How can My Catholic Faith Delivered work for you?
Archive for the ‘General Interest’ Category
Jesus Christ is Risen! Alleluia!
As we continue to bask in the joy of the Easter season, I thought it would be appropriate to reflect on St. Paul’s teachings on the Resurrection of Christ. St. Paul himself powerfully encountered the Risen Christ on the Road to Damascus, and this encounter changed his identity and mission forever. St. Paul has left us a treasury of teachings on the Resurrection itself and the profound consequences for the human family and for each of us in our own lives.
The first of Paul’s powerful passages comes in his letter to the Romans where he speaks of Christ as the New Adam who reverses the sin and death of Adam. Through the mystery of his death and Resurrection, Christ brings life and grace to all:
Therefore, just as through one person sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all, inasmuch as all sinned–
for up to the time of the law, sin was in the world, though sin is not accounted when there is no law.
But death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who did not sin after the pattern of the trespass of Adam, who is the type of the one who was to come.
But the gift is not like the transgression. For if by that one person’s transgression the many died, how much more did the grace of God and the gracious gift of the one person Jesus Christ overflow for the many.
And the gift is not like the result of the one person’s sinning. For after one sin there was the judgment that brought condemnation; but the gift, after many transgressions, brought acquittal.
For if, by the transgression of one person, death came to reign through that one, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of justification come to reign in life through the one person Jesus Christ. (Rm 5:15-17)
For Paul, just as the disobedience of Adam brought death to all, the obedience of Christ through his death brings life to all in the Resurrection. In the same way that Original sin affected all of humanity, the Resurrection changes and elevates the entire human family to a dignity beyond measure. Thus, Easter morning is truly the dawn of a new humanity, a new creation transformed and alive in Christ. What then, are the true consequences of the Resurrection of Christ? Paul concludes with this powerful passage:
What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who can be against us?
He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him?
Who will bring a charge against God’s chosen ones? It is God who acquits us.
Who will condemn? It is Christ Jesus who died, rather, was raised, who also is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.
What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers,
nor height, nor depth,nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31-35; 38-39)
Therefore, if Christ is truly raised from the dead and has truly defeated sin and death, then what do we have to be afraid of? This message is particularly important for us to remember this Easter as we presently face many moral, economic, and foreign threats in our world today. We need to remember that ultimately Jesus Christ is victorious, and nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. We must also be convicted that we must work diligently to live and preach the gospel in our own lives in order to bring about Christ’s victory and not allow worry, stress, greed, or indifference to rob us of our share in the salvation of Christ.
We also see St. Paul’s most explicit and developed teaching on the Resurrection of Christ in his First Letter to the Corinthians. Paul was writing his letter to the Church in Corinth to correct both liturgical abuse and doctrinal error. One of the dangerous heresies circulating around Corinth was a denial of the resurrection of the dead. Paul forcefully corrects this error explaining the consequences of such a teaching:
But if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some among you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then neither has Christ been raised.
And if Christ has not been raised, then empty (too) is our preaching; empty, too, your faith.
Then we are also false witnesses to God, because we testified against God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if in fact the dead are not raised.
For if the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised,
and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins.
Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.
If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all. (1 Corinthians 15:12-19)
Paul then teaches us the reality of the Resurrection: that Christ is truly alive and has destroyed sin and death forever and that the mystery of the Resurrection transforms us from being dead to sin to being alive in Christ and complete sharers in his victory over death:
Behold, I tell you a mystery. We shall not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed,
in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
For that which is corruptible must clothe itself with incorruptibility, and that which is mortal must clothe itself with immortality.
And when this which is corruptible clothes itself with incorruptibility and this which is mortal clothes itself with immortality, then the word that is written shall come about: “Death is swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 51-57)
Thus, the Resurrection is at the very heart of the Christian faith. If Christ is not truly risen, then all is in vain. However, our hope as Christians lies precisely in that Christ is alive and is present and working in and through the Church. Our task is to live as if Christ is truly risen! Do we really believe that Christ is risen and has truly conquered sin and death? Do our lives truly reflect this? St. Paul challenges us to vibrantly live our lives alive in Christ:
If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.
Think of what is above, not of what is on earth.
For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
When Christ your life appears, then you too will appear with him in glory.
Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry.
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.
And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection.
And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.
And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:1-5;12-17)
May we, through the intercession of St. Paul, encounter anew the life and grace of the Risen Christ and become more effective witnesses of the truth of the Resurrection. It is only through the grace, power, and conviction of the Resurrection that we can be the instruments that transform our culture into a culture of life and civilization of love so that all may come to know fullness of life in Christ. Happy Easter!
After living and celebrating the holy and penitential season of Lent, we enter into Holy Week which is the holiest and most important time in the Liturgical Year. Holy Week is the time in which we enter into the Paschal Mystery of Christ in a most unique and profound way. This reaches its climax in the celebration of the Triduum, the greatest of all liturgies, on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil when we truly walk with Christ and enter into his saving mystery. Even though the Triduum is celebrated over three days, it is actually one liturgy that begins Holy Thursday evening and ends late Holy Saturday night. In fact, it is often called the “mother of all liturgies.” Through the Triduum, we literally walk and journey with Christ from the celebration of the Last Supper, to the Agony in the Garden, through the Passion and Crucifixion, unto the celebration and joy of the Resurrection. It is a powerful and moving experience that all Catholics should experience if they are able to.
The Triduum begins on Holy Thursday night with the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The Triduum starts on a very celebratory note as we thank God for the gift of the Eucharist and the institution of the Priesthood. For the first time in weeks, we sing the Gloria and we recall with great love and thanksgiving the true Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, who in anticipation of his sacrifice on the Cross gives us his Body and his Blood as true food and drink. “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” (John 6:55-56) With the institution of the Eucharist, Jesus also gives the command “Do this in memory of me.” Through this command, Jesus institutes the Priesthood of the New Covenant and gives the Apostles the authority to act in his person and through the power of the Holy Spirit change bread and wine into his Body and Blood. Thus, Holy Thursday recalls the great gift and mystery of the Priesthood through which Christ dispenses the great wealth of sacramental grace.
