Chapter 17: Peter’s Confession of Faith
Peter’s confession of faith that Jesus is the Son of God represents an essential high point in the Gospel. It is a “target point” at which the disciples, with Peter at their head, were able to understand the personality of Jesus; at the same time, it represents a “starting point” for understanding the crucified Christ, since this knowledge of Peter of the truth of Jesus represents the first stage of the revelations which follow about the Lord, culminating in the Cross. Peter is a sign of the unity of the Church, and it is his responsibility to strengthen his brothers in faith and charity: “I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and once you have recovered, you in your turn must strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32). The faith of Peter was decisive in the formation of the first Christian community. Thus, in the priesthood, every missionary, and every priest, has a duty to witness to the unity of the Church. They must strengthen their brothers in faith and encourage them to remain faithful. One can’t just join the chorus of Church critics. Rather, they must instead build up the Church, unite it and defend it.
Who is Jesus to you? Have you already tasted how good he is; have you then decided to follow him on the path of holiness and the priesthood? Do you think that what you have experienced is enough for you to advance in this vocation? What are the criteria required for a candidate for the priesthood; what is the role of the priest in the Christian community? That’s what we want to consider in our meeting today.
2- Reading and understanding the Gospel: Peter’s Confession of Faith (Mt 16:13-20)
13When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi he put this question to his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say he is John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 “But you,” he said, “who do you say I am?” 16Then Simon Peter spoke up, “You are the Christ,” he said, “the Son of the living God.” 17Jesus replied, “Simon son of Jonah, you are a happy man! Because it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven. 18So I now say to you: You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.” 20Then he gave the disciples strict orders not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.
2. 1- Explanation
In this text, there are two parts: the first (vv.13-16) deals with Jesus and who he is; and the second (vv. 17-20) is the response Jesus makes to Peter, emphasizing his specific role in relation to the other apostles, within the Christian community. The Gospel of Matthew is the Gospel of the Church; we see Peter’s personality emerge in several texts: walking on water, his profession of faith, and paying the tribute coin to Caesar. Jesus’ essential question concerned the “Son of Man” that is to say, Christ, coming at the end of time (Mt 24:44; Dan 7:13), a phrase which signifies Jesus himself. The response of the disciples was that a few thought the “Son of Man” was John the Baptist, as Herod had thought (Mt 14:2); others thought he was Elijah, that is, the expected prophet who would come to prepare for the arrival of the Messiah; and others said he was Jeremiah or one of the prophets, that is, those who enjoyed great favour before God for the people of Israel oppressed by Roman enemies. But Peter’s response was “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”, a response expressing perfect faith in Jesus as the expected Christ, the Son of God of whom the Old Testament had spoken, and who will give eternal life by his death on the Cross. Of course, Peter’s answer was not easy to give, which is why Jesus answered by clarifying the following:
In v.17, the expression “flesh and blood” signifies the whole man, emphasizing the fragile, material and bodily side. Peter was privileged to receive a special divine revelation (Mt 11:25-27), and to receive the grace to know who Jesus really is, different from the understanding of the other disciples. That is what gave Peter and his successors, the popes, a special position in the responsibility of the Church, called the “Petrine Ministry”.
In v.18, Jesus names Simon “Peter” (Greek for ‘stone’ or ‘rock’), pointing out his special role in the construction of the Church. Indeed, the latter is founded on the rock of faith, and belongs to Christ. The first person singular in “my Church” indicates that all its officials are only stewards for the sole owner, that is Christ. He promised that she would be eternal, for she is founded on faith.
In v.19, we see that Peter was entrusted with the “keys”, which made him responsible for the “house”, welcoming into the community of believers, those who are of God, and refusing those who are not worthy of it. However, he has a duty not to be like the Pharisees, to whom Jesus addressed himself in these words: “Alas for you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You who shut up the Kingdom of heaven in men’s faces, neither going in yourselves nor allowing others to go in who want to” (Mt 23:13). What is meant by “bind” and “loose”? These are two rabbinic expressions used by the legal scholars, in a dogmatic and legislative sense, in relation to what is permitted and what is forbidden.
2. 2- Summary and Practice
Jesus asks you today, dear catechumen, as he once asked his disciples: “Who am I to you?” Will your answer then be dictated by what you have learned in theology and catechism, or will it be based on your daily experience? The time has come to focus, in the first place, on your life as a Christian, on the personal experience you have with Christ, because this usually begins the journey of faith that will later be nourished by catechetical teaching.
