From all eternity, the Son planned to erect the infallible chair of His Church in the person of a mortal man. In the glorious scene of Peter’s confession, He manifests for history the perfection of His works and demonstrates just how erroneous human thoughts can be.
Gospel – Feast of the Chair of Peter
13 When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi He asked His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
17 Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My heavenly Father. 18 And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. 19 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” (Mt 16:13-19).
I – What Was Lost by Adam, God Restored to His Descendants
The Gospel chosen for the Feast of the Chair of Peter is well known to all Catholics and is close to the heart of the author of these lines because, as well as constituting the foundation of our Church, it also provides the basis for the spirituality of the work he founded: pontifical infallibility, established on the chair that we commemorate today.
Contemplated several times over the course of the Liturgical Year, these verses have already been analysed on other occasions in the pages of this magazine.1 However, in this regard the Liturgy resembles the Church, which has fixed characteristics that endure over time, but which never remains static; rather she is enriched by the passing of the years, and the world will only end when the Mystical Bride of Christ has produced the supreme fruit of her last flower. Similarly, it will be enough to turn the “kaleidoscope” of the liturgical texts just a little in order to discover new aspects which have not yet been highlighted in the commentaries made over the last two decades and which will be useful for our spiritual progress.
A treasure lost with the sin of Adam
After forming a figure – one of the most beautiful and sui generis objects that came forth from His hands – from the clay of this world2, and with His breath giving life to the first man, God introduced him into Terrestrial Paradise and granted him a very special gift: participation in His divine nature, as well as extraordinary perfections. Among these were infused science, which gave Adam knowledge of all things that could be grasped by the human intellect and a full understanding of the truth, as well as the gift of integrity, by which his lower powers were subjected to superior reason, and finally, immortality. Having created man in His “image and likeness” (Gn 1:26), the Lord was pleased to walk with His masterpiece in the Garden of Eden (cf. Gn 3:8), instructing Adam and building on the wisdom He had infused into him.
This entire order of things was broken ex abrupto by the original sin committed by our common father. The notions of goodness, beauty and truth weakened in his soul, his reason became clouded, and an irremediable tendency to evil became the legacy he left us.
In order to remedy the unbridled decadence of our race, God himself decided to reveal to men what they would have received from Adam, and to this end He chose a people as the repository of truth. By enlightening the patriarchs, judges and prophets, His words pointed to a great solution for Adam’s sin and to the reopening of the gates of Heaven that had been closed by it.
This solution was the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, who became incarnate and, at a certain moment, clearly showed the universal character of His mission: to make reparation for the fault committed and to save all of humanity, allowing it to return to the state in had enjoyed prior to sin and thus to recover what, in the person of Adam, it had lost in Paradise.
However, Our Lord Jesus Christ did not restore this treasure in the same state that the father of the living had left it, but made it multiply throughout history by means of an institution that would be the continuation of His presence on earth: the Holy Catholic Church. In founding it, He offered us a sublime lesson regarding the perfection of His work, perhaps beyond the reach of our intelligence, but full of divine wisdom.
These are the marvels which we can especially contemplate in today’s Gospel.
II – The Founding of an Immortal Institution
13 When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi He asked His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
In a few days Our Lord would be transfigured on Mount Tabor (cf. Mt 17:1-2). Leaving Bethsaida, He headed for Caesarea Philippi, some forty kilometres away.
At the highest point of that rocky region, Herod the Great had built a temple in honour of Caesar Augustus, and the tetrarch Philip, eager to please the emperor, gave the city that housed it the name Caesarea. In this place, where a man was worshipped, thus symbolising the pagan power of the Romans over all peoples, the historic dialogue between Jesus and His disciples would take place.
By that point, Our Lord had already performed countless miracles, which progressively demonstrated His divinity. As He acquired greater fame among the people, He also saw the hatred of His enemies increase daily and the hour of the Passion approach. Just earlier, after debating with the Sadducees and Pharisees, He had warned the Apostles about the imprudence of accepting the doctrine of these blind guides (cf. Mt 16:1-12). They needed to separate themselves from the old Synagogue, of which they rightly considered themselves full members. In fact, the institution which the Divine Master would found would be the continuation of the Old Covenant and the fulfilment of all prophecies, but it would bring about such a change of criteria and horizons that it was necessary to detach them from Jewish public opinion, so that they could contemplate the panorama which was to unfold before their eyes.
They were following a Man who was also God Incarnate himself. However, they did not have a clear notion of this, and Our Lord wanted them to become aware of this reality.
To this end He asks them a question in which He applies to himself a title which highlights His human nature: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Our Lord knew the answer from all eternity, but, as we shall see, in questioning the Apostles He wanted to prepare them to abandon their selfishness and to think of the goals related to the sublime vocation He had in store for them.
