Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino
Twenty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time: The Charism of Peter
Sometimes people will say that a place radiates a certain spirit. A few years ago I visited Ft. McHenry in Baltimore. This was the fort that held out against a British siege during the War of 1812. The siege was witnessed by a young lawyer named Francis Scott Key. As you all know, Key wrote a poem that became the lyrics to the Star Spangled Banner. When I visited Ft. McHenry I was engulfed by a spirit of patriotism. I am sure that most of the people there had a similar experience.
One of my favorite places in New York City is Lincoln Center. When I walk onto the plaza with its beautiful fountain, and see the David Koch Theater on my left that houses the New York Ballet among other events, and the Avery Fischer Hall on my right where the New York Philharmonic performs, and the Metropolitan Opera House in front of me, I feel engulfed by classical music, opera, symphony and dance. I might not hear a sound, but I can sense music all around me. Perhaps you have been there and felt the same way.
Sometimes people will say that a person radiates a certain spirit. Some people might feel that an actor like Morgan Freeman radiates a quiet dignity. Or some might say that a sports figure like Derrick Brookes radiates responsibility. Quite often we will say, “There is something about him, about her.”
Now all of this, be it about places or about people, is experienced on the human level. There are people and places that radiate a spirit on a higher level, a spiritual level. I have never been to the Holy Land, but I understand that those who have feel a presence of God. I certainly have been to Rome, and I can tell you that I have felt overwhelmed by the spiritual in St. Peters, Mary Major, St. John Lateran and the many other places of worship there. Two of my favorite places in the world are the Trapists abbeys in Conyers, Georgia and Gethsemani, Kentucky. I feel the spiritual there. I also feel the spiritual at Covecrest Camp in Tiger, Georgia, Hidden Lake Camp in Dahlonega, Geogia, and Benedictine College and Abbey in Atchison, Kansas. I don’t believe that these are mere feelings. There are encounters with the Holy Spirit dwelling in particular places.
Many times people will say that they met a person who radiates the Presence of the Lord in a unique way. People said this about St. Theresa of Callcutta and Pope St. John Paul II. These saints radiated holiness. The sainted Pope conveyed a sense of being the living mission of the Church. The holy nun conveyed a sense of being the very charity of Christ.
Those who have been to Assisi know that the spirit of St. Francis lives on in this city almost eight hundred after his death. When you go to Assisi you experience the presence of the poor man of God, the saint of peace.
The ways in which a person reflects God is due to that person’s charism. A charism is a gift from God to the Church for the world. The source of the charism is God. The person who receives the charism, receives it for the world.
Peter received a charism. He received the gift of being the leader of the Church. We read about this in today’s Gospel. The Lord said that the Church would be founded on the Rock, Peter. Like Eliakim of the first reading, Peter would have the keys to admit people into the presence of the Lord. It is clear in the Acts of the Apostles and in the Letters of St. Paul, that Peter was first among the apostles, first among those who were called to proclaim the Kingdom of God on earth. Peter took leadership in the Church at Pentecost. After he, the apostles and Mary, received the Holy Spirit, Peter led everyone out to the Temple and began preaching the good news to the people. After Saul became Paul, after the persecutor of the primitive Church accepted Jesus Christ, Paul spent three years in the desert reflecting on his experience of the Lord on the Road to Damascus. He then went to Jerusalem to receive Peter’s blessing and commission to bring the Good News, the Gospel to the world.
All the apostles recognized that Peter was given the charism to lead the Church. And Peter realized that he had to take up his position of leadership to the center of the then known world, Rome. We do not know how Peter got to Rome. We know that he was there, though. There are stories that Paul consulted with Peter in Rome, particularly regarding the conversion of Syracuse in Sicily. We know that Peter died in Rome, crucified head down. The excavations under the Basilica of St. Peter revealed a tomb with the words, Here Lies Peter, and the body of a large man of Palestinian origin. We also know that when Peter died, the charism he was given to lead the Church remained active in Rome. The one who took his place, St. Linus, and those who followed him, St. Cletus, St. Clement, and so forth, were all recognized as having received the charism that the Lord gave to Peter to lead the Church. As time went on, these bishops of Rome would be given the title, Pope, Papa, Father of the Family, leader of the Church.
So what does all this mean to us?
It means that the charism of Peter lives on in the Catholic Church. This leadership is experienced in the teaching of the Holy Father and the teaching authority of the Church. It means that 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 benefit from the charism of Peter, the charism he received at the Roman city of Caesarea Philippi. The charism of Peter remains in the Pope and in the magisterium. 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 are 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 often point out 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 individuals never acted as true representatives of the Body of Christ on earth. They acted as flawed human beings using their positions of leadership for their own immoral gain. They were never really the Church. They never took their own commitment to Jesus seriously. And they were a minority. The vast majority of the people of their time were committed Catholics. And there were many saints among them. There are many saints among us. All of us have been edified by people whom we know will never be canonized but whose lives pointed us to Christ.
A recent survey claims that there are 1.285 billion Catholics in the world. There are over 85 million in North America. (I think the majority of them tried to come to Mass here last Easter.) To put it simply: there are a lot of us. But we are united into one body, the Church, with Christ as our head and with Peter’s successor as our leader here on earth. An elderly man, in his last days, once said to me, “I am Catholic, and I love being Catholic.” And so do we all.