Readings: 1 Peter 5:1-4; Matthew 16:13-19
As we celebrate the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, the Church gives us a selection from the first letter of Peter which tell us that those who tend the flock of Christ are to do so “willingly,” “eagerly,” and to “be examples.” As we look across the centuries, history shows that different popes have interpreted these words in very different ways. There have been forceful shepherds such as
- Pope St. Leo I, who singlehandedly faced down Attila the Hun, preventing him from sacking Rome, and who later spoke so eloquently about the person and nature of Christ that the bishops exclaimed, “Peter has spoken through Leo”;
- Pope Nicholas II, who turned clerics into kingmakers;
- Pope St. Gregory VII, who drove the German King Henry IV to his knees begging forgiveness after making him stand four days in the snow waiting for it;
- Pope Julius II, the warrior pope known for his fierce temper or “terribilita,” yet whose great aesthetic sense drove him to commission Michelangelo, Raphael, and Bramante to create some of their greatest works; and
- Pope Paul III, who excommunicated the King of England, Henry VIII, organized the Council of Trent against the Protestant Revolt, instituted seminaries to train priests, and founded the Roman Inquisition to enforce purity of doctrine.
There have been more pastoral shepherds such as
- Pope St. Gregory I, the first monk to be pope, such a deeply pastoral man that he saw himself as “the servant of the servants of God,” who took the care of his flock so seriously that he sold papal property to feed them;
- Pope Innocent III, who approved the Franciscan and Dominican orders, greatly deepening the spiritual lives of the faithful for generations to come;
- Pope Leo XIII, known as “the worker’s pope,” who laid the groundwork for Catholic social thought in the 20th and into the 21st century; and
- Pope St. John XXIII, perhaps the most ecumenical pope in history, who called the Second Vatican Council, wrote an encyclical on world peace, and went out of his way to change the relationship of the Church to the world and to other religions.
Of course, for every one of these shepherds we can name at least one whose pontificates were marred by scandals and abuses of every sort. And for every one of these, we can name perhaps a dozen more who passed through history almost completely unnoticed and who seem to have done nothing at all during their reign.
Yet how like St. Peter they all are! Peter, who grudgingly re-cast his nets after catching nothing on his own, only to have Jesus fill them to the breaking point; who in one breath proclaimed Jesus as the Christ and in the next tried to talk him out of his destiny; who tested the reality of Christ’s presence on the water by walking on it himself and sank as the truth sank into him; who insisted that he would never deny Our Lord but did so three times; and who ran from the cross only to end his life on a cross of his own.
And how well we know that St. Peter lies within each one of us. We let the Holy Spirit work within us, proclaiming Jesus as the Christ of God, yet at the same time allow the enemy to tempt us to lay down the cross Christ bids us carry. We challenge Christ to prove himself to us yet sink as he does so. We say that we would never deny him yet in fact deny him with every sin we commit.
So as we look at every man who has ever sat on the Chair of Peter from the greatest to the least, we should see ourselves. Within each of us lies the strength and poetry of Leo I, the “terribilita” of Julius, the compassion of Gregory I, the resolve of Gregory VII, and the openness of John XXIII. The celebration of the Chair of St. Peter is at its heart a call to look within; to be as 1 Peter reminded us, shepherds in our own way, tending those around us with the care of the Shepherd who commissioned Peter himself, giving to fragile man the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven and best of all, who loved, forgave, and strengthened Peter as he loves, forgives, and strengthens us.