On Holy Thursday, we also recall that during the Last Supper in John’s Gospel, Jesus washed the feet of the Apostles. Through the reenactment of the washing of the feet, we are remember that Jesus himself came to serve and that we are also called to serve and bring Christ’s presence and Good News to the most vulnerable and outcast of society.
The mood of the Liturgy changes quickly after the Celebration of the Eucharist as we begin to move into the Passion of Christ and the beginning of the Agony in the Garden. In dramatic fashion, the altar is stripped and the Eucharist is processed out of the Church and the faithful are invited to enter into Christ’s passion. The absence of the Eucharist in the church is a reminder of the Lord’s passion and the cost of losing our communion with Christ through sin. What began as celebration now pauses in solemnity and sorrow as the passion of the Christ has begun.
The Triduum resumes with the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday. The liturgy begins in silence as the priests enter the Church and then prostrate themselves before the altar as a sign of penance and sorrow. We then move into the Liturgy of the Word which includes a passage from Isaiah’s description of the Suffering Servant. We then pray the powerful Psalm 22 which Christ exclaimed from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” The Passion according to St. John is then read followed by the Veneration of the Cross. In this powerful moment, we literally find ourselves at the foot of the Cross adoring Christ, the Lamb of God, who as both Priest and Victim, offered himself for the salvation of the world. Finally, the Eucharist is brought in procession back into the Church so that we may receive the very Body of Christ, the fruit of the New Tree of Life, who is Christ crucified. The Eucharist is then taken in procession back out of the Church and the liturgy again pauses as we enter into the time of hopeful anticipation of the Resurrection.
The Easter Vigil
The Triduum ends with the celebration of the Easter Vigil which is the climax of the entire Liturgical Year. It is the celebration of the Resurrection of the Christ, and the entire loving plan of salvation accomplished in Christ.
The Easter Vigil begins in total darkness, the darkness of sin and the darkness of the grave. Then, the Easter fire is lit outside the Church which represents the light of the Resurrection. The Paschal Candle is then prepared and slowly brought into the Church in solemn procession as a symbol of the Resurrected Christ. As the Paschal Candle is processed in, the priest sings “Light of Christ.” The light of the Paschal Candle shatters the darkness of sin and death! As the Paschal candle continues to process into the Church, the individual candles of the gathered faithful are also lit, reminding us that each and every one of us, through our Baptism, are called to be the light of Christ in the world. Suddenly, the entire church is full of light, the light of the Resurrection!
“Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels! Exult, all creation around God”s throne! Jesus Christ, our King, is risen! Sound the trumpet of salvation!” These powerful words of the Exultet the great prayer of the Church that first announce the Good News of the Resurrection are then proclaimed. This begins the Liturgy of the Word that is a series of nine readings. These readings cover God’s entire plan of salvation accomplished in Christ, beginning with Genesis, then the Exodus, then readings from the Prophets. Then, in glorious fashion, the Gloria is sung and as the lights of the church come on, the full celebration of the Resurrection begins. The Epistle of Paul is read and the Gospel is proclaimed. Christ indeed is risen!
After the homily, the full fruits of the Resurrection are made visibly present through the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. The Elect and Candidates who have been preparing for full communion with the Catholic Church are received into the Church. Finally, the Easter Vigil and the entire Triduum concludes with the Celebration of the Eucharist.
The Triduum is a powerful liturgical experience, not only during the celebrations at the parish, but also throughout the entire three days. One is able to literally experience and live the Paschal Mystery, the passion, death, and Resurrection of Christ. It is a profound way to truly contemplate the face of Christ and to deepen our communion with him. In addition, walking this journey with our Lord only deepens our awareness of the power and reality of the Resurrection and the presence and power of Christ in our lives. I encourage all to experience this journey of grace!
This year we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. This great council convened by Blessed Pope John XXIII is one of the most profound movements of the Holy Spirit in the history of the Church. We are still very much living in the wake of the Council, and in many ways, the dust is still settling even after almost half a century. To commemorate this great anniversary, Pope Benedict XVI has called a Year of Faith in which he explicitly calls the Church to rediscover the gift of Vatican II as the great grace and sure compass for the Church in the Third Millennium. But what do we know about Vatican II today and what is its legacy? Let’s take a brief look at just a few of the more profound contributions of Vatican II to the life and mission of the Church.
1. The identity and mission of the Church: Undoubtedly one of the great contributions of Vatican II would be its teaching on very mission and identity of the Church. From this flows the powerful Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium meaning “Light to the Nations”. Lumen Gentium teaches us nothing new about the Church, but gives us a greater insight and understanding of the Church’s identity and mission: to be the visible presence and instrument of Christ, to be the great “sacrament” of salvation that brings in a real, living, and tangible way the very presence of Jesus Christ and his mission of salvation to the world. As Lumen Gentium states: “Since the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race, it desires now to unfold more fully to the faithful of the Church and to the whole world its own inner nature and universal mission.” (1) This does not mean that there is an eighth sacrament, but that the Church itself is the sacrament, the one visible instrument who Christ himself established to be his saving presence and vehicle of grace working in the world. It is through the Church that the seven sacraments flow and it is also within the Church that we as the People of God are also called to be instruments of salvation through our faith, witness, and holiness. This sacramentality of the Church stands as the very foundation of the Council’s vision of the mission and identity of the Church.
