Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A
April 24, 2005
Acts 6:1-7; 1Pet2:4-9; Jn 14:1-12
1) Early this morning the eyes of the world were all fixed on St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican where the Solemn Mass of the inauguration of the papacy of our new Holy Father was celebrated. As I often repeat, there are no coincidences with God, and I couldn’t help but notice how well the setting of today’s solemn Mass VISUALLY REPRESENTED the truths contained in today’s readings and the truths about the papacy in which Benedict XVI now shares.
a. A half-million people attended this morning’s Mass and the luckiest three-hundred thousand were able to enter St. Peter’s Square, where they were embraced by the huge arms of Bernini’s colonnade. When this great sculptor designed St. Peter’s square in the 1600s, he wanted those arms to represent the arms of St. Peter — the arms of mother Church — reaching out to welcome with love God’s children, of every race and tongue, coming from throughout the world. On top of those columns, we could see the huge statues of 140 saints from various centuries. During my several years in Rome, introducing St. Peter’s Square, basilica and tomb to thousands of pilgrims, I always used to ask why pilgrims why they thought the statues were placed directly on top of the columns. Most thought it was simply architectural. The real reason was to illustrate the point St. Peter makes in today’s second reading: that the Church is made out of MEN, not MARBLE. The living foundations — the columns — of the Church are the SAINTS. St. Peter tells us: “Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
In his beautiful homily this morning, Pope Benedict began by mentioning how much he is depending on these “living stones” — both in heaven and on earth — to support him in his ministry: “All of you, my dear friends, have just invoked the entire host of saints, represented by some of the great names in the history of God’s dealings with mankind. In this way, I too can say with renewed conviction: I am not alone. I do not have to carry alone what in truth I could never carry alone. All the Saints of God are there to protect me, to sustain me and to carry me. And your prayers, my dear friends, your indulgence, your love, your faith and your hope accompany me. Indeed, the communion of saints consists not only of the great men and women who went before us and whose names we know. All of us belong to the communion of saints, we who have been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we who draw life from the gift of Christ’s Body and Blood, through which He transforms us and makes us like Himself.” Each of us, with the saints in heaven, is meant to be those living columns, those embracing arms, who with the living Peter embrace the world.
b. Behind our new Holy Father was the façade of St. Peter’s Basilica, which itself is so expressive of another truth of the faith. On top of the pillars and pilasters of the façade are statues of the apostles and of St. John the Baptist. They are located there principally to express the truth that to see the “visible face” of the Church Christ founded, we must looked toward the APOSTLES and their successors. They show us where the Church is. Moreover, like John the Baptist, they have the mission to point out the heart of the Church — Christ Jesus, the Lamb of God — a world that so often does not recognize him.
c. Right up at the top of the center of the façade is the statue of Christ triumphantly risen from the dead, and this, too, is no coincidence. He’s directly on top of the main door of the basilica to teach us that in order to enter into the Church, we need to enter into Christ, whose body is the Church. It puts into stone what Jesus taught us last week, that he is “the gate to the sheepfold,” and that in order to enter his flock we need to enter into him. It also illustrates today’s Gospel, that Jesus is “the Way.” In order to enter the “Father’s house” which is the Church (on earth and in heaven), we must enter into Him, for “no one comes to the Father except through me.”
d. Right underneath the statue of the Risen Christ is the loggia on which the new Pope came out to greet us on Tuesday. The reason is to symbolize that the Pope “stands under” Christ and stands in the person of Christ announcing his saving message to the world. Right under that balcony — and right above the main door — is the sculpture of Christ’s handing the keys of the kingdom of heaven to St. Peter. Christ has given Peter the keys to the door of His Church and on Tuesday those keys were passed down to his 264th successor.
e. This connection between Christ and Peter leads to the last central truth shown in architecture. St. Peter tells us in today’s epistle, “Come to Christ, a living stone,” and later calls Christ “the cornerstone” on which all of the “living stones” are built. But Christ, the living cornerstone, wanted to include the papacy within that cornerstone as the foundation for the Church he had come from heaven to build. At Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus took his first poll about who the people said that he was — and his apostles told him that the crowds thought that he was merely a man of God like John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets — Jesus turned to the twelve, looked them straight in the eye, and queried, “But who do you say that I am?” It was then that the fisherman from Bethsaida stepped forward and pointed to his unique mission and divine identity: “You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” The Lord Jesus responded by changing Simon’s same and revealing the architectural plans for His Church: “Blessed are you, Simon, son of John, for flesh and blood [i.e., human wisdom] has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. I for my part say to you that you are Rock (kepha, the Aramaic name for “Peter” and word for “rock”) and on this rock, I will build my Church” (Mt 16:16-18 . Jesus, the cornerstone, was going to place that cornerstone right on the man he named the Rock. And St. Peter’s Basilica has been built to represent the Church as a whole: its nave and transept intersect right on top of Peter’s tomb and mortal remains, so that the Basilica literally has been erected, as Christ promised, right on top of Peter. All of us living stones are called to be built on top of Christ’s union and identification with this Rock.
