Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting into the Deep
September 25, 2015
Jesus Christ founded his Church with a personal, not a geographical, center. He founded it on a rock, a living stone, one that moves, that breathes, that preaches, that binds and looses, that goes to the end of the end to strengthen the faith of his brothers and sisters (Matt 16:18-19; 1 Pet 2:4; Mt 28:19-20; Lk 22:32).
The members of the early Church used to say and sing, “Ubi Petrus, ibi Ecclesia,” “Where Peter is, there is the Church.”
Today the center of the Church is in the United States as the living Peter is in our land.
Whenever I give tours of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, I point out two Latin inscriptions on the huge interior pillars holding up Michelangelo’s famous dome. They indicate the role of Peter in the Church, both the first Peter — the former Simon son of Jonah whose name was changed to “rock” and made the foundation for the Church Jesus Christ was building — as well as every one, down to the 266th Peter who is now in our midst.
“Hinc una fides refulget,” the first expression reads. “From here,” from Peter, “one faith shines.”
“Hinc sacerdotii unitas exoritur,” reads the other. “From here the unity of the priesthood emerges.”
Today God wants that one faith, that unity of the baptismal and ministerial priesthood, to radiate and arise. He wants it to ascend over the White House and Capitol Hill, to tower over the skyscrapers of New York and to bring a new dawn for the family to Philadelphia.
The Holy Father is meant to be a sign and agent of the unity of the Church, the one who incarnates and inspires us to be, as we proclaim at the end of the Nicene Creed, one, holy, Catholic and apostolic spiritual family.
He has the task to help us become morally what we are ontologically and sacramentally: united, saintly, reaching all people, and built on apostolic succession tracing itself back to Christ’s own action in the Upper Room and in Caesarea Philippi.
And this unity of the Church — shown in the universal call to holiness through the means God has given, through our all becoming part of the universal mission Christ has confided for the world’s salvation, and through our communion with the apostolic pillars of the successor of Peter and the apostles that form the architectural foundation for the Church in every age — is an ever needed divine gift and ever urgent Christian task.
The most important part of this papal pilgrimage to our country is not what Pope Francis will say or do, the people he will meet, the crowds who will gather around him physically or watch him on television. The most important part is whether he will strengthen us as Catholics to become what God has called to be, to manifest the “marks” of the Church in a compelling way that will leave our fellow citizens marveling even more at the living faith of the Church working through love than it admires the faith of Pope Francis.
Beyond all the drama of the first canonization ever in our country, the first papal address to a joint session of Congress, his speech at the United Nations to the largest assembled number of world leaders in papal history, the encounter with so many families in the City of Brotherly Love and more, the biggest drama will be over whether Christians manifest the unity we proclaim in the Creed.
Jesus prayed during the Last Supper for us to be as united with each other as Father and Son are one, so that, he emphasized, the world may believe that the Father sent the Son and loves us just as much as he loves the Son (Jn 17:20-23). The essential work of the Holy Spirit is to make us “one body, one Spirit in Christ.” St. Paul called us to live in a manner worthy of our calling, “striving to preserve the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:1-3).
But at the same time God is seeking to unite us, the devil is seeking to divide us just like he sought to divide Adam and Eve in the beginning. As Christ is praying, the devil is slithering so that we won’t be one, so that the world won’t find the incarnation credible and will doubt not only whether God loves us but whether he exists.
The fruitfulness of the Church in the United States, just like the Church at any time and any place, depends on our becoming one as God desires.
It’s important that we Christians grasp this deeper drama. Every time there’s a news story about how divided Catholics are in the US on doctrinal, moral, or even political issues, the anti-gospel of disunity is being proclaimed. Every time Catholics criticize the pope publicly or privately and separate themselves to one degree or another from him, it’s hell, not heaven, that rejoices. Just as many try to exploit divisions among Catholics for political or other ends to weaken the Church in their favor, so does the evil one and his minions.
None of this means that as Catholics we can never have spirited fraternal disagreements or in the right forum give constructive feedback even to the Holy Father. After all, Pope Francis humbly admits that he makes mistakes and has said repeatedly that his first idea is almost invariably wrong. But we have to grasp division in the Church for what it is, the result of sin and the consequence of not cooperating enough with God’s grace and plans. And then we have to do everything we can to preserve the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.
The visit of Pope Francis is a time in which, with all our spiritual siblings, with and under the successor of St. Peter, we can show that this spiritual unity — built on one faith, one baptism, one hope, one Lord, one God and Father of us all (Eph 4:4-6) — is not a façade or a theological talking point but a way of life. It’s an occasion for us to show by our unity that God has in fact sent his Son, loves us as much as he loves Him, and calls and wants to help us to love each other in the same way.
This is the way God is hoping we respond to the papal visit so that, both now and long-after, we might give true testimony of the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church he founded on Peter and his successors.