2. The Role of the Laity in the Church: Flowing directly from this vision of the mission of the Church as the sacrament of salvation also comes the Council’s teaching on the role and mission of the laity. This also is one of the greatest contributions of Vatican II. The laity through baptism are intimately joined to the triple mission of Christ as priest, prophet, and king, and are prepared by Christ and called by him to be his witnesses of the gospel especially and uniquely in the secular culture. As Lumen Gentium states:
But the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven. In this way they may make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity. (31)
Thus, the Council empowers the laity to be a living witness and presence of Christ in the ordinary places in the world where only they can be the effective witnesses of Christ. The role of the laity is very crucial if the new evangelization envisioned by the Vatican II is going to be successful and this role must realized and lived daily by the lay faithful.
3. The Enrichment of Faith: This is another theme that is at the heart of the vision and mission of Vatican II and one that was also very much emphasized by Pope John Paul II. The enrichment of faith resides on two principles that were set forth by Pope John XXIII at the beginning of the Council: ressourcement and aggiornamento. Ressourcement means that to be effective in teaching, spreading, and living the gospel, we must return to and have direct contact with the sources of the faith: Sacred Scripture, the Church Fathers, Sacred Tradition, and the spirituality and writings of the saints. The council brought to the forefront in its teaching this richness of faith found in these sources that should always be at the heart of our journey of faith seeking understanding. At the same time but not opposed is the idea of returning to the sources of the faith is aggiornamento which means “opening up” and is a missionary openness to the modern culture and the world. Thus, strengthened and empowered by the truth of Christ, the Church is called to go out into the world and engage the culture in a dialogue of faith, brining the teachings of Christ into the world and shaping and influencing the modern culture. This vision of the Council Fathers is the foundation of the “new springtime of evangelization” in which the faith is to be renewed, enriched, and more faithfully lived through effective catechesis, evangelization, and works of charity.
4. The Universal Call to Holiness: This is the key to understanding Vatican II. The universal call to holiness is the main focus and motivation of the Council Fathers. All of us, no matter our calling or state in life, are called to be holy, to be like Christ, and to live forever in his presence and love. No person is exempt from this ultimate and high calling. As Lumen Gentium states: “Thus it is evident to everyone, that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity; by this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society.” (40)
Thus, all that Vatican II taught and did, the reform of the liturgy, the teaching on the mission and identity of the Church, the focus on the enrichment of faith, all of that was to bring about more profoundly the holiness of the Church and each of its members. Vatican II was and is all about bringing each person into a deeper communion with Christ. This should also be the ultimate goal of anything we do in the Church! If we learn anything from Vatican II, it is that the goal of any activity, planning, catechesis, or work in the Church should be holiness! Let us not forget this call to holiness each and every day of our lives.
As we begin our Lenten journey of conversion and repentance, we find that we often struggle with the old Adam within ourselves that is still inclined to sin and worldly desires and our new life in Christ that was given to us at baptism and is continuously renewed through Eucharist and Penance. As a good reflection for the Lenten season, scripture reveals that there is a remarkable parallel in the Old Testament and the New Testament between the disobedience of Adam and the results of His sin, and the perfect obedience of Jesus and the results of his righteousness. I call it “The Tale of Two Gardens.” Here we so clearly see how Jesus completely atones for and reverses the sin and disobedience of Adam and though His sacrifice on the Cross restores our communion with God and once again obtains for us the gift of grace and eternal life.
Let us go back for a moment and recall what happened in Genesis Chapter 3. Adam is in the Garden of Eden, and he is knows no suffering or evil and enjoys intimate communion with God and complete unity and harmony with his wife Eve and the rest of creation. However, he is confronted with a temptation from Satan, and because of this gift of his free will, faces a fundamental choice. Adam can either eat of the Tree of Life, which represents intimate communion with God through obedience to his plan and goodness, or he can choose to reject God, his life of grace and goodness, and view himself as a god who can determine for himself what is good and evil. We know from the story that with Eve’s participation, Adam eats of the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Thus, through their disobedience, Adam and Eve were banned from eating of the fruit of the Tree of Life, which represents the loss of eternal life and union with God. They now suffer death, separation from God, and the natural consequences of sin. Consequently, through Adam, sin and disobedience entered the world and through this original sin, all human beings from that moment are born disfigured by sin. We no longer know God as our Father and are inclined to do our will and determine what is best for ourselves. We have literally forgotten who we are, images and children of God, and the dignity and destiny to which we are called. But hope is not lost, for out of the chaos of that first sin comes the first announcement of the good news of salvation: A savior will be born of a woman who will crush the head of Satan and sin and restore the human family to salvation and grace.
Now let us go to Matthew 26:36-46. We find Jesus the New Adam in a garden: the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before his Crucifixion. Here, like Adam, Jesus faces a fundamental choice, although this one is quite different. Jesus can either obey the Father’s plan of salvation that on the next day he will be beaten, scourged, and be nailed Cross for three agonizing hours in order to die for all of the sins committed against him for all time. Or Jesus can preserve his life, disobey the will of the Father and follow his own will and desires. Not only does Jesus obey the Father, but he completely surrenders himself to the will of the Father three times, which in Scripture always means perfection: “Father if it is possible, let this cup pass, but not my will be done but yours.” Jesus perfectly obeys the Father’s plan to embrace the Cross to save us from our sins. However, this obedience of Jesus has remarkable consequences. Through His obedience, not only does Jesus atone for the disobedience of Adam, but He is hung upon the wood of the Cross, the tree of our salvation. But this is no mere man hung upon a tree but Jesus is God Himself. Thus, because he is God the crucified Jesus becomes the New Tree of Life from which Adam and all his descendants had been banned since the first sin. But what exactly were they banned from? They were banned from eating of the fruit of the Tree of Life. If Jesus hung upon the Cross is the New Tree of Life, then what is its fruit?
Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. (John 6:53-56)
Thus, the fruit of the New Tree of Life is the Eucharist, Jesus’ own body and blood, that He gives us to eat and drink so that we can once again have intimate communion with God and eternal life that was lost through the disobedience of Adam.