2) We see what the Pope’s central mission is in today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, which involves the ordination of the first seven deacons in the Church. The apostles found that they were “neglecting the word of God” because the early Church was depending upon them to do too much, including ensuring that Greek and Hebrew widows received proper material support. They ordained the deacons to those tasks so that they could “devote themselves to prayer and the service of the word.” The chief ministry of Peter and the apostles — and of their successors, the Pope and the Bishops, respectively — is this prayer and service of the word. It is to put into practice Jesus’ command right before his Ascension: “Go and teach all nations, baptizing them … and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:18-20). To baptize and to teach, to pray and to preach, to celebrate the sacraments and to instruct people to obey God’s commands, is the principal ministry of the Pope and the bishops — and with them, their principal collaborators, the priests.
3) On other occasions, we have focused on prayer. Today I’d like to ask: What is the Pope — and with him bishops and priests — supposed to preach? They are supposed to preach Christ, who is, as he tells us in today’s Gospel, “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” They are to preach Christ not as “a way,” but as THE Way to the Father’s house. They are to preach him as the Truth who sets us free to live in the REAL real world. They are to proclaim Him as the Life, who came from heaven to give his life to us and for us, so that we might have life to the full (Jn 10:10). They are to say to all, with St. Peter, “Come to Christ, a living Stone!”
4) Preaching the Truth who is Christ is not easy, because many reject that Truth. Christ ended up being brutally executed on a Cross. St. Peter ended up dying crucified upside down in Caligula’s circus looking at the obelisk which is now in the center of St. Peter’s Square. St. Paul was beheaded. Countless others have been martyred as the supreme witness to the truth that Christ is worth living for and dying for. In the second reading, St. Peter tells us that Christ, the cornerstone, was “rejected by the builders” who were trying to construct their own reality on the basis of their own (false) ideas of the truth and of God. He says that Christ continues to be “a stone that makes them stumble, a rock that makes them fall.” This was just an expansion of what the elderly Simeon told Mary and Joseph when they presented the baby Jesus in the temple, that Jesus was “destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed” (Lk 2:34-35).
5) Anyone who faithfully preaches Christ will likewise be “rejected by the builders.” He or she will be a “stone that makes others stumble,” and a “sign of contradiction” that will reveal the thoughts in other’s hearts. It’s no surprise, therefore, that there were voices this week that came out in immediate opposition to Pope Benedict, whom they decried will not change the Church’s teachings on certain hot-button issues that, of course, no pope could or would change — issues like abortion, gay marriage, embryonic stem cell destruction, the ordination of women to the priesthood, divorce-and-remarriage, artificial birth control and a bunch of others. The Pope is called to be faithful to Christ, to preach the truth, and to try to please God, not public opinion. It’s no surprise that many of the same critics said that John Paul II’s papacy had a “mixed legacy” that was “full of contradictions.” In truth, however, Pope John Paul II — like the Popes before him and like his divine Boss — was not full of contradictions, but was a “sign of contradiction” revealing the contradictory “inner-thoughts” of his critics. Every disciple — from the Pope to the most recently baptized — is called to be 100% faithful to Christ’s teaching and 100% faithful to Christ’s command to love others, especially the most needy, as Christ has loved us. Fidelity to Christ’s teachings will get most people labeled “conservative” today and fidelity to Christ’s command to love will get most people labeled “liberal,” but the only label for which Catholics from the Pope on up should strive to obtain is the title “faithful.” We either believe and try to put into practice EVERYTHING Christ taught or we — not those who do! — are the ones who are living in contradiction. It’s those who subscribe to a pick-and-choose notion of the faith who are the ones with “religious schizophrenia.”
6) At a time when many in the world and even in the Church are so confused about God, about themselves, about the meaning of human life, the Lord has blessed us with a tremendous gift. After the great papacy of Pope John Paul II, God has raised to the Chair of Peter the man who is probably the greatest Catholic theologian on the planet. Since his earliest days, he has been a devout student of Jesus and since his late 20s he has been one of the greatest teachers of the Gospel he has learned. In his 30s, as a priest-advisor at Vatican II, he authored interventions for a famous German Cardinal that changed the entire history of the Council and left his imprint on the Council’s most important documents. If anyone tries to get you to believe that Benedict will “turn back the clock on Vatican II,” please know that the person stating that doesn’t have a clue of the real history of Vatican II and the role the young Joseph Ratzinger played there! In later years, he was a famous university professor and prolific author on theology and prayer. In the past couple of decades, I have devoured more than a dozen of his books and have profited immensely from the clarity and depth of his insights. Over the course of my years before seminary and since, he has been one of my biggest heroes — as he has been for so many of my seminary classmates and other young priests. In a world, and in a church, in which young people often have encountered confusion and watered-down, uninspiring versions of the faith, Cardinal Ratzinger, through his writings, became a real beacon of light and hope. So many of us have for a long-time tried to stand on his shoulders, so that we, too, could see things more clearly. Now the whole Church will have that same grace, to profit from his deep faith and the immense gifts God has given him. There are no coincidences in God and his election is a testimony to the fact that God knows that the Church and the world needs those gifts now.
