|Rev. Fr. Augustine Vallooran V.C.|
A sincere young seeker approached me at a gathering. He asked me, “Father, you preached well that Jesus Christ was sent to the world to save mankind.” As I thanked him, I knew that he had something more to say and was merely preparing the ground. He began sharing his apprehensions about the Catholic Church which he assured me was where he was born and which he respects. “I believe however that Jesus did not come to start a religion or a system. He came to this earth to pay the price of our sins. He taught us how to live out our commitment to Him in order to experience salvation in our day-to-day life. All that we need to know is there for us in the Bible. After having completed His mission, He returned to His Father. To live out our faith is our personal choice as we opt to be guided by the Word of God. Why then do we unnecessarily saddle the faith with an administrative structure, code of conduct, compendium of official teachings and ritualistic practices which are all anyhow later accidental additions? Why are we muffling the saving message of Jesus? This superstructure is not a necessary part of our faith. It is up to the individual to accept it or not. Do you not think that what is important is our personal faith commitment to the Person of Jesus?”
“We Appeal To You Not To Receive The Grace Of God In Vain” (2 Corinthians 6:1)
We are living in an age where self-styled gurus are flourishing by their marketing of a superficial spirituality that offers a cheap grace of salvation without discipline. I was reminded of the words of the great theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who describes this well - “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
I was not surprised at the young man’s apprehensions. Since he evinced a keen faith in the Bible and seemed sincerely interested in the truth, I realized my task would not be difficult.
A study of the Sacred Scriptures would reveal to us the fallacy and danger of such a brand of individualistic Christianity. The Gospels affirm in no unclear terms that Jesus established a hierarchical structure of authority to guide and teach the community of His followers. In this sacred hierarchy, St. Peter was given by the Lord Himself, the supreme role as the Head of the Church. The history of the Church also clarifies that this primacy of St. Peter was accepted in the Christian community from the earliest times.
“Built Upon The Foundation Of The Apostles And Prophets” (Ephesians 2:20)
Jesus, in the gospels, chooses twelve disciples from among His followers. The choice is done with much care. St. Luke tells us that the Lord prayed the whole night and in the morning He called his disciples and chose twelve of them to be Apostles, calling each one by name (Luke 6:12-13). They were chosen to be with Him and to receive authority to preach and cast out demonic powers (Mark 3:14-15). From then on, Jesus was always found with the twelve. The number twelve is particularly significant in the Scriptures. Simon Peter once asked Jesus what would be the privilege of these chosen ones who left everything to follow Him. Jesus replied, “You will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Matthew 19:28) Sitting on the throne and judging are expressions that signify authority and power. The people of God in the Old Testament were gathered in twelve tribes. The new people of God whose identity was in Jesus will be those gathered by the preaching of the twelve Apostles and baptized and sanctified by them.
After a hectic time of ministry Jesus looking at the twelve said, "Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom." (Luke 12:32) On another occasion, after preaching to the crowds in parables, Jesus explained the meaning of the parables to the twelve in private and commented, "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 13:11)
“Feed My Sheep” (John 21:17)
Among the twelve disciples, Simon Peter receives the prime position of authority. He is chosen as the spokesperson of the twelve bearing witness to the Divine nature and salvific mission of Jesus. Even at the first meeting with him, Jesus indicates his special role in the Kingdom as the Lord confers on this big fisherman a new name - “You are Simon son of John; you will be called Cephas.” (John 1:42) The evangelist explains that Cephas means Peter or rock. St. Matthew describes in detail the occasion when this unique and significant grace was given to Peter. Jesus had posed a question to all the disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" (Matthew 16:15) Simon Peter alone gives the bold answer - "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." (Matthew 16:16) At this declaration of the Messianic mission of Jesus, the Master confirms him: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the nether world shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:17-19) Here Jesus in His own words speaks of a determination to raise a community of His followers in the Church and also of His clear vision that Peter must be at the helm of this institution. The trust that Christ places in a human person is overwhelming. But along with this trust and responsibility, we come to see that an overwhelming grace is provided.
When some of those who had been following Jesus walk away after the discourse on the Holy Eucharist, Jesus turned to the twelve for their response asking them, “Do you also want to leave?” Here it is Simon Peter who spoke up, affirming their faith in the Master's words - "Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)
Peter’s unique responsibility is again affirmed before the Passion. At the Last Supper, Jesus anticipates the major turmoil that was to come with His Passion and Death, the denial of Peter and desertion of all the other disciples. It is still to Simon Peter that the Lord turns and gives the charge to hold the disciples together, “Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:31-32)
“Peter, Filled With The Holy Spirit, Answered Them” (Acts 4:8)
There was already an unspoken acknowledgement of the primacy of Peter among the twelve. The gospel describes how Peter and John having heard of the glorious Resurrection ran together to the tomb. Though the young John reached first, he waits for Simon Peter to arrive and to go in and verify the empty tomb. So Peter could become among the twelve the first witness to the Resurrection. The Gospel of John concludes with the Risen Lord giving Simon Peter the charge to lead the flock of God. "Feed my lambs... Tend my sheep... Feed my sheep.” (John 21:15-17)
There is clear proof that in the early Church, Simon Peter was looked to as the decision making authority. After the Ascension, Simon Peter heads the disciples in prayer. The Acts of the Apostles records how he takes the leadership to elect a new apostle in the place of Judas the betrayer.