Consequently, through His perfect obedience, Jesus embraces the Tree of the Cross, which becomes the New Tree of Life and the fruit of the New Tree of Life is the Eucharist which once again gives eternal life, union with God, and destroys sin and death. Jesus is the New Adam that reverses the sin of Adam and brings salvation to all humanity.
As we look into our own hearts, we face the same kind of fundamental decision each and every day. Do we choose to follow the old Adam within our selves, or do we choose to follow Christ and cooperate with his grace in our lives?
Thus, we see in these two passages why the Father’s plan requires that Jesus must be fully God and fully human. Jesus truly becomes God’s mercy and reconciliation to man and at the same time he becomes man’s obedience and reconciliation to God. Because Jesus is truly human, His perfect obedience to the Father atones for the disobedience of the first man Adam. But also because Jesus is God, He has the power to become in himself the New Tree of Life that restores humanity’s communion with God that was lost through Original Sin. All of salvation history culminates at this moment, bringing out the depth of Christ’s meaning as He hung upon the tree and exclaimed the words, “It is finished!”
The unfortunate decision of the Department of Health and Human Services to mandate that all health insurance plans include contraception, sterilization, and even some abortion causing drugs is a malicious attack on the freedom of conscience of millions of Catholics and others who hold that these kinds of medical practices, far from being “preventative medicine”, are in fact intrinsically immoral. This decision to treat fertility and the ability of a man and woman to come together in total lifelong and life-giving love as co-creators with God in the creation of new human life as a preventative disease is another striking example of how the prophetic message of Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae in 1968 was absolutely right. He states:
Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone. It could well happen, therefore, that when people, either individually or in family or social life, experience the inherent difficulties of the divine law and are determined to avoid them, they may give into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife. (17, emphasis mine)
The Church from her beginning has always stood for the life and dignity of the human person, and the dignity of the sexual union between man and woman as the very foundation of marriage, family, and society itself. Pope Paul VI made yet another stand in 1968 in the face of the sexual revolution and warned of the dire consequences for human society if the truth about the human person and human sexuality is not upheld and respected. Now we find ourselves in a day and age when the government mandates that fertility is a preventative disease, when the state, not God, tries to define what a marriage is, and when the largest religious denomination in the United States, Roman Catholics, are no longer protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution to follow their consciences in a matter of grave moral consequence.
The HHS mandate not only calls all Catholics and people of good will to action, but it also calls us to once again rediscover the truth about conscience and our serious responsibility to form and follow our consciences.
Our conscience is at the heart of our human dignity as being created in the image and likeness of God. It is the voice of God in our souls always calling us to the truth and to fullness of human life. Conscience is a judgment of reason, enlightened by the Holy Spirit that enjoins us to do what is good, to avoid what is evil, and recognize the divine plan written in our heart. It judges an action that has taken place, is in the process of being performed, or is going to take place. Each of us has the duty and responsibility to act in accordance with our conscience. The dignity of the human person demands that each person is always free to act in accordance with their conscience and can never be forced or coerced to do otherwise. This is a fundamental and God given right of each and every person. As Vatican II teaches in Dignitatis Humanae:
This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such ways that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits. The council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right. (2)
While we are always to follow our conscience, our consciences are not just how we “feel” about any particular moral question or teaching of the Church. It is not just doing whatever we feel is right. Our consciences are not the source of truth, but a gift of our reason that allows us to conform our minds, hearts, and lives to the truth about God and about the human person that God has revealed to us through Christ and the Church. Therefore, we have the serious responsibility of also forming our consciences according the truth that God has revealed. We act in good and true conscience when we both follow our conscience and it is truly formed according to the teachings of Christ and the Church.
We act in good conscience when we follow it, but we must always strive to have it well informed. If we act in good conscience and our conscience is true, then we have made a good moral decision. Sometimes our conscience is true, but we act against it, or we act in bad conscience. This is what happens when we sin.
But there are other times in which we follow our conscience, or act in good conscience but our conscience is in error, and is not formed correctly according to God’s law. This would be a false conscience. When we act in good conscience but it is false, that is called erroneous judgment.
Having a false conscience many times comes from the fact that we simply may not have known something was wrong, or may have misunderstood or were not properly informed of the teachings of the Church. We may have had ignorance of the moral law.
This ignorance is invincible when it is not our fault; when we have not deliberately ignored the duty to form our conscience. However, our ignorance is vincible when we do not take seriously the responsibility of forming our conscience or when we deliberately ignore or dissent against the moral law. Vincible ignorance is a grave sin and seriously undermines the moral life.
Therefore, our conscience must be formed and moral judgment be enlightened. The education of one’s conscience is the responsibility of all and is a life-long task. It requires interiority, to enter one’s heart to recognize the voice of the Creator. The Word of God, authentically found in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition as authoritatively interpreted and taught by the Magisterium, is the light of our path, and our conscience should always be formed in accordance to God’s revealed law. One can’t just say “just follow your conscience.” We have the serious responsibility to see that the conscience that we are following is conformed to the teachings of Christ and the Church. Many people today have used the excuse of “just follow your conscience” to dissent from various Church teachings. The result of such a fallacy is to reduce one’s conscience to simply what one feels about a certain doctrine or moral action which then makes each individual’s conscience the source of truth instead of the unchanging law of God. This false view of conscience has become the source of the moral relativism that is unfortunately prevalent in our modern culture.
