Saturday, February 22, 2014

To Peter's Chair

After almost a year in office, Pope Francis has managed to maintain the media’s interest. Of course, much of the coverage reflects considerable ignorance of basic facts about the Church and the papacy (perceived through the prism of secular political categories) combined with a predictable emphasis on some fairly ephemeral things. Still, good publicity is better than bad – and better than being ignored. If a pope has the right skills, he can put popularity and celebrity to good use, utilizing for the Church’s purposes the stage the media seems willing to give him. 

Today the Church celebrates the feast of the Chair of St. Peter, the annual liturgical celebration of the primacy of Peter and his successors, the Bishops of Rome. In 2012, I was privileged to celebrate this feast in Rome itself, assisting at the Papal Mass in St. Peter's Basilica on the occasion of consistory at which Pope Benedict XVI created a number of new cardinals. I was among the priests at the foot of the papal Altar - just yards away from the Pope himself - and who distributed Holy Communion to the throng filling the basilica. It was one of the genuine high points of my study-time in Rome.

This year, I am celebrating the feast much more modestly – the regular Saturday morning 8:30 Mass in the parish. Pope Francis, however, has had a busy week of meetings earlier in the week with his special 8-man Cardinals’ Council and then later with the full College of Cardinals. And today he celebrates his first Ordinary Public Consistory for the Creation of New Cardinals. Nineteen prelates (18 of whom will be present at Saint Peter’s) are to be elevated to the Sacred College. At the Consistory, each new cardinal will receive his red biretta and ring and be assigned his titular church in Rome. A consistory is a joyful celebration of a far-flung and diverse Church's unity and universality, personified in the Pope, which is why this feast is such a fitting day for a consistory.

In a sermon on the anniversary of his own election as Pope, Saint Leo the Great (who reigned as pope from 440 to 461) paraphrased Jesus' words to Peter that we hear in today's Gospel (Matthew 16:13-19) thus: As I am the invulnerable rock ... the foundation beside which there can be laid no other, so you too are a rock, in my strength made hard, and I share with you the powers which are proper to me. ... Upon this strength, I will construct an eternal temple; and my Church, which is to rise to the height of heaven, shall be founded on the firmness of this faith.

Every church building - built and dedicated exclusively for its one and unique purpose - is an image for the Church, God's People who are both the Body of Christ and the Bride of Christ. What better symbol is there of the Universal Church in all its diversity unified through time and space by Peter and its successors than the great temple that stands on the Vatican Hill built upon the tomb of Peter, the shrine of his profession of faith? It is indeed Christ's Church, rising to the height of heaven, founded on the firmness of Peter's faith

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