Who do people say that I am?

Readings: Is. 22.19-23; Ps. 138; Rom. 11.33-36; Mt. 16.13-20

The apostles responded to Jesus with a variety of answers: Elijah, Jeremiah, John the Baptist. Jesus pressed the issue, and asked directly, "Who do you say that I am?" Peter stepped forward and said, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God."

Jesus then said to Peter, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church." Although many people in the New Testament had their names changed; this is the only instance where an explanation is given as to what that new name means: "You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church."

Jesus founded the Church. Jesus established Peter as head of the church on earth.

The Church is an imperfect institution. The Church is perfect in its head because Jesus is head of the Church and his Holy Spirit dwells in and guides the Church on earth. The Church is imperfect because of us; we members of the Church for 2000 years have demonstrated our imperfectness. If you have any doubt about your imperfections, ask your spouse, or your parents, or your children, or the people in the pews beside you. Every one of us suffers from a variety of imperfections.

The Catholic Church has made marvelous contributions. The premier Catholic Church Historian of our century, John Tracey Ellis, says: "No institution in the last 2000 years has done so much good for so many people as has the Catholic Church." Is the Church perfect? No. But I remember what Winston Churchill said about democracy: "It is a terrible institution, a terrible form of government, but I know of no better form of government."

What attitude and actions might I suggest that we might have towards the Church.? Two things: humility and obedience.

First, humility. Humility is based in truth. Each of us is very limited in mind, heart, and soul. When we approach the Church's teachings and directives, we ought to possess great humility because the Holy Spirit guides the Church, and the Spirit acts especially through the pope and bishops. If any one of us ever thinks that he/she knows more than the Church, or that the Church is wrong on some issue and we are right, then we ought to stop dead in our tracks. The overwhelming probability exists that we are wrong. Yet there will always be people who think they know more than the Church. Every century is filled with heresies and schisms. In this past century, perhaps the clearest example of hubris/arrogance is the popular reaction to Humanae Vitae. This encyclical in 1968, asked that every act of intercourse be open to the possibility of human life. The document spelled out horrendous consequences for humankind if a contraceptive mentality were to take place. Well, Humanae Vitae was greeted with a volcanic eruption of criticism by clergy and laity. Humanae Vitae generally has been ignored. And the pope's anticipated consequences have happened, in spades. Humanae Vitae, although criticized in its time, now is regarded by many as the most prophetic document of the last century.

Second, obedience. The Latin origin of the word is audire, which means to listen. We need to listen before we act. Pride, however, gets in the way. We all suffer at times from wanting things our way, not God's way; we call that tendency to self-seeking, temptation; and we call the subsequent action, sin. When we act contrary to what the Church teaches, we sin. People might say, "in my conscience, I feel that I am doing right." The sin then might not be in your particular act of disobedience, but in not having formed your conscience correctly. We have a responsibility to have a well-formed conscience. It takes effort, study, and self-criticism. Everybody has some fault, some weakness. St. Vincent de Paul used to call this an individual's "primary passion." What is your primary passion, your fundamental fault, to what sin are you most inclined? In what ways do you disobey the Church? Jesus gives the Church the authority to bind and to loose. What area of authority do you resist? How are you disobedient? And I presume everybody disobeys God from time to time to time.

In our dealings with the Church, let's appreciate that Jesus founded the Church, that Jesus serves as the head of the Church, that the Holy Spirit dwells in and guides the Church. The Church, therefore, is holy. The pope, as the Vicar of Christ on earth, leads the Church on earth. The Church is not perfect in its members. Our lifelong goal and effort, please God, is to become more humble and more obedient in our attitude towards and actions in the Church. Why? Because this is the Church which Jesus founded and guides.

Read other homilies by Father O'Malley