Consequently, it must be clearly stated that conscience is not the source of truth but rather the witness, in the very depths of our soul, of a truth that is beyond us, that is unchanging and eternal. Christ has given us the gift of the Catholic Church and the Magisterium to always be that sure light of truth that guides the faithful through the many storms and dark nights that have visited us all throughout human history. As Blessed Pope John Paul II teaches:
Christians have a great help for the formation of conscience in the Church and her Magisterium. As the Council affirms: “In forming their consciences the Christian faithful must give careful attention to the sacred and certain teaching of the Church. For the Catholic Church is by the will of Christ the teacher of truth. Her charge is to announce and teach authentically that truth which is Christ, and at the same time with her authority to declare and confirm the principles of the moral order which derive from human nature itself “. It follows that the authority of the Church, when she pronounces on moral questions, in no way undermines the freedom of conscience of Christians. This is so not only because freedom of conscience is never freedom “from” the truth but always and only freedom “in” the truth, but also because the Magisterium does not bring to the Christian conscience truths which are extraneous to it; rather it brings to light the truths which it ought already to possess, developing them from the starting point of the primordial act of faith. The Church puts herself always and only at the service of conscience, helping it to avoid being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine proposed by human deceit (cf. Eph 4:14), and helping it not to swerve from the truth about the good of man, but rather, especially in more difficult questions, to attain the truth with certainty and to abide in it. (Veritatis Splendor, 64)
Therefore, in light of the HHS mandate, I encourage all Catholics to not only exercise our right and duty to participate in the public square and demand that this mandate be repealed, but to also take some time to rediscover the Church’s wise and unchanging teachings concerning marriage and sexual morality. There you will discover that the Church is the one institution who is truly defending and promoting the dignity of every woman and man and each of our calling to live a truly human life: “For I came that they might have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)
On December 8th, we celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. However, if you ask people, including many Catholics, what the Immaculate Conception is, there is a good chance that they will tell you that it is the conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary. In fact, the Immaculate Conception is actually the conception of Mary. The Immaculate Conception reveals to us that Mary was freed from the stain of original sin at the moment of her conception, and remained free from sin for her entire life.
It was intrinsic to God’s plan of salvation that Mary was created without original sin. In the Book of Genesis chapter 3, we see how sin first entered the world through our first parents Adam and Eve. Since Adam and Eve represented all of the human family, when they fell away from God, all of humanity fell away from him. Original sin was then passed on to their children, and to their children’s children, all throughout human history. Thus, when we are conceived and come into existence, we are born into a natural separation from God and an inclination toward sin that is called original sin.
However, God’s plan was to have his only Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity, assume a human nature so that as both God and man Jesus could accomplish the redemption of the human race. One problem: God is in complete and total opposition to sin. Anything sinful cannot even come into God’s presence without being purified. How then would God the Son be able to intimately join himself with a fallen human nature? This is where God’s plan for Mary comes in. God chose her to be conceived without original sin so that she would be able to give Jesus a pure and sinless human nature.
Where do we as Catholics get this teaching on the Immaculate Conception of Mary? First, it is in fact revealed implicitly in Scripture as an important part of God’s unfolding plan of salvation.
Genesis 3:15: Let us first go to the book of Genesis where God is announcing for the first time his plan of salvation that will be accomplished through Christ:
“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel.” (Gen 3:15)
It is important that we determine exactly who God is addressing and talking about. God is speaking to the serpent and he says that the offspring of the woman will strike at his head. Who is the only one who will strike at the head of the serpent who is Satan? Jesus is the one who will come and strike at Satan’s head and destroy his power. So if the offspring of the woman is Jesus, then the woman must be Mary.
Now God speaks of there being enmity between the serpent and the woman, and the serpent’s offspring and the woman’s offspring. The offspring of Satan is sin, for it is sin that Satan desires to multiply and fill the earth. So therefore, there is enmity between Mary/Jesus and Satan/sin. What exactly does enmity mean? Enmity means total and complete opposition. If two things are in enmity with each other, they have nothing at all to do with one another; there is no cooperation or communion between the two whatsoever. Consequently, both Jesus and Mary are completely opposed to Satan and sin. They would have no cooperation or communion with Satan and sin whatsoever. Mary is given the same absolute and perpetual opposition to Satan and sin as Jesus.
Therefore, it is necessary that Mary would not have a fallen nature, since any participation is original sin or actual sin would destroy the enmity with Satan and sin. Thus, we see in the very first announcement of God’s plan of salvation his plan of Mary being totally free from sin so that Jesus would be able to assume a pure human nature.
Luke 1:28: We see an even more explicit reference to the Immaculate Conception of Mary in Luke’s Gospel at the Annunciation when the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary to announce God’s plan of having her be the Mother of Jesus. The Angel Gabriel’s greeting of Mary reveals her immaculate state. His greeting properly translated is, “Hail, you who have been filled with grace.” The Greek word kekaritomene is a perfect participle “have been filled.” Mary has already been filled with God’s grace, for grace has already been infused into her at the moment of her conception.
Also notice that Mary is filled with grace. Anytime we sin, even the smallest sin, we lose at least some of God’s grace. That is the nature of sin. Sin is a choice we make that rejects the grace he offers to us, which is his very life and love. If Mary is filled with grace, then she would have been completely free from sin, as any sin, even the tiniest, would have caused her to be deprived of at least some grace.
Not only do we see the Immaculate Conception in Sacred Scripture, but it has also been constantly and clearly taught throughout Sacred Tradition from the earliest times of the Church:
St. Ambrose (d. 379): Mary is “free from all stain of sin.”
St. Severus, Bishop of Antioch (d. 538): “She (Mary) formed part of the human race, and was of the same essence as we, although she was pure from all taint and immaculate…”
St. Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem (d. 638): “You (Mary) have found the grace which no one has received…No one has been pre-purified besides you.”
These are only a small sample of teachings that clearly show that the Immaculate Conception was a part of the Church’s belief from the very beginning.
Finally in 1854, Pope Pius IX infallibly proclaims the Immaculate Conception as a part of Divine Revelation and a dogma of the Church to be definitively held by all the faithful:
“We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine that holds that the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, at the instant of her conception, was preserved immune from all stain of sin, by a singular grace and privilege of the Omnipotent God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was revealed by God and must be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful.”
