TEXT: 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, August 27, 2023
The 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 27, 2023
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
Today’s gospel tells the story of one of the greatest gifts
Jesus bequeathed to His Bride the Church:
the gift of the successor of St. Peter known as the papacy
(the office of the pope).
We read from Matthew 16:18 and following
as Jesus said to Simon,
“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.”
And in today’s first reading we read about the context
in which Jeus was speaking, that Jesus clearly had in mind.
In the Book of Isaiah, God says,
“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,
sort of the prime minister or chief of staff,
who runs things in the name of the king who is not physically present.
And this is what Jesus is telling us “Peter” would be–
the steward, the prime minister, the chief of staff,
placed in charge of running the kingdom on earth of Jesus Christ,
the son of God and the Son of David.
That is a wonderful gift.
As the Second Vatican Council stated,
“The Roman Pontiff, as the successor of Peter,
is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity
of both the bishops and of the faithful.”
The papacy, the office of the Pope,
is a central instrument of unity in the Church.
But just as any gift well-used can be a source of great grace and blessings,
any gift misused or neglected can be a source of problems
and even great evil.
And so we have seen popes like Simon Peter,
Leo the Great, Gregory the Great,
Gregory VII, Innocent III, Pius V, Pius X,
John Paul II and Benedict XVI do great things.
And even lesser Popes have been true instruments of holiness, grace, and unity
in the Church.
But we have also seen bad popes be the source or instruments of
great evil, corruption, and disunity in the Church.
We have to admit: There have been bad popes.
Popes who have not used the gift Christ gave them to the purpose for which Christ gave it.
Some say, “Oh but Father, the Holy Spirit picks the pope.”
No, not really.
In 1997, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI,
was asked in an interview, “Does the Holy Spirit pick the pope?”
His answer was very clear:
“I would not say so……the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair,
but rather …leaves us ….much freedom, without entirely abandoning us.
Thus the Spirit’s role should be understood …
not that He dictates the candidate for whom one must vote….”
In other words, my words, like any good gift,
the help of Holy Spirit comes to the cardinals at the election,
but they can listen to him or not;
they can choose God’s candidate…or their own.
Cardinal Ratzinger then went on to summarize,
“There are too many contrary instances of popes
the Holy Spirit obviously would not have picked!”
Consider that: Which popes would “the Holy Spirit obviously not have picked”?
Of course all the popes made mistakes and all sinned,
even as so many strived for true holiness.
But consider all the really bad (and just plain strange) popes.
You can go back to the Renaissance popes that led to the Protestant Revolt,
like Pope Alexander the VI, in the 16th century,
who had a long-time mistress
and at least four illegitimate children–one of whom he made a cardinal.
Or in the 11th century, Pope Benedict the IX, who bought the votes
to be elected pope in 1032 when he was only twenty years old.
A few years later he abandoned the papacy, then reclaimed it,
then resigned, and sold the papacy to his uncle.
Then he came back a few years later and tried to reclaim it again
only to be excommunicated by his legitimate successor.
Fifty years later, the saintly Pope Victor III wrote that Benedict IX was guilty of
“rapes, murders and other unspeakable acts of violence and sodomy…
His life as a pope was so vile, so foul, so execrable,
that I shudder to think of it.”
Or we can go back to the really strange times of the 9th century
with a series of bad popes.
In particular, consider Pope Stephen VI who was elected pope in 896.
He had a long running political feud with his predecessor, Pope Formosus,
so when Formosus died and Stephen was elected pope,
Stephen had Formosus’ dead body dug up, dressed up in papal vestments,
seated on the papal throne, and tried and found guilty
on all sorts of trumped up charges.
Stephen then proclaimed all his acts as popes invalid
and had Formosus’ body stripped and thrown into the Tiber River.
No surprise that just a year later, after bad Pope Stephen died,
his successor, Pope Theodore II, annulled Pope Stephen’s trial
and reburied Formosus’ body in St. Peter’s Basilica.
Stephen was a really really bad Pope.
Does this mean there’s something wrong with the papacy?
Like any gift, it can be abused.
But do all the bad popes mean
that the Church is wrong when it says the pope can teach infallibly?
No…thanks be to God.
First of all, the pope is not infallible in everything he does or teaches.
