When Napoleon was taking over Europe in the 19th century, he met the Cardinal of Paris and he told him that he would take over and destroy the Vatican. The Cardinal told him that he wouldn’t be able. Napoleon assured him that he would. The Cardinal said to Napoleon, ‘We priests have been trying to destroy the Vatican for the last 1800 years and we haven’t been able. You won’t be able either.’
I have often heard people say in interviews, ‘I’m not really very religious, I just go to church on Sundays,’ or words to that effect. I think we often put ourselves down and underestimate how much faith we have. The fact is that if you and I didn’t believe in God, in Jesus coming to us in each mass, that God works through the priest in the mass, we wouldn’t come here. This means that you probably have far more faith than you give yourself credit for. If we really didn’t believe, these things, we wouldn’t come here, because apart from faith, what we believe in sounds completely crazy.
Today’s readings make an interesting point. In this encounter between Jesus and Peter, Peter recognised that Jesus was the Christ, the one promised by God and right away Jesus told him that he was a happy man, because it was God the Father who had revealed this to him. This tells us that the fact that we believe in God means we have been given the gift which we call faith. You might think, ‘Well, I just learnt about it from my parents’, but the fact is that many other people also learnt about it from their parents and don’t believe, so there must be more to it than that. No human being on their own, will convince you of God, even with the best arguments. I could stand here for hours and try to give you impressive explanations of why we should believe in God, but if the Spirit of God does not touch your heart, I would be wasting my time. It is God and only God who can convince you of his presence. The only thing we need in order to receive this gift, is ‘openness’. If we are open we will come to know God, because that is what God wants for us.
The second thing that Jesus said to Peter tells us why we need the Church. Sometimes you will hear people say that they want God, but not the Church. Jesus said: ‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church.’ He also said, ‘Whatever you bind on earth will be considered bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be considered loosed in heaven.’ In other words, Jesus was giving his authority to Peter and his followers to act and make decisions in his name.
Was that a crazy thing to do? Why on earth would God give his authority to a bunch of ordinary and weak people, to represent him and speak on his behalf? What it means is that God would be working through these people, through his Spirit who guides the Church, who guides us all. So the Lord was saying, ‘I am going to work through human instruments, but it is my Church and it is me that will guide it.’ If you find that idea hard to believe, just think for a minute of all the different empires and superpowers that have come and gone over the centuries: the great Chinese empires, the Roman Empire, people like Napoleon, Hitler, all the different nations that were super-powers. They were all powerful, well organized and wealthy and yet they have all come and gone and they are no more. Why? Because they were of human origin. How is it that the Church is still here, considering we have had centuries of bad example, scandals, bad preaching, etc? The only reason the Church is still here, is because it is from God and it is God who is continually acting through it, in spite of all the mistakes we make, and we make plenty. The history of the Church is nothing to boast about. It was Jesus’ plan to have a Church and to work through it, so that we would have a very concrete way to relate to God and so He guides us through his Church and shows us the path to follow. So today, 20 centuries after Christ, here am I still passing on the message to you and even if I make a mess of it, the Lord will teach us what we need to know, just as long as we go on being open to him.
Another time Jesus said, “Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock.” Jesus is saying, don’t build your faith on ‘nice ideas’ or just the things that suit you. Have a solid foundation for your faith, or it won’t last. That foundation is what is passed on to us through the Church, because that is his teaching.
You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church.