How exactly, then, did God preserve Mary from original sin? Mary needed Christ to redeem her just as much as we all do. She was redeemed by her Son’s death on the cross, just like all of us. But how could Mary have been redeemed by Jesus’ death on the cross before Jesus was even born?
It is because God is eternal and transcendent, and therefore, he is not bound by either space or time. Because he is outside of space and time, God sees all of time past, present, and future, right now. It is like looking at a very long train from a helicopter. The engines are creation, the caboose is the end of the world, and we are somewhere in between the two. God is able to operate outside of time. Therefore, he took the graces and merits of Jesus’ death on the cross and applied them backwards in time to the moment of Mary’s conception. Thus, Mary was redeemed by Christ as we all are, but through a “singular grace and privilege of the Omnipotent God” she was not only redeemed but also completely preserved from original sin.
Even though Mary was preserved from original sin at the moment of her conception, she could have still chosen to sin because as a human being she had free will. She could have said “no” to the Father at the Annunciation. She could have also said “no” to the Father at the foot of the cross, where she surrendered her Son, and fallen into despair and cursed God. However, Mary perfectly cooperated and surrendered herself to the great gift of grace that God had given her and lived the most extraordinary Christian life. That is why Mary is the Model of Faith and the Model of the Church. We are all called to cooperate with whatever graces God chooses to give us so that we humbly and lovingly walk whatever path he chooses to give to us.
May the Immaculate Heart of Mary continue to inspire us on our journey of faith, especially during this season of Advent, that we may surrender ourselves fully to God through the “obedience of faith” and become Christ’s instruments of hope and love.
On August 15th, we again celebrate the great feast of the Assumption when Mary is assumed body and soul into heaven. This feast is the crowning jewel in the life of Mary and her Assumption is directly attributed to the fact that she is full of grace and that she lived a life of perfect union with her Son. Thus, the Assumption highlights in many ways Mary’s role as Mother and Model of the Church. This title of Mary is not new, but has been attributed to her from the beginning of Christianity, especially by the early Fathers of the Church. More recently, Vatican II affirmed and reflected upon this important role of Mary in the life of the Church and in our own lives. As Catholics, Mary is a great gift to us from Christ who wills and desires that we love and honor her as our own spiritual mother, and follow her great example of faith, charity, and holiness.
Mary enjoys a special place of honor in the Church, an honor that is even exulted above that which we give the angels and the saints. Why is this? First, we do not worship Mary—for Mary would be horrified if we ever exulted her to be at the same level as God. However, we do honor Mary in a special or exulted way because of her unique faith and holiness, and because it was through Mary’s faith that Christ was able to come into the world and accomplish his work of salvation. Without Mary’s yes or fiat at the Annunciation, Jesus would not have become incarnate: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done unto me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) As St. Augustine reflected, “All of creation held its breath awaiting the fiat of Mary.”
Thus, Mary is the perfect model of faith and exemplifies the type of faith all of us in the Church should possess. Mary desired nothing but to do the will of God and all through her life she pondered with an open and docile heart the mighty works of God and the mystery of her Son, Jesus Christ. Thus, Mary is the first and perfect model of the Church’s “pilgrimage of faith”. As Vatican II teaches:
“Thus, the Blessed Virgin advanced in her pilgrimage of faith, and faithfully persevered in her union with her Son unto the cross, where she stood, in keeping with the divine plan, grieving exceedingly with her only begotten Son, uniting herself with a maternal heart with His sacrifice, and lovingly consenting to the immolation of this Victim which she herself had brought forth.. (Lumen Gentium, 58)
Not only is Mary the model of the Church’s pilgrimage of faith, but Mary is also the model and image of the Church’s destiny in glorification in Christ. Mary, by being assumed body and soul into heaven, already enjoys the fullness of the Resurrection and is a great sign and witness to the victory won by Christ through the blood of the Cross. Mary shows us in herself the ultimate and final end of our pilgrimage of faith—sharing in the glory of the most Holy Trinity and living in the communion of all the saints. Mary shows us all that salvation in Christ is real and is the ultimate goal and destiny of the Church. This is why the two final Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary, the Assumption of Mary and the Coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven and Earth, are ultimately about Christ: They show us that the grace of Christ’s redemption is real and effective, and Mary stands as a great sign of hope and encouragement for us all. As Vatican II again states:
“In the interim just as the Mother of Jesus, glorified in body and soul in heaven, is the image and beginning of the Church as it is to be perfected is the world to come, so too does she shine forth on earth, until the day of the Lord shall come, as a sign of sure hope and solace to the people of God during its sojourn on earth.” (Lumen Gentium, 68)
Mary is not only the Model of the Church, but she is also the Mother of the Church in the order of grace. We see this most profoundly in John’s gospel when Jesus, as his last gift to us on earth, lovingly hands over to us the motherhood of Mary:
Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother”s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his home. (John 19:25-27)
Through this gift of Christ, Mary’s Motherhood not only is for Christ the Head, but also extends to the Body of Christ, the Church. Just as Mary nurtured, protected, and provided for her Son, so does Mary nurture, protect, and provide for her children in the Church. Mary is our spiritual Mother who through her motherhood desires only to bring us into a deeper and intimate communion with her Son.
What does this mean? It means that just in the same way that she brought forth her Son into the world through her faith and instrumentality at the Annunciation, and the manifestation of his public ministry through the miracle at the wedding feast in Cana, Mary continues to manifest and present her Son to souls through her constant prayers and intercession and through her gentle witness “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5) As Vatican II powerfully teaches:
“This maternity of Mary in the order of grace began with the consent which she gave in faith at the Annunciation and which she sustained without wavering beneath the cross, and lasts until The eternal fulfillment of all the elect. Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this salvific duty, but by her constant intercession continued to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation. By her maternal charity, she cares for the brethren of her Son, who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and difficulties, until they are led into the happiness of their true home.” (Lumen Gentium, 62)
Therefore, since Mary’s motherhood is a gift to each of us from Christ, devotion to Mary should be an essential part of the life of every Christian. Devotion to Mary should always lead us to deeper union with Christ. We never pray to Mary as an end, but ask her to intercede for us to Christ. She would be horrified if devotion to her ever took away our focus on him! Everything that she was and did was not only to bring about her own deeper communion with Christ, but to also bring others to a more intimate knowledge and union with him. This is why we honor Mary as the perfect disciple of Christ and the Model of the Church.
