There is a place in my hometown of Galway called An Tobar Nua (which means The New Well), which is run by some Baptist friends of mine. Their aim is to help people come back to their own faith, whatever Christian group they are part of. They do great work. For two years they asked me to give a lecture to a group of protestant students from America who were with them for several months. They asked me to give an overview of the development of the Christian faith in Ireland. The idea was that they could then ask me questions about the Catholic faith. I enjoyed it and the questions were interesting.
They are usually the same questions that come up: why do we ‘worship’ Our Lady? So I try to explain that we certainly don’t worship Our Lady as this would be idolatry, but we do give her great honor just as Jesus did. Another question is: how can a priest claim to forgive sins? This question is a particularly interesting one, because it brings up a lot of other things. The truth is that the priest himself does not forgive sins, because the priest is only a human being, but that God forgives sins through the priest. But even this understanding, where does it come from?
You will remember in some of the Gospel passages where Jesus said to one or two people before he healed them, ‘Go, your sins are forgiven.’ When he said this the religious people of the time were shocked because they said ‘Only God can forgive sins.’ Then he showed his authority to forgive by also healing the person.
This Gospel passage today is connected to this, because in it is the answer to why we take the teaching of the Church seriously and also where the power of the priesthood comes from. God the eternal Father, revealed to Peter who Jesus really was, and straightaway Jesus points this out to him and then appoints him as the first one to lead his Church. Then Jesus says this extraordinary thing: ‘Whatever you bind on earth will be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be considered loosed in heaven.’ And in another passage Jesus says: ‘Whatever sins you forgive will be forgiven, whatever sins you retain will be retained.’
What Jesus was saying was that he was giving his authority to Peter and the Apostles, not because they had all the gifts and talents needed to continue this movement by themselves, but because it would be God who would work through them, teach through them and forgive through them.
All around us at the moment there is terrible confusion. Even all the arguments to do with gay marriage and everyone being told they have the right to do pretty much everything, and if they don’t then they are being discriminated against. It is disturbing to say the least. What are we to do about it? We have only to stay calm and remember who it is that is guiding us, God himself. So it is our job to stay focused on the Lord, on his teaching through the Church and not worry about all the craziness around us which can be both confusing and frightening as everything we believe in seems to be being undermined. Throughout the ages this has always been the way, but perhaps it is more 'in our face' now than usual.
‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church; and the gates of the underworld can never prevail against it.’
Jesus gave Peter and the apostles his authority because God himself would be working through them and God continues to work and teach through them and through the priesthood; to offer his forgiveness through them and to make Jesus present in each mass through the priesthood. I don’t know why He did this, but I believe it, and that is enough.
It says in the second reading ‘How impossible to understand God’s motives!’ So much of what God does makes no sense to us, including God’s Church and how it works. But all that is really important is that we believe that this is from God and that it is not from people. If I believed that this was a human institution I can assure you I would not be here as a priest. I am a priest because I believe God called me to be a priest and to continue to pass on his message as best I can. I sometimes wish He had picked someone else instead, because it is often quite difficult, but at the same time I am very grateful because it is a huge privilege.
So our job is to try and be faithful to the Lord’s teaching which is given to us through the Church and not to be afraid of the chaos that is going on all around us in society. We keep the Lord Jesus at the center; we keep coming back to listen to what He is teaching us through the Scriptures and we receive Jesus continually in the Eucharist. That is enough. It is the Lord’s Church, the Lord’s teaching and there is nothing for us to be afraid of if we keep focused on him.
‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church
And the gates of the underworld will never hold out against it.’