HOMILY for the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter
At the end of St Matthew’s Gospel, the Lord says to St Peter and the apostles: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:18-20).
In this we see two essential elements of the work of the apostles in building up the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, on earth. There is the sacramental activity, by which Christians are inserted into the life of the Trinity. And there is the teaching or magisterial activity, by which Christians are taught to live a life modeled on Christ’s. This is to say, we’re enabled to live a life of charity that makes explicit what it means to be baptized into the life of the Trinity, into God who is a communion of love.
In order that these life-giving activities continue until Jesus Christ returns in glory, as he commands, so Christ promises to be with his Church, present and active in her teaching authority, called the Magisterium, and present and active in her sacramental life. So, in the authentic teaching of the Church, and in the sacraments, it is Jesus Christ who is acting, who is teaching, and who is sanctifying his people. For any authority that the Church has, and any grace and truth that she communicates comes, ultimately, from him, the Head of the Church. As the Catechism says: “Entirely dependent on Christ who gives mission and authority, ministers are truly ‘slaves of Christ’” (CCC 876). As such, leadership in the Church is exercised as a service to Christ, to his Church by keeping all in a bond of love and unity, and to the world who longs to hear the Gospel of truth.
Hence, the Catechism explains that “in order to preserve the Church in the purity of the faith handed on by the apostles, Christ who is the Truth willed to confer on her a share in his own infallibility” (CCC 889). It is this gift of Christ’s sure and infallible authority to his Church, particularly to St Peter and his successors, that we celebrate in today’s feast. For the Magisterium, and especially the ministry of the pope, is a sign of Christ’s love for us, of his promise to be with his Church “to the close of the age” to keep us in a unity of faith with him, and to lead us and into all truth; the papacy is a sign of Christ’s pastoral care, and of his faithfulness. So, the Catechism says that, through the Magisterium, we receive a “guarantee [of] the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error” (CCC 890). As such, dissent from the teaching authority of the Church is actually a sign of a lack of faith in Christ. For it says, in effect, that Christ has broken his promise to be with his Church for all time, that his gift of infallibility in matters of faith and morals has failed, or worse, that his teaching is being rejected.
It’s sometimes objected that there have been very unworthy popes, and so, we can’t trust the papacy. But, as in the sacramental life – in our life of grace and our relationship with God – it is not our worthiness that takes centre-stage. Rather, the effectiveness of the sacraments themselves, and indeed, the existence of the Church (despite the sinners that make up her members), and so, also, the infallible teaching authority of the Church, all point to the faithfulness of Christ. They all speak of a God who is love, and who thus does not abandon us when we, his sinful servants, fail. Rather, Christ promises to remain with us, to be present and active in his Church so as to always teach, guide, and sanctify us.
It is this promise made to St Peter and to each of his successors, to every pope, that we celebrate today. In just one week the Chair of Saint Peter will be vacant as Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate comes to an end. But the chair, the seat of authority, itself remains. Because the authority entrusted to the papacy is Christ’s own, and Christ, who is always faithful (cf 2 Tim 2:13), has promised to remain with his Church always, “to the close of the age”.