakim was
—whom we read about in today’s first reading.
He didn’t, so I explained to him the direct parallel between Eliakim and Peter
—one that Jesus clearly had in mind:
“I will place the key of the House of David on Eliakim’s shoulder;
when he opens, no one shall shut
when he shuts, no one shall open.”
Eliakim was the steward placed in charge of running the house of King David,
and Peter was the steward placed in charge of running
the kingdom of Jesus Christ.
There’s really not much to say after that.
The Eucharist and Peter, the Popes,
how could you be a Christian without those?
And when it comes down to it, the difference between
the Protestant disbelief and the Catholic belief in the Eucharist
is because the Popes have insisted:
this is what Jesus said it is: “this is my body…this is my blood.”
So, in a sense, it comes down to the Pope.
So, when I decided to come back to church, there was never really a question: the Church of Jesus was clearly the Catholic Church.
And so I came back, and as time went on, clearly I came back in a big way.
And over the years I’ve brought a few others with me
—not due to anything in particular about me,
it’s just sort of the nature of the job, as priest.
But in the end, over and over these two things, Peter and the Eucharist
were so often the things that made the difference.
And usually it began with Peter.
I was born in 1960,
and so I grew up during the most turbulent time in modern church history: the period right after Vatican II,
coupled with the revolutionary attitude within and without the Church
in the 60’s and 70’s.
And so as priests and laity alike seemed to be throwing out all the things
I had learned from my parents,
I decided, that if everything was changing in the Church,
even, it seemed, fundamental beliefs about the Eucharist,
and about good and evil,
it just proved the Church had no idea what it was talking about.
What sane person would allow an institution that didn’t know what it believed
to tell him what he had to believe?
And then something remarkable happened.
A new Pope came to the chair of Peter:
the man we now know as St. John Paul II.
Perhaps it was his years of day to day, person to person, constant struggle
with the atheistic Communist government of his native Poland.
Or maybe his experience as a college professor dealing every day
with the questioning minds of college students.
In any case, he knew what the revolution was about and how to fight it.
And he brought with him one of the greatest minds and teachers
of the 20th century to help him—Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger,
who he put in charge of defending the doctrine of the Church
and who would later become Benedict XVI.
For 35 years these two men lifted up the voice of the papacy
to speak boldly and clearly the truth given to the Church by Jesus himself.
“The Splendor of the Truth,” “Veritatis Splendor,” as John Paul II would call it.
Not teaching anything new, but taking the keys of the kingdom and
opening up the rich treasury of our faith,
the work of their predecessors of binding and loosening
on earth and heaven.
Hearing this clear teaching, boldly and clearly and beautifully proclaimed,
many of us felt the Church almost literally settle on the solid rock of Peter.
Of course, many were disappointed—they didn’t want to be on a Rock,
they liked things up in the air, and so many left the Church.
But many more returned, like myself.
And many more came to Her for the first time, drawn to Her by the office of Peter,
recognizing in it a source of unity and clarity of the truth
that Christ intended when he first gave the keys to St. Peter.
Today of course, we have a different pope, our Holy Father, Pope Francis.
Many are drawn to him because of his humility, frankness and love for the poor.
Sadly, many have been drawn to him because they think all this
might lead him to change many of the very teachings that
John Paul and Benedict articulated so clearly and forcefully.
As if possessing the keys to the kingdom,
he can now simply change anything and everything
they and their predecessors taught, all the way back to Pope Peter.
But they misunderstand the keys.
They are the keys not to the house of Peter or John Paul or Francis,
but of the house of God.
Peter holds them as the steward, or protector of that House.
He locks this door to keep some treasure safe,
and he unlocks that door to take out and share the riches of the Church
with Her children, and the whole world.
But what 2000 years of Popes have clearly taught
—what they have bound and loosed—cannot be changed by a new pope.
As with Eliakim, what 260 popes have “open[ed], no one shall shut,”
and what they have “shu[t], no one shall open.
We have to remember: it’s not about the man, it’s about the office of Peter,
and the teaching of all the Popes.
Yes, some men bring special and unique gifts and talents to the office,
—some are called “saints,” some are called “doctors” of the Church,
and some, very few, are called “the great’’.
And while that is amazing and wonderful,
the real miracle and wonder is that for 2000 years
popes have protected the teaching
Christ handed on to His apostles,
and that, by Christ’s grace, under their stewardship
the Church has remained a beacon of truth and unity.
All of us from time to time might wish that this teaching or that would change
—that the particular sin we struggle with would suddenly no longer be so bad,
that the mysterious dogmas that so many people can’t understand
would suddenly go away, or be simplified.
But in the end, as Christ testified before Pontius Pilate,
“for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth.”
As we move now more deeper into the mystery of this Mass,
into the truth of the Eucharist,
We pray for our Holy Father, Pope Francis,
and for Pope Emeritus Benedict.
And we thank the Lord Jesus
that he has given the fullness of the truth to His Church,
and that he has given us the office of Peter
to defend and hand on that truth.
So that built on the Rock of Peter,
even “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”—or us.