7) More than anything else, Pope Benedict will preach the Truth who is Jesus Christ, the truth that will set us free, the truth that will lead us on the way of salvation to the Father’s house. We live in a world in which there are so many Pontius Pilates, who ask “What is truth?” (Jn 18:38 and who wash their hands of countless sins and atrocities that are based on LIES. If there is only “my” truth and “your” truth, then there is “no” truth, and hence no firm basis on which we can construct a society or have a meaningful dialogue about anything. During his homily at the Mass prior to the conclave, then-Cardinal Ratzinger talked about the crises that come from having no firm anchor in the truth:
“How many winds of doctrine have we known over the last few decades! How many ideological currents! How many schools of thought! The little ship bearing the thoughts of many Christians has frequently been shaken by these waves, thrown from one extreme to the other: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism, and so on. Every day new sects arise, and St. Paul’s words concerning the deception of men and the cunning that leads into error come true. Having a clear faith, according to the Creed of the Church, is often labeled as fundamentalism. Meanwhile relativism, in other words allowing oneself to be ‘tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine,’ appears as the only attitude appropriate to modern times, a dictatorship of relativism is being formed, one that recognizes nothing as definitive and that has as its measure only the self and its desires.
8 ) But then he proposed the “ever ancient and ever new” solution to this crisis: an adult faith in Jesus Christ, Truth Incarnate. An adult faith is one in which we still trust in God “like little children… who will inherit the kingdom” (cf. Mt 18:3), but in which we bring our faith to MATURITY, so that it is capable of responding with hope to the questions and anxieties of the modern age. Pope Benedict, who has this adult faith, told us that such faith starts with a friendship with Christ that is alive and real. The Pope calls us to take our questions to this Friend, to let him teach us through prayer, Sacred Scripture and the teaching of the Church he founded. Benedict calls us profit from the Gifts of the Holy Spirit and use the intelligence God gave us to STUDY, to LEARN our faith more deeply, so that, as the first Pope tells us, we may “always be ready to make our defense to anyone who asks for the source of the hope that is within us” (1 Peter 3:15).
9) The challenges that face the Church are not something that our new Holy Father can solve on his own. They are challenges that can be met only by the whole mystical body of Christ, working together with the Lord who has trusted us enough to make us participants in his saving work. But it is work, and hard work, that we must do together. Each of us first needs to see himself as “humble and simple WORKER in the Lord’s vineyard,” as Benedict called himself when he introduced himself to the whole world on Tuesday. The Lord needs “workers” and not just “bodies,” in his vineyard, people who roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty, who don’t pass the buck of passing on the faith to others. Then we need to work together.
10) I presume Pope Benedict will keep as his papal motto the passage from the third epistle of St. John that he chose has his Episcopal motto, “Co-workers in the truth” (3 John 8 ). In a 1990 book by that title in English, our new Holy Father described why he chose that Scriptural slogan to characterize his Episcopal ministry. I think what he wrote then is just as applicable now to his new Episcopal work as bishop of Rome. It dovetails very nicely with today’s Gospel and with all that we have been meditating on up until now regarding Christ the Truth:
“Co-Workers of the Truth.” For John, these words signify the participation of all the faithful in the service of the Gospel and, by consequence, the ‘catholic’ dimension of the Faith. … For me it has become another way of expressing the task of the bishop: he too, and especially he, is a “co-worker,” that is, he does not act in his own name but is always and totally linked to a “with.” Only when he acts “with” Christ and “with the whole believing Church of all times and all places does he do what he is meant to do. It is not his task to fashion a community for himself, but, rather, to fashion the Church for Christ. That means that he must point to him who is the Way because he is the Truth (Jn 14:6). For the simple reason that it comes from the truth and leads to the truth, the love that is the goal of faith is, in a very real sense, the hope and redemption of the human race. A mere community of interests without truth would be just a drug, not a healing. Perhaps, in the last analysis, the crucial element in the unfathomable expression “co-workers of the truth” is the relationship between truth and love.
“It is my hope that this book [and here we can substitute “papacy”] will indeed prove to be a co-worker of the truth. It seeks your hospitality and invites you to co-think and co-believe with it. It would like to open windows through which we can look upon the truth of the Gospel. It would like to awaken in us the courage to become co-workers, and it would like to be an aid to that love that the Lord has laid upon us as his commandment (Jn 13:34).
11) Our new Holy Father is calling us to be co-workers of Christ, the Truth, as the Way to love others as Christ has loved us, and enter most fully into that LIFE which is a love-life with God and all the saints. May the Lord who has called Benedict to the papacy and us to be his beloved sons and daughters help us, with him, to be diligent co-workers in His vineyard, so that we might all one day come to that eternal home, built of “living stones”, where Christ has gone to prepare for us and from which one day he will come to take us!
Praised be Jesus Christ!