Looking at the Man, and not at God
14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
In the midst of the continuous influx of those who came to Jesus desirous of touching His cloak or hearing a word from His lips, circumstances were such that His presence produced both lights and questions. A gesture, a glance, a sigh… it was the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity who manifested himself in this way! The Incarnate Word was to spread around Him a mystery which everyone wanted in some way to classify, for this is the human endeavour in the face of anything new it comes across. But in His case, how could this classification be made without a supernatural revelation?
The conclusions enumerated by the Apostles came from mere elucidations of intelligence and other natural qualities. St. John the Baptist, for example, had intensely marked the history of Israel. Since he was the Precursor, special graces had been poured out in his respect, and since he had died shortly before, his memory was still fresh in the minds of all, together with the feeling that he was someone very linked to the Messiah. And a similar situation could be applied to Elijah, Jeremiah and other prophets.
The ingenuous response of the Apostles calls attention to the overly human vision that they themselves had of Our Lord, just like the people around them. They thought they were offering the Master a great compliment by transmitting to Him these hypotheses, and although they knew perfectly well that Jesus was neither John the Baptist, nor Elijah or Jeremiah, they partook in the essence of those affirmations, that is, the concept of an unusual Man, it is true, but in whom they did not discern the divine aspect.
Nevertheless, in their defence it might be argued that, in fact, the existence of a Man hypostatically united to the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity is so beyond human and angelic intelligence that not even one of the heavenly spirits could imagine it… Nor could the Apostles, by simple reasoning, come to the conclusion that the “Son of Man” was God, even after all they had seen. It was indispensable that an extraordinary gift of faith move their souls.
Who “I am”?
15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Curiously, after inquiring about the opinions concerning the “Son of Man”, Our Lord goes on to say: “who do you say that I am.” In a sense, these words already reveal to them His true face, helping them to avoid erring in their response, since the expression “I am” – Yahweh – evoked the name by which God presented himself in the Old Testament (cf. Ex 3:14).
We can well assume that after this question there was a moment of silence, during which several of the Apostles thought: “Well, we believe that He is a little more than what others say…” However, that was still not enough…
An impetus inspired from above
16Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Perhaps because of the impasse, St. Peter steps forward. However, in contrast with the inopportune statements which often came from his lips, on this occasion he gives a precise and categorical answer: he declares that Our Lord is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
At first sight, it might seem that this is a thought developed on the basis of his experiences with the Master. In reality, however, he was clearly moved by the Holy Spirit to utter this magnificent confession. Upon it, a new temple would be built, no longer to worship false gods – like that of Caesarea Philippi, under whose shadow this exchange took place – but to confront paganism: the temple of the true God, the Holy Roman Catholic Church.
The blessedness of receiving a revelation
17Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My heavenly Father.”
Our Lord’s response indicates that St. Peter’s words did not come from his human capabilities, whether a privileged intelligence, a powerful will or a subtle discernment. It was a revelation from the Father, and for this reason Jesus declares him happy, that is, blessed. Without this revelation, when St. Peter saw Jesus weary, sleepy, hungry and thirsty – for He had assumed a body susceptible to suffering in order to suffer for us – He would never have been capable of coming to such a conclusion.
None of the other Apostles denies the confession made by the future Head of the Church. Certainly all received at that moment a grace to accept the divinity of Our Lord and to detach themselves at last from the misconceptions of their contemporaries.
The immortality of the Church erected upon a mortal man
18 “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”
From all eternity, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity had planned to erect the infallible chair of His Church in the person of a mortal man and, despite all the miseries stemming from original sin, He chose Peter for this purpose, as the first Pope and custodian of His solemn promise.
Our Lord employs the testimony of His absolute word and the assurance of His omnipotence in affirming that the gates of hell will never prevail against the Church. He refers to the visible rock, constituted by Peter and his successors, and to the invisible rock, himself, who from Heaven will sustain His Mystical Body. Nothing can destroy it, for it is a divine institution.
In its two thousand-year history the Church has weathered every sort of storm unscathed, emerging from them always younger, fairer and stronger. Therefore, when we consider the crisis of today’s society, the escalation of crime, the complete rejection of morality and so many other horrors that are raging throughout the world, we must believe that the Church will never perish. On the contrary, the more people degenerate, the more God’s power will shine forth in His work.
The power to open and to close Heaven
19 “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.”
The keys to the Kingdom of Heaven were placed in the hands of Peter, that is, of all the Popes. They can open or close its gates as they wish, for Jesus Christ seals in eternity what His Vicar determines in time. This shows us that the power of a Pontiff is simply incalculable!
Additionally, the Saviour’s promise gives the other Apostles a clear sense of the mission that was reserved for them: to proclaim the divinity of Jesus, true God and true Man, a mystery that can only be accepted by means of the gift of faith.