Devotion to Mary does not take away from Christ, but rather augments our knowledge of his life and virtues. Mary shows us that salvation in Christ is real and possible, and she also shows us what it looks like. If you want to know Christ, know his Mother! Mary is the perfect model of faith, hope, and charily and she continues to show us even today how to come into a stronger and more real relationship with Jesus.
Mary’s prayers and intercession before Christ on our behalf are very powerful because of who she is and the role she played in God’s plan of salvation. She is the Mother of Christ, so she has a unique and special relationship with him. He has a special place in his heart for his Mother, and so he honors in a very special way her prayers and requests. Through Mary’s prayers and intercession, we have a unique and privileged way to the heart of Jesus. This is why prayers and devotion to her have been at the heart of the Church’s life from the very beginning.
In addition, Mary, through her Immaculate Conception, was created free from sin and was completely filled with grace and love throughout her life. She was created with a capacity to love God and others that far exceeds any of us. Thus, her love for us and her prayers for us are extraordinarily powerful.
Therefore, as we continue on along our own journey of faith, seeking and contemplating the face of the Lord, and especially during this holy and penitential season of Lent, may we all strive to grow in our relationship with Mary and entrust ourselves more deeply to her maternal care, that she may present us as a pure and holy gift to Christ her Son. Pray for us O holy Mother of God, that we may be worthy of the promises of Christ!
Last week, I had the privilege of attending the St. John Bosco Catechetical Conference at Franciscan University of Steubenville. It was a fantastic week of networking and collaborating with catechists and catechetical leaders from literally around the world who are working tirelessly in the vinyard of the Lord in handing on the faith to those the Lord has entrusted to them. The ministry of catechesis is one of the most crucial ministries in the Church and is part of the Lord”s commisioning to the Chuch to “baptize all the nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teach them all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20) I thought that this would be a great opportunity to reflect upon what exactly is catechesis, and that in reality, we are all catechists and are called to hand on the very Person of Christ.
What is catechesis? Catechesis comes from the Greek meaning “to echo.” It is the mission entrusted to the Church by Christ to “echo” or to faithfully hand on what Jesus has revealed to us through his Incarnation, his life and mission, and the Paschal mystery of his death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. In fact, through catechesis, it is not so much what we hand on but Whom. As John Paul II simply but profoundly states in his letter on catechesis Catechesi Tradendae: “At the heart of catechesis we find, in essence, a Person, the Person of Jesus of Nazareth, ‘the only Son from the Father…full of grace and truth.’” (CT, 5) Here we see the essence of what catechesis is: the handing on of the person of Christ, and truth he reveals and the life of grace he offers to us. First and foremost, catechesis must hand on the truth of Christ and who he is; the full revelation of the Father and the full revelation of our own humanity destined for eternal glory. For it is only in the truth of Christ that we can come to know true freedom and the fullness of human life: “For I came that they might have life and have it abundantly.” (Jn 10:10) This truth about Christ in turn leads us to his life, a life of abundant grace found especially in the celebration of the sacraments and most profoundly in his real presence in the Eucharist. As catechists, we are the instruments the Lord uses to echo this truth so that others may come first to know him and then have communion and life through Him. “[Catechesis] is to seek to understand the meaning of Christ’s actions and words and of the signs worked by him…Accordingly, the definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch but in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus Christ: only He can lead us to the love of the Father in the Spirit and make us share in the life of the Holy Trinity.” (CT, 5)
Thus as catechists, we hand on not our own teaching, but Christ’s teaching. What a profound gift it is to be the instrument Christ chooses to use to bring his grace and truth to those entrusted to us! In order to be true and effective catechists we must have the humility to know and understand our role of instrumentality. With this precisely in mind, Pope John Paul beautifully and powerfully lays forth the role of the catechist:
Every catechist should be able to apply to himself the mysterious words of Jesus: “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me”. Saint Paul did this when he was dealing with a question of prime importance: “I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you”. What assiduous study of the word of God transmitted by the Church”s Magisterium, what profound familiarity with Christ and with the Father, what a spirit of prayer, what detachment from self must a catechist have in order that he can say: “My teaching is not mine”! (CT, 6)
This indeed is a tall order and we don’t do it perfectly! But, if we as catechists are to more faithfully echo the person and teaching of Christ, then we ourselves must see that we are immersed into his mystery in our own lives by contemplating and pondering the mystery of Christ through prayer, the sacraments, and our own personal study and ongoing “faith seeking understanding” and conversion of heart. The more we are rooted in Christ, the more perfect and clear will be our echoing of Christ and his truth. We see in Mary, who was the first catechist, the first to echo Christ and his truth, a profound living example for us who catechize. For often in the gospel do we see Mary “pondering these things in her heart.” (Lk 2:19) She allowed the mystery and truth of Christ to so penetrate her being that she was able to perfectly reflect the light of her Son. As John Paul explains:
Christ is the supreme Teacher, the revealer and the one revealed. It is not just a question of learning what he taught but of “learning him”. In this regard could we have any better teacher than Mary? From the divine standpoint, the Spirit is the interior teacher who leads us to the full truth of Christ (cf. Jn 14:26; 15:26; 16:13). But among creatures no one knows Christ better than Mary; no one can introduce us to a profound knowledge of his mystery better than his Mother. (RVM, 14)
Thus, it especially when we ponder with Mary the mystery of her Son through the rosary that we sit at the “school of Mary” and come to a deeper knowledge and communion with her Son. Through the rosary we join with her in pondering in our own hearts the saving truth of Jesus Christ and come into a more intimate communion with him. This is why the rosary is above all a Christ-centered prayer in which we learn Christ with and through the intercession of his Mother. Therefore, devotion to the rosary can be a powerful spiritual tool in helping us come to a deeper knowledge of Christ so that we may be ever more faithful in “echoing” Christ through our ministry of catechesis.