Jesus promised that hell would not pass through the gates of the Church, built on the rock of faith. Two thousand years on, this is why the Church is still standing strong, despite many persecutions and wars. On the other hand, the promise of Jesus bears a vigorous warning for communities, families and people living apart from faith, in a life devoid of the spiritual depths sought by Jesus. This is something to be most feared, for collapse and extinction are on the horizon.
3- Theological and Spiritual Teaching: The Sacrament of Ordination
This sacrament has been among the most important in the life of Church, being instituted by the Lord Jesus to build the Church. It is also called the sacrament of ‘ministry’ or service, for God called and instituted the priest, not only for his own holiness, but also, and in a particular way, for the service of the people of God. The Church believes in the “apostolic succession”, since Jesus chose the twelve Apostles to build up his Church; in turn, they appointed successors, through the latter’s call from God and the laying on of hands. This inheritance, which we hold from Christ and his Apostles, we perpetuate with the bishops and priests of today, until the end of the ages. Bishop and priests work together to build the Church in their pastoral mission consisting of three ministries: teaching, sanctification and administration.
- Teaching: Teaching consists of first receiving the Word of God announced in the Gospel and in the faith of the Church. It belongs to bishops and priests to proclaim it and explain it to the faithful. In turn, the people study and meditate on it, and draw inspiration from its light so that they can act well in their lives, while acting in accordance with the Gospel. This is not an exclusive task for priests; Christian believers well versed in teaching the Christian faith – academically or practically – may help in this respect. However, the responsibility lies with the disciples and their successors – bishops and priests – to provide true teachings and avoid spreading heresies and false teaching. Thus, the faith of Peter is still embodied in the bishops of Rome, i.e. H.H. the Pope, who, in turn, defines the articles of the Christian faith in communion with the bishops of the world.
- Sanctification: Every layman is concerned with the sanctification of the world, because he is a member of the Body of Christ and a temple of the Holy Spirit. But, in particular, priests are entrusted with the task of carrying out ecclesiastic celebrations, especially the sacraments: baptizing, anointing the sick, confirming, hearing confessions and remitting sins.
• Administration: Administration is the management of God’s people, not only at the level of organization, but in a broader pastoral context. Priests watch over the parish, enquire about those who are absent from liturgical celebrations, visit the sick, promote help for those in need, arrange activities that bring joy to parishioners, organize missionary activities, and do everything possible to ensure that Christian life grows in all its dimensions. Christ Jesus is the first priest, he is even the only priest; others, however, participate in his priesthood, for their offering is none other than his, which has already happened on the Cross. Baptism is celebrated in his name, and the remission of sins is conferred by the grace of his Cross which has wiped out our sins. It is Christ who has taken our humanity and entered with it into the Holy of Holies, that is to say, into Heaven before the throne of God. By his Grace we receive all other graces. He is the way, the truth and the life. The Church works, with her priests and the lay faithful, each with his own charism (gift), to prepare the way by which Christ becomes all in all.
4- Reading and Meditation: A Reading from the Documents of the Second Vatican Council
The Vocation of Priests to the Life of Perfection
Priests are made in the likeness of Christ the priest by the sacrament of Orders, so that they may, in collaboration with their bishops, work for the building up and care of the Church which is the whole body of Christ, acting as ministers of him who is the head. Like all other Christians they have received in the sacrament of Baptism the symbol and gift of such a calling and such grace that even in human weakness (cf. 2 Cor 12:9), they can and must seek for perfection, according to the exhortation of Christ: “Be you therefore perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). Priests are bound, however, to acquire that perfection in special fashion. They have been consecrated by God in a new manner at their ordination and made living instruments of Christ the eternal priest that they may be able to carry on in time his marvellous work whereby the entire family of man is again made whole by power from above.(1) Since, therefore, every priest in his own fashion acts in place of Christ himself, he is enriched by a special grace, so that as he serves the flock committed to him and the entire People of God, he may the better grow in the grace of him whose tasks he performs, because to the weakness of our flesh there is brought the holiness of him who for us was made a high priest “holy, guiltless, undefiled, not reckoned among us sinners” (Heb 7:26).
Christ, whom the Father sanctified, consecrated and sent into the world (cf. Jn 10:36) “gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and cleanse for himself an acceptable people, pursuing good works” (Tit 2:14), and thus through suffering entered into his glory (Lk 24:26). In like fashion, priests consecrated by the anointing of the Holy Spirit and sent by Christ must mortify the works of the flesh in themselves and give themselves entirely to the service of men. It is in this way that they can go forward in that holiness with which Christ endows them, to become the perfect man (cf. Eph 4:13).19