III – The Church: Our Reason for Confidence
The commentaries on this Gospel’s verses have been deliberately concise, since on other occasions we have had the opportunity to delve deeper into their exegetical significance. In this article, it will be of greater benefit to consider some of the teachings offered to us in the glorious scene that unfolded at Caesarea Philippi.
An invincible institution
Born of the Most Precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Holy Church unites characteristics that make it an unparalleled institution.
While yet in this prelude to its foundation, the Redeemer was already granting it even more than He had given Adam in Paradise: infallibility in relation to the truth and the guaranteed assistance of the Holy Spirit to those who occupy the Chair of Peter, when pronouncing on matters of faith and morals.
Moreover, by infusing the Church with a power of expansion flowing from a divine sap, He made it catholic, that is to say, universal, for it is made to be known by all and is aimed at the salvation of all. By the Communion of Saints, He also endowed her with the holiness and merits of all those throughout the world who are in God’s grace. And He gave her continuity in the same faith, by which she is enriched with ever new explanations, preserving a unity of doctrine which is never broken.
Finally, He adorned her with the gift of immortality, as the Colosseum and the ruins of the Circus Maximus in Rome bear witness, places where millions of martyrs died. Or likewise, cities such as Zaragoza, Lyon and Sebaste, in which many Christians proclaimed their faith with their own blood, not to mention the martyrdoms still happening today.
Persecutions, untold apostasies, devastating heresies… Nothing has succeeded in destroying the Church, for she possesses the strength of the Almighty. That is the secret of the perennity of this divine work, despite human deficiencies; that is the beauty of her stability, despite every ordeal.
And what is our role in this historic setting?
And yet, all of these marvels have as their underpinning that fragile rock which is Peter. Conceived with original sin, he had moreover acquired a series of imperfections, compounded by an impulsive and inconstant temperament…
Nevertheless, the Saviour builds His Church upon this rock. Why? He confided the answer to St. Paul: “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). This reality shows how greatly our criteria differ from His, reminding us of the oracle addressed to Isaiah: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (55:8-9).
If during that conversation at Caesarea Philippi the Divine Master were to turn to us and ask which of the Apostles we would judge to be the most apt to receive the infallible chair of the Church He was to found, probably none of us would choose the spontaneous and somewhat imprudent figure of Simon Peter… Nor would we, perusing the Twelve, deem such a positivist as Thomas to be ideal. John would seem too inexperienced and James rather unkind and given to violence (cf. Lk 9:54). Who can guarantee that we would not choose a balanced man, full of common sense, and with great administrative capacity called Judas Iscariot?
How faulty are the judgements of men! The divine choices do not always coincide with ours. If a work belongs to God, we should not want to carry it out by human means; it is up to Him to direct what belongs to Him.
God chose us for a better era
Of this Church thus constituted, we have the grace to be living stones! We belong to the Mystical Body of Christ as cells that participate in all the benefits of its Head: all that is of Our Lord is transmitted to us!
Led by the Holy Trinity and animated by a “soul” which is the Holy Spirit, nothing that happens in the Church escapes God’s control. We must have faith that, even amidst the confusion that our human eyes witness today, everything has its meaning and takes place in accord with the permission of Providence, directed towards a plenitude which we cannot imagine.
In this tumultuous twenty-first century we shall see a glorious continuation of the Church’s history, which will be the Reign of Mary. But it will be constituted with “rocks” far more wretched than Peter, which we could not even call sand. But for this to be accomplished, just as the Apostles were required to believe that the institution which Our Lord had come to found was indeed divine and indestructible, we will be asked to have an unbreakable faith in the triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, both within us and throughout the whole world.
The chief reason to never be discouraged with ourselves
In this sense, the Liturgy draws our attention to an important point: although our nature, of itself, can do nothing or very little, when it is assisted by grace it can do everything!
In our daily life, full of challenges for the practice of virtue, we need to have great confidence in the supernatural. The miraculous action of grace will never fail us, as it has never failed the Church, which has undergone two millennia of incessant struggle and will endure until the end of the world.
We have all experienced difficulties, and disasters are a daily occurrence. But these trials should help us to understand that we are dependent and need God’s assistance, without which we will never do anything useful for our salvation.
Let us never give up on anyone, no matter how bad the situation may be, for everything is possible with God. Above all, let us never be discouraged with ourselves. In spite of our relapses into this or that misery, at a given moment grace will overtake us, provided we do not close the doors to it! The first Pope gives us the ultimate example in this matter. When all seemed lost, after his having denied the Saviour three times, his gaze met Our Lord’s and he received the grace of a sincere conversion (cf. Lk 22:61-62). Fifty days later, a tongue of fire rested upon his head in the Upper Room and changed the course of his life and of history.
In sum, let us have great patience with others and with ourselves, as we seek the things of Heaven (cf. Col 3:1) and never lose heart! ◊