May we all entrust ourselves to the maternal intercession of Mary who was for us the model catechist, and the first to hand on the Person of Christ. As Pope John Paul II powerfully prays:
May the Virgin of Pentecost obtain this for us through her intercession. By a unique vocation, she saw her Son Jesus “increase in wisdom and in stature, and in favor.” As He sat on her lap and later as He listened to her throughout the hidden life at Nazareth, this Son, who was “the only Son from the Father,” “full of grace and truth,” was formed by her in human knowledge of the Scriptures and of the history of God”s plan for His people, and in adoration of the Father. She in turn was the first of His disciples. She was the first in time, because even when she found her adolescent Son in the temple she received from Him lessons that she kept in her heart. She was the first disciple above all else because no one has been “taught by God” to such depth. She was “both mother and disciple,” as St. Augustine said of her, venturing to add that her discipleship was more important for her than her motherhood. There are good grounds for the statement made in the synod hall that Mary is “a living catechism” and “the mother and model of catechists.”
May the presence of the Holy Spirit, through the prayers of Mary, grant the Church unprecedented enthusiasm in the catechetical work that is essential for her. Thus will she effectively carry out, at this moment of grace, her inalienable and universal mission, the mission given her by her Teacher: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” (CT, 73)
On June 29th, we celebrated the feast of Saints Peter and Paul in which we honor and recognize these two great apostles as the pillars of the Church and great defenders of the truth of Christ. This feast gives us an opportune time to now reflect upon the role and mission of St. Peter as the head of Christ’s Church, and the profound authority that was given to him by Christ himself that is also handed on to his successors, the Pope, until the end of time. In a world and culture marred by the great errors of moral relativism and the denial of objective truth, the Papacy, in the role of the successor of St. Peter, stands as the one and true defender of all truth as revealed by Jesus Christ.
While all the apostles were given the authority and the mission by Christ to teach, govern, and minister in his name, Peter was set apart and given a unique role by Christ that emphasized his teaching and governing authority over all the apostles and other disciples. This is seen most profoundly in Matthew 16:
When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mt 16:13-19)
In this very powerful scene, Jesus is asking the apostles who others think he is, but in reality, he is asking them who they think he is. While the other apostles give many different answers, Peter is the one who sees the real identity of Christ as the Messiah and responds, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus responds, “Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.” Jesus is revealing a profound truth. Peter has been given a unique gift, or charism, by the Father to know and teach the truth, and his knowledge of Jesus’ identity is a result of this special gift. Jesus recognizes this gift and special role of Peter and bestows on him a unique teaching and governing authority over all the apostles and the entire Church.
Therefore, Jesus changes Peter’s name from Simon to Peter, which means “Rock” (Greek petros). This is packed with meaning as the changing of one’s name in the Scriptures means a new identity, mission, and calling. For example, God changed Abram’s name to Abraham when he responded to God’s invitation of faith, and he became the father of all of God’s people. In the same way here, Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter to show his new identity and mission as the “rock” and head of the Church.
Jesus calls Peter “rock,” and it is upon “this rock” that Jesus will build his Church. Why does Jesus build his Church upon Peter? It is fundamentally in response to Peter already exercising his teaching authority given to him by the Father. He has received a gift of wisdom to know the truth about Christ, and also a teaching charism to proclaim it with clarity and without error.
No mere human revealed to Peter that Jesus was the Messiah. He had not yet told Peter that he was the Messiah, and many were still seriously grappling with exactly who Jesus was. But Peter was given the gift to know the truth, and he faithfully proclaimed it to the apostles. He will be the one who will lead, teach, and strengthen the apostles and the other followers after the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus.
Recognizing Peter’s gift of teaching the truth, Jesus then grants him a unique and profound authority: “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Jesus entrusts to Peter the keys to the Church! What does this mean? In Jesus’ time, when the master was going to leave his estate for a time, he would entrust to his head servant the keys to the estate. This servant, who possessed the keys, was entrusted with the full authority of his master while he was away. Thus, the servant does not replace the master, but possesses his authority in his absence. Peter becomes the “Vicar” of Christ, that is, he has been given the full authority of the Master over his Church until he comes again. However, with this authority comes great responsibility. The servant who is given the keys of the master is expected to take care of and run the estate in the way the master desires. In the same way, Peter’s authority is one of service and obedience to the will and teachings of Christ. It is the sole responsibility of Peter and his successors to authoritatively and faithfully teach and hand on what Christ has taught and willed.
This same teaching charism given by the Father and profound authority bestowed upon Peter by Christ himself is also handed on to each and every successor of Peter in the person of the Pope. By virtue of his office, the Pope is guided by the Holy Spirit to teach and proclaim the truth as it pertains to faith and morals without error. Thus, it is through the Pope as the visible head of the Church that the sacred Deposit of Faith entrusted by Christ to the Church has remained preserved, intact, and handed on without error for over 2,000 years.
The gift of the Papacy has been especially evident in recent history through the great Popes of the 20th century, especially as exemplified in our late Holy Father Blessed Pope John Paul II and continued today through the great leadership of Pope Benedict XVI. In these times of great moral confusion, and when the basic foundations of the truths of Christianity are being challenged by an increasingly secular culture, it is the Pope as the successor of St. Peter that continues to steer and guide the Church towards the truth of Christ so that the promise of Christ will be fulfilled: “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld will never prevail against it.”