Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Just a few days ago we celebrated the feast of the holy apostles Peter and Paul, the foundational pillars of the Church. And, in today’s Gospel, we see the origins of that glorious vocation of Simon Peter. By the word of the Lord, his destiny will lead him from being a simple fisherman to being a fisher of men. St Peter’s Basilica, that majestic monument raised over his tomb in the Eternal City, stands today as a witness that the fisherman obeyed the call and did indeed put out into the deep. For in truth, all the fish of the Church are brought in by Peter, for he is the prince of the apostles, and all apostolate in the Church goes back to him as to its origins.
At Matins these days, we are reading the story of David’s victory over Goliath, which is also a story of God’s visiting His chosen people and providing for them the leaders they need. The sacred author takes care to point out that when Samuel was sent by God to choose one of the sons of Isai the Bethlehemite to be king instead of Saul (see 1 Sam 16), he was not given to know advance which one of the sons it was. When he arrived, he was thinking it would be the eldest or the strongest. It was neither. It was the youngest and the weakest, the one who was unable to bear armour and carry a sword. And some time later when the people of Israel is trembling at the taunts of Goliath, it is this young boy, armed with his sling and a few pebbles, who takes on the challenge. Had it been us, we would have selected a strong, experienced and well-armed soldier to do battle with Goliath. Certainly not a simple shepherd, certainly not a boy, and certainly not armed with just a few stones and a sling. The ways of God are not our ways.
The similarity between these two stories is striking. With our limited human wits, we would have thought the Lord should have gone looking for the first pope among the elite of His day, a scribe or a Pharisee, someone with education and distinction. Certainly not a simple fisherman, what’s more with a bad temper… But God raises up men out of nothing; He takes them from the most unexpected places, so that it is clear that it is His doing and not ours. For my thoughts are not your thoughts: nor your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are exalted above the earth, so are my ways exalted above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts (Is 55:8-9).
Why? we might ask. Would it not have made sense for the Lord to first form His chosen ones in the schools that would have given them great learning and reputation? It would, if the Church He intended to found were a simple human endeavour. But it is not. It is a divine endeavour. It is God stepping into our world.
What the call of David tells us in prophecy and what the call of Peter tells us following the same logic are only confirmations of the central truth of our Faith, namely that of the Incarnation. When God decides to enter the world, He does not do so under the guise of a learned scribe or a mighty military leader. He comes in the frailty of the flesh, as a babe, a poor, hard-working man, an itinerant preacher scorned by the intelligentsia of the day, and ultimately nailed to the cross as a worthless criminal.
If it is true that what was visible in Christ has passed into the sacraments, it is also true that the apparent poverty and frailty of the humanity of the Saviour continues to be present in the men who lead the Church. When He chose Peter and made him the Rock, He did not say that henceforth Peter and His successors would be impeccable. He did say, on the other hand, I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren (Lk 22:32). And after His resurrection, He demands of him greater love for the sheep and readiness to lay down his life for them.
When we understand the great dignity to which Peter and his successors are called, we are moved to make an act of faith. Just as the Magi had to make an act of faith when they adored God under the appearances of a frail babe in the manger, so we too must make an act of faith and venerate Our Blessed Lord in Peter and his successors. When a man is called to take part in the apostolic ministry at any level, but especially at the highest level of the Sovereign Pontificate, all the faithful must give to him the reverence due to our father in the faith. Whenever anyone comes and asks me about the attitude to have towards some of the Pope’s words and deeds, the answer is quite simple: 1) you know your faith, keep it; it’s in the catechism and it doesn’t change; 2) don’t break the 4th commandment; pay respect and obedience to Christ’s Vicar on earth; 3) we will not be judged on the Pope’s fidelity to Christ, he will; we will be judged on our respect for his authority. In honouring Popes, Bishops and Priests, it is Christ Himself whom we honour.
It is precisely for this reason that Our Lord wants there to be a pope in every age. This is also why it is nonsense to speak of the apostolic see as being vacant, or of the real pope being in hiding. No, the Church is, by its very nature, a visible institution. St Francis de Sales, Doctor of the Church, gives this definition of the Church: “The Church is a holy university or a general company of men united and collected together in the profession of one same Christian faith in the participation of the same sacraments and sacrifice and in obedience to our same vicar and lieutenant general of earth of Our Lord Jesus Christ and successor of St Peter under the charge of lawful bishops (cf. Catholic Controversy, “The church is our infallible guide”).
In his Rules for Thinking with the Church, St Ignatius of Loyola gives us a very balanced approach to what may seem to be scandals in the Church when he writes: “We should be more ready to approve and praise the orders, recommendations, and way of acting of our superiors than to find fault with them. Though some of the orders may not have been praiseworthy, yet to speak against them, either when preaching in public or in speaking before the people, would rather be the cause of murmuring and scandal than of profit. As a consequence, the people would become angry with their superiors, whether secular or spiritual. But while it does harm in the absence of our superiors to speak evil of them before the people, it may be profitable to discuss their bad conduct with those who can apply a remedy” (Spiritual Exercises, # 362).
By becoming Incarnate, by taking flesh and all its frailties, the Lord exposed Himself to blows, to the risk of failure. By choosing weak and frail men to represent Him, He also exposes Himself and His Church to scorn. What then is the fundamental reason for this? Why does God lead us through men who are prone to failure and sin? The first answer to that is that it is God’s choice, and therefore it is good and wholesome. But we can push further our investigation with St Thomas and apply to this question the very same principles that St Thomas does to show why the Incarnation was necessary for us. Among these we find this one. Quoting St Augustine, he says that God became flesh so that “man’s pride, which is the greatest stumbling-block to our clinging to God, can be convinced and cured by humility so great”. In other words, the mediation of a superior of flesh and blood who is surrounded by his own weaknesses and failures, plays the role of keeping us in the state of true humility which draws down God’s blessings.
It is hard to obey, but it is even harder when orders come from a man like us, who might be less gifted than us, or less educated than us, or less holy than us, or even quite simply wrong. That is why Psalm 65, which St Benedict quotes in the 4th degree of humility, exclaims with anguish: Thou, O God, hast proved us: thou hast tried us by fire, as silver is tried. Thou hast brought us into a net, thou hast laid afflictions on our back: Thou hast set men over our heads. We have passed through fire and water, and thou hast brought us out into a refreshment (Ps 65:10-12).
Yesterday we celebrated the Visitation of Our Lady to Elisabeth, and we considered how it is that God visits His people. The great visit that God pays humanity is the Church, in which He remains ever present. Let us ever renew our faith and devotion and let us, with Mother Mary, magnify the God who works marvels in us. If He did great things with and through the likes of Peter, so can He do today, for He never abandons those who trust in Him.