The Twenty-Second Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Jer 20:7-9; Rom 12:1-2; Mt 16:21-27]
Poor Peter. At center stage in today’s gospel, the Prince of the apostles stands alone, speechless, and confused; scarcely able to believe what he has just heard. But if there is any doubt about it, he need only consult the eleven witnesses who saw and heard everything and they will confirm that Jesus, (whom Peter only a moment ago proclaimed to be the Christ), visibly angry, just looked Peter in the face and said “Get behind me – you Satan!”
This – to Peter, the man who left behind father, wife, and children; who abandoned the nets by which he made his living; who risked everything to follow Jesus; Peter: called the “Prince of the Apostles”; admired by all for the generosity and fervor of his faith; who suffered privation, hunger, and sleepless nights in the service of his beloved Master – this Peter, Jesus denounces in the presence of all his brothers and addresses as “Satan”.
Peter’s confusion at this moment is complete, and ours as well. We too are confused and deeply disturbed, because of all the unwelcome surprises that life can throw at us, there is finally nothing more shocking; more disheartening or confusing, than to see accused of serious wrongdoing one whom we regarded as a holy man.
One hears people speak of “scandal”. What is scandal, but the discovery that one whom we trusted and held up as a Father, a guide, an inspiration, is guilty of serious and deliberate wrongdoing.
But nobody needs to tell us what a scandal is. In recent months we have seen one of the most respected Archbishops of the American church featured on the cover of Newsweek and accused in its pages of being routinely indifferent to crimes committed against small children; and worse yet – not just indifferent, but actively complicit in policies that led to the abuse of children by priests under his supervision. The seriousness of these accusations struck many of us as almost un- believable. They might as well have called the Archbishop – “Satan.”
Like Peter, this Archbishop and others now stand publicly rebuked, and confounded, and we as witnesses of the event are filled with consternation and many questions.
Perhaps our first and most urgent question is: “Who is making these charges against the leaders of our church?” Before what judge do they stand accused of wrongdoing? Is it the media? Is it newspaper journalists who propose to stand as judges over Catholic bishops? This is an important question – because it will be difficult for the pastors of our church to listen to an exhortation on the subject of sexual morality from representatives of a culture that has turned the sexual abuse of children into a flourishing industry. So, who exactly is it that accuses our church leaders?
In response to this question, I would suggest that when anyone speaks in defense of children who have been victimized, it is truth that speaks and the truth might be spoken from the lips of Ballam’s Ass, and if it is truth that speaks, then the voice that addresses us is the voice of Him who said: “I am the truth – Listen! And the truth will set you free.” Brothers and sisters, it seems to me, in the present case, there can be no mistake about who is accusing the bishops of the Catholic Church. It is the Lord.
But, if this be so, then it’s important for us to reflect upon what is the source of the Lord’s displeasure with his bishops. We wish to know what exactly was done wrong that it may be avoided in the future. Now, no reasonable person believes that bishops maliciously intended to harm children, so what exactly did they do wrong? Is it possible that this morning’s gospel; this awful scene of Peter’s apparent rejection by the Lord; might this gospel help us to understand what went wrong in our church?
What was the real reason Peter was rebuked by the Lord? How did he displease him? What did he do except say to Jesus: “May you be spared Master! God forbid that suffering and humiliation should happen to you! No – No, this must not be!” Confronted by the stark reality that Jesus would suffer and be humiliated, Peter said: “No – Absolutely not! This is unacceptable to me!” Is that a crime? Think about it. Peter cannot abide the idea that Jesus should be humiliated and suffer.
But, if Jesus is the pattern of what we should be, and Jesus can never suffer or be vulnerable, then we his followers must likewise be invulnerable and impervious to suffering. And since this will clearly be impossible for us, then when we do suffer or feel humiliated we will be forced to conceal our pain and lie about our true condition to others and to ourselves, until, we have succeed at last at making ourselves quite inhuman and ungodly in our inhumanity.
Could it be the pastors of our church have incurred the Lord’s displeasure in the same way Peter did? But let us not stand in judgment on our bishops. We ourselves, all the faithful of the church, have felt the sting of the rebuke directed at the church. Is it possible that we too are guilty of Peter’s mistake?
We believe a priest mediates for us, in a unique and pre-eminent way, the very person of Jesus Christ. It is a fact, now widely known, that a small percentage of our priests are afflicted by a humiliating desire to act out sexually with children. Can we accept that a priest, sacramentally constituted another Christ, can suffer from this humiliating compulsion?
All the experts seem to agree that if his condition is acknowledged by himself and those around him, he can be helped – if not to complete interior freedom from this compulsion, then at least to a lifestyle where he will not harm others. But if our attitude is: “No – it is unthinkable that a priest should suffer in this way. This must not be”, then when we are confronted with the fact, we will try to conceal it, and begin to live a lie, to the detriment of our church and our own souls.
Maybe this morning’s gospel is a rebuke to all of us. And maybe, if we can hear it with humble faith, it can be for us a source of strength and hope. Maybe there is a future for us in this gospel.
If my interpretation is valid, then we might consider the Lord saying to us this morning: “My beloved children, the Son of God suffered humiliation and was made weak for a reason: because – you are weak; and each of you in the course of your life will suffer and be humiliated by your own failure to live up to God’s commandments. If you can resist the temptation to build your own church on the illusion that Christ’s ministers must never be humiliated and suffer, then I will show you another kind of church in which the faithful and their priests are all moral failures, and yet so beloved by God, that he sent me His Son into the world that by uniting your humiliation with mine, you may become, in your weakness, stronger than the mighty of this world. If you can resist the temptation to build your church on an illusion of invulnerability, then in the very experience of humiliation and suffering, I will make you rock, and on this rock, I will build my church.”