21st Sunday in ordinary Time (August 27, 2017)
Peter’s profession of faith in Jesus being both messiah and especially “son of the living god” amounts to a double profession of faith. [Mark and Luke state only the “Christ” title, omitting the “son of the living God.”] Jesus recognized this in Peter by conferring a special leadership role. Peter is given the authority to bind obligations and loose obligations in the church. “Church” is a word that appears only three times in all four Gospels, and all three are in Matthew. Keys are a symbol of power – as anyone sixteen years or older in our country recognizes.
Jesus clearly taught and lived that authority is exercised in service to people, “not in lording it over them”, to use Jesus’ term. But, service also takes the form of providing direction, leading others on the way.
Leadership, authority, power have been very much in the news in recent times. In the arena of business, the executives of Enron, WorldCom, Adelphia, have been responsible for the devastating loss to their employees’ jobs and life- savings.
Credibility once involved two individuals. Now, increasingly, credibility involves the basic institutions of our society: business, politics, and yes, even the religious institution, church.
Authority is a very broad topic. I would like to speak to two issues involving church authority.
First, our church continues to suffer from abuse of authority. The authority that priests have with youth and children has been abused and has damaged so many, many lives and injured credibility vis-à-vis church. It involves only one or two percent of priests, but all of us priests are tarred with the same brush. That is a cross I never anticipated.
There is the authority of bishops, archbishops, cardinals who transferred guilty priests and later covered up the evidence after 1985. 1985 was the critical year; it was the year this perversion was recognized as an addictive sickness, and that fact was publicized. Every bishop in the United States got a warning letter. Some hierarchs ignored it.
Scott Appleby, the church historian from the university of Notre dame, spoke to the assembly of bishops in Dallas and called this behavior the “arrogance that comes with unchecked power.” To this day, the hierarchy has yet to take responsibility for their failure.
Humility - truth - demands that their failure not be denied, but be acknowledged and repented. Humility is at the core of the solution of the “problem.”
A second issue of authority is church directives. Popes and bishops have authority and their words need to be taken seriously. In the previous chapter in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus, condemns the Pharisees as poor leaders: “The blind leading the blind” and “ this people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
What are we to do if it becomes apparent that we are being misled? We need to recognize that a leader’s proclamation is only one of the tools for discerning God’s will and forming our conscience. “Conscience” is not a divine implant. Actually, it is the name for using our intelligence when it addresses a moral question.
We are also given another means to discern God’s will. Examining our life experiences in the necessary context of personal prayer and the presence of the Holy Spirit, is a valid pathway to discern God’s will, we carefully weigh all the circumstances involved in a moral action and then make our “conscience-decision.”
We need the courage to stand firm after our conscience-decision. We also need humility and willingness to make mid-course corrections when we realize that we miscalculated and we are off course -- never compounding the mistake by trying to justify it.
It takes courage, a loving heart, a listening ear, and a discerning spirit to hear the voice of God.
We humbly trust in God to guide our path. Humility and trust; that is, “faith,” makes for a sure path.
Many people have power and influence over us, but only those who love can lead us in faith. Let’s put our basic, our deepest trust where it can do the most good: in Jesus and anyone who, however imperfectly, lives in his spirit.