At Pentecost, those who waited and prayed in the Upper Room were anointed with the Holy Spirit. A big crowd of people gathered having seen and heard the extraordinary phenomena of the anointing. Peter declares to them with great conviction and authority that Jesus is the Lord and Messiah expected by the Jews, prepared for by the prophets and sent by the Father. He exhorts the people to believe in Jesus and to be baptized in Him was the only way of salvation. The account continues to describe that hearing him, they were cut to the heart with repentance and three thousand of them came forward to be baptized. Peter goes with John to clarify the faith of the early Christian community to the Sanhedrin, the highest council of the Jews (Acts 4). Undeterred by threat of persecution, he affirms his conviction to proclaim the life-giving message of the Saviour no matter what it must cost him, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20)
As the first Pope, Simon Peter was instrumental in making the Church truly Catholic. In prayer, he is inspired by God to evangelize the Gentiles, till then excluded by the Jewish and Christian understanding from the hope of salvation. Breaking new frontiers, Peter steps into the house of Cornelius the Gentile Centurion and declares, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ - He is Lord of all.” (Acts 9:34-36) The account describes that “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.” (v.44) Though he was initially criticized for staying with the Gentiles, he would guide them to accept and love everyone the Lord would bring into the fold. He would lead the community to persevere and grow in its loving and committed proclamation.
There were problems in the early Christian community. But the Apostles united with Simon Peter could guide them in the Light of the Spirit. When there was a widespread argument in the early Church about matters of doctrine, Simon Peter called all the leaders of the Church for the first Council known as the Jerusalem Council and brought them to an understanding of what the Holy Spirit would require of them and to reconciliation.
“The Gift of God You Have Through The Imposition Of My Hands” (2 Timothy 1:6)
Christ called His disciples to be united with Him and carry out His salvific mission of proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Even while He walked this earth, He entrusted the disciples with this partnership in the salvation mission. For the unity of the Church which is the Body of Christ and to preserve the authenticity of the Teachings, the Lord Himself established a clear hierarchical structure of authority. It was clear to the early Church that this authority had to be respected. This God-given authority to guide and protect the people of God was to be taken very seriously. “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28) In Galatia, there were false teachers claiming divine revelations and confusing the people with teachings contrary to the instructions of the apostles. St. Paul writes to them in very clear terms - “Even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!” (Galatians 1:8)
It is evident therefore that obedience to the authority of the Church has always been considered as integral part of the Faith itself. “When they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” (Acts 14:23) What is to be believed in is to be taught in strict adherence to the lines of the Apostolic Teaching. Church history records that from these earliest times, the successors of the Apostles were chosen and the Apostolic Authority was handed over to them by the laying of hands. St. Paul writing to Timothy reminds him how he was chosen and given authority by the laying of hands. “The gift you have was conferred on you through the prophetic word with the imposition of hands of the presbyterate.” (1 Timothy 4:14) He gives elaborate instructions to him about finding a worthy person for the offices of bishop and deacons (1 Timothy 3). Paul specifies that it is crucial that when Timothy chooses leaders of the Church by the laying of hands, he must do so with utmost care (1 Timothy 5:22). Similarly, he instructs Titus to preserve the tradition of the hierarchy - “Appoint elders in every town as I directed you.” (Titus 1:5)
By this commitment to ensure the continuation of the mission of Jesus, the Apostolic Authority has been passed down to the Pope of Rome and the bishops in an unbroken succession. Faithfulness to Jesus means faithfulness to the Church.
“My Grace Is Sufficient For You” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
The words of Jesus to the disciples are very striking - “As the Father has sent me so I send you.” (John 20:21) The mission of the Apostles is a continuation of the mission entrusted to Jesus by the Father. However weak and failing the human persons may be, the Heavenly Power they are vested with will continue to save the human race. I remember a moving scene in a film on the early Church. The first Christians in the Roman catacombs had St. Paul leading them in prayer. St. Peter was to reach Rome and they were preparing to receive him. With much awe and reverence, Paul was relating to them the great authority the Lord had trusted Peter with and the unwavering commitment that Peter had for the Lord and of how the Holy Spirit was empowering Peter to be a rock on which the Church had someone to lean on. A person Jesus trusted and the Church could trust. At this moment Peter arrived and all were praising God. This was the picture of the unity visualized by the Lord for the Church centered on Peter. Peter greeted them with much love and joy! When he noticed their great love and regard for him, he however choked and tears were flowing down his eyes. The people looked at him puzzled and Peter clearing his throat spoke up. "I know you are looking at me as the shepherd entrusted with the authority to guide the Church. But I must tell you that I was a coward, denying my master at the saddest moment of his life. When he was ridiculed by the soldiers inside the room, I was warming myself by the fireplace. I'm painfully aware of my unworthiness to shoulder this responsibility for the Church and yet I know my Lord trusted me in His deep compassion for His flock."
This attitude of Simon Peter reveals the heart of everyone entrusted with a mission to teach, sanctify and guide the Church. When we hear of scandals, often exaggerated by the media, we need to pray that our shepherds may be strengthened by the Grace of the Lord. We can rest assured that the spiritual authority remains with them by the faithful Love of God for us. This is the Wisdom of God to preserve the Christian community in unity and faithfulness to Him.
Let Us Pray
Lord Jesus, You came to the world sent by the Father to save us, Your people. Your saving mission You have entrusted to the Holy Father, the bishops and the priests united with each other and with You. We pray that Your Wisdom to ensure the unity of Your faithful and the authenticity of the Teachings may be accepted by all who bear Your Name.
May your Holy Spirit who descended on the Apostles on the Pentecost day, the beginning of the Church, continue to strengthen the successors of the Apostles to be faithful to You and to lead your Church in the Power of the Spirit.