In 1870 the First Vatican Council defined that papal infallibility
applies only when the pope formally asserts his infallibility
in teaching on matters of faith and morals.
But it also clarified the limits of that power:
“the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter
not so that they might…make known some new doctrine,
but that, by his assistance,
they might religiously guard and faithfully expound
the…deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles….”
In other words, popes only teach infallibly when they teach on faith and morals
in a way that is clearly consistent with the Tradition
that comes before them from the apostles.
They can’t change dogma given to them by Tradition;
they can only help defend or guard it, or expound it.
Popes are human beings, and the human beings of the Church
can be saints or sinners, wise or foolish, prudent or insane.
But even so, despite the mixture of
great, good, mediocre, foolish and bad popes we’ve had,
it is clear that it is only by the grace of God that
the Church survives as no other institution has for these 2,000 years.
And in surviving, she has always faithfully handed on
the teaching of Christ and his apostles.
So we remember that along with the promise of the papacy, Christ gave
a second related promise:
“The gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against” the Church.
This promise relates to the papacy as an instrument of God’s grace,
but it is not dependent on the papacy as the sole instrument.
For Christ and the Holy Spirit remain in the Church, good pope or bad.
And after times of confusion and corruption
come wonderful times of clarity and holiness.
Consider, for example,
that within one year after the death of 16th century Pope Alexander VI
(the pope with the mistress and illegitimate children I mentioned earlier),
St. John Fisher would become a bishop in England
and a baby was born who would become the great reforming Pope
St. Pius V, of Council of Trent fame.
And consider that for the last 200 years or so, we have been blessed
to have so many good and holy popes–not perfect men, but good men.
Even so, during those years, corruption has been in the Church,
and in the hierarchy.
And for the last sixty years or so, the corruption has come to the forefront again
—particularly in the hierarchy.
Some say that this was all caused by the Second Vatican Council, Vatican II,
which was in session from 1962 to 1965.
But the reality is that the problems that became apparent after the council,
were the results of the troublemakers
who had already been working in the Church for decades.
But after the council, we could finally see rot.
So much so, that in a homily in 1972 Pope Paul VI would say,
“The smoke of Satan has made its way into the temple of God
through some crack.”
But just as things seemed their worst,
in 1978 God sent us the great St. John Paul II as pope,
and for the next thirty-five years, he and his holy successor,
the brilliant Pope Benedict XVI,
would lead the Church with great clarity, truth, and holiness.
But even they were not perfect.
They were great men, in their own way two of the greatest popes in history.
But they were still just men and they made mistakes.
John Paul was a great leader and thinker,
but he was sometimes blinded by his trust in his close collaborators
and his desire to convert even his foes.
And so he made mistakes, including dropping the ball on the sex abuse scandal
and promoting too many untrustworthy bishops and cardinals.
And Benedict may have been the smartest pope in history,
but he was not good at governing, as he himself constantly reminded us,
and he tended to expect others to be as good as he was.
So, he also promoted and trusted some who seemed solid,
but behind his back were morally corrupt and doctrinally unsound.
Even so, their legacy of intellectual and spiritual vigor strengthened the Church
and especially its faithful priests and laity.
But now, John Paul II is in heaven and Benedict XVI is probably with him.
And their mistakes are becoming clear
in the rise of bishops and cardinals who now want not only to
dismantle their legacy, but to reject the apostolic tradition itself
to bring about a different Church.
And their successor, our current Holy Father,
without judging his heart, mind, or soul, or his pontificate,
seems to only add to the confusion.
Nevertheless, come what may, Christ keeps his promises:
The papacy remains a magnificent gift,
if one subject to the vicissitudes of men;
and the Church survives and thrives
and the gates of hell do not prevail against it.
As we move now more deeply into the mystery of this Holy Mass,
into the mystery of the gift of the Eucharist,
we know that like all gifts,
we can use this gift of the Eucharist and its grace
to make us great and holy,
or we can reject this gift and all the good it promises.
So let us take advantage of this gift and use it for good purpose,
and pray for Pope Francis
and for the souls of all the good and bad pope who preceded him,
especially the soul of our good and beloved Pope Benedict XVI.
And let us take this opportunity of Communion with the Lord Jesus
to thank Him that He has given the fullness of the Truth to His Church,
and that He has given us the papacy to defend and hand on that Truth.