21st Sunday: The Catholic Church
“I will place the Key of the House of David on Eliakim’s shoulder. When he opens, no one shall shut. When he shuts, no one shall open.” Isaiah 22:22
“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.” Matthew 16:18-19.
In both readings, God entrusts a man with the keys to His House, His Church.
Chances are good that you often use the phrase: “I’m going to church? What is it that we mean when we use the term church? Many times we are referring to the building, in our case, the one with the large roof with a cross on its top. Or maybe we are referring to the whole complex such as the one we have here in Tarpon Springs: the Parish Life Center, the Early Childhood Center, Youth House, Pregnancy Center, chapel, offices and so forth. Sometimes when we use the term church we are referring to a particular faith, as in, “What church do you go to?” “I go to the Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Methodist Church, etc.” Other times when we speak about church we are speaking about the universal Catholic Church, with its center in the Vatican. Sometimes, we focus on the church’s institutional aspects: bishops and priests, national conferences and organizations. Other times we focus on the work of the church: the proclaimer of the Gospel, the giver of sacraments, the continuing presence of Jesus caring for the most needy of His people, etc. We can be referring to quite a number of concepts when we use the term church, but always, contained in all the concepts, we are referring to the Body of Christ on earth. United to Jesus Christ, we are the Church.
The readings for this Sunday tell us that this Church whom we are was founded by the Lord. Keys are given to Eliakim in Isaiah prefiguring the keys that would be given to Peter in Matthew. The keys are a sign that the Lord has entrusted the care of His people to the Church. The Church is given the power to make Christ real in the world. The Church is given the power to bring people to Christ. Through the Church we enter the presence of the Lord in Word and Sacrament. Through the Church we become the Presence of the Lord in proclamation and in service.
Keys can also lock out. The Church has been given the authority to exclude those within it who attack the Presence of the Lord.
Perhaps you have noticed some of our young people with T shirts that read: Hooray, Catholic, Proud to be Catholic, or some similar phrase. You would not have seen shirts like this twenty-five years ago. Back then, many people were so concerned that they would offend non Catholics that they soft-peddled their Catholicism, treating it as just one of many expressions of Christianity. Thank God people are coming to a deeper understanding of the great gift of our Church.
Sometimes people will ask me, “When did the Catholic Church start?” It started on Pentecost Sunday, when the Holy Spirit came upon Mary and apostles. When Jesus told Peter that He would entrust him with the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, He established the basis for a Church working through an individual. Peter is therefore the Vicar of Christ. He traveled to Rome to lead the Church from the center of the Roman Empire. After he was killed, those who replaced him continued to receive the charisma of Peter, the grace of the Bishop of Rome. We call Peter’s successors the Popes.
We know who we are as Catholics. Our beliefs come from the teaching authority of the Church. The term we use for this is magisterium. We don’t take a poll to see what we will believe this week, or this century. The dogmas of our faith may go through periods of definition, but they still remain the same. We believe now what was believed 100 years ago, 1000 years ago, a little under 2000 years ago on the First Pentecost. Blessed John Henry Newman was an adamant Anglican and had considered the Roman Catholic Church England’s ancient enemy. But when he investigated into the continuity of the teaching of the Fathers of the Church, he could find it only in the Roman Catholic Church. This led to his embrace of Catholicism. (If this fascinates you, I recommend you read his classic Apologia pro Vita Sua)
The way we live our lives, our morality, flows from our faith. We know that we can’t give lip service to the faith and live as pagans. We also know that we our human beings. We need the help of God to be His Presence for others. The Church provides for us. We treasure the gift of the Eucharist as the food we need for the journey of life. We treasure the sacrament of reconciliation, confession, where we bring our humanity before the Lord seeking the strength to overcome evil around us and within us. Every aspect of our lives revolves around the Lord, including our last days as we receive the sacrament of sick and begin our journey home.
The Catholic Church is the oldest and largest organized body in the world. We have a history. Those who hate us love pointing out the negative incidents in our history. And it is true,
some of our history is dark, as some human beings throughout the centuries behaved more like pagans than Christians. But these really were the minority. The vast majority of people took their faith seriously. Every century the Church points out saints as models for our lives. And all of us have been edified by people whom we know will never be canonized but whose lives pointed us to Christ.
A survey taken five years ago claim that there are 1 billion, 131 million Catholics in the world. There are over 67 million in the United States. I think the majority of them tried to come to Mass here last Easter. Our parish is blessed with have Fr. Mathew Moothasserill from India. The Church is relatively small in India, but there are still 17 million Catholics there.
To put it simply: there are a lot of us, and yet, every one of us has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through Word and sacrament. That is the great gift of the Church. Through the Church we are provided with the means of approaching the Lord. An elderly man, in his last days, once said to me, “I am Catholic and I love being Catholic.” And so do we all.
Keys were given to Peter. Jesus gave him these keys. The Church opens the gates of eternity to all people of good will. We are the Church. We are the Body of the Christ. We are Catholic. Today we thank God for the Gift of our Church.