Peter’s faith was not something he made up. It wasn’t from “flesh and blood”, either from himself or from any other human being. Instead, as Jesus tells him, it was a gift from the heavenly Father.
And we can say more. The profession of faith in Jesus is not just the profession of faith in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s the profession of faith in the Trinity. Peter’s profession says, “You are the Christ.” The Christ means the “one anointed by the Spirit, the one who is the Messiah.” It then says, “the Son of the living God”, meaning the Son of the Father.
In other words, the faith of Peter is trinitarian and it is focused on the person of Christ, the Son. It is through Christ that we have access, in the faith of Peter, to the life of the Blessed Trinity.
But the question arises spontaneously: did Peter not have his own personal faith? The answer is yes, in the sense that he accepted into the depths of his own person that gift of faith which the Blessed Trinity gave to him. It’s a bit like receiving the gift of a beautiful painting. If someone gives you an El Greco painting, or you buy it, and you take it to your home, is it your painting or is it not? Well, in one sense it is yours because it is in your home, but it still remains El Greco’s painting. He painted it, not you!
In a certain sense, faith is the same. Faith has to be radically personal; it has to go to the very roots of who we are, but it remains God’s gift. The form and content of our faith remain the gift of the Trinity to us. By Peter’s faith, we make the Trinity’s beauty our very own.
You can go further still. You could say about the faith given to Peter, and given to anyone else who has followed Peter’s lead in the Church, that such faith does not belong to Peter or to us so much as we belong to it. For, while faith is a personal decision, a personal action which we take, it is not we who define the content of that decision. We don’t make the faith up as we go along. The faith remains the truth of the Trinity revealed to us through the faith of Peter and then through the rest of the Apostles and their successors down through the ages.
So, we can’t change the faith. If you had a beautiful painting of El Greco, you wouldn’t say, “I don’t like that part of it, so I’m cutting it out.” Nor would you say, “I don’t like that shade of colour there, so I am going to change it.” You would totally ruin it! It’s the same with the faith of the Church, the faith of Peter. Our faith as believers in Christ the Son of the living God has to align itself with the faith of Peter. Otherwise it is not the faith of the Church. It is not the faith which the Father gave to Peter and for which Christ called Peter blessed. If our faith is not aligned with Peter’s, then we don’t have the faith of the Church.
Sadly, perhaps, today we have lost the discipline of learning and teaching and deepening our understanding of the faith of the Church. It is a gift from the Trinity to Peter and through Peter to the whole Church built on Peter! Who would dare change it? Why would anyone be so foolish?
Another important point is that it is not Peter who builds the Church, but Christ. “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church.” What we have to do is be open to God, be material that he can use to build his Church. Not long after the Gospel excerpt we have read to day, Peter tries to tell Jesus what he is to do: he’s not to go to Jerusalem to get killed. Jesus has to put him immediately in his place. It’s as if he says, “if you try to define what the Church is on your own, and what my mission is, you’re going to succumb to the influence of Satan. Get behind me, Satan! It is you, Peter, who have to do what I tell you!”
So, it’s Christ who builds the Church on Peter’s faith. That means that his faith had to be very strong because it would have to endure, be stable, be resistant and take the weight of everything that Christ will build on it. And Christ will build the Church through the faith of the rest of us who share in the faith of Peter. It is our faith which opens the door to all the other virtues and graces that Christ has won for us: hope and charity, humility, courage, the sacraments, the gifts of the Spirit, etc. All of that is made possible for us by the gift of faith. All of that builds up the Church.
Christ can’t build the Church if we don’t have the faith of Peter. That’s the only faith in town. That’s the only one revealed by the Trinity. That is the path that is before us. There is no alternative path. There is only one name by which men can be saved and that is Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Then Jesus says to Peter that the gates of the underworld will not prevail against the Church. Jesus is telling Peter and us to be ready for persecution. In the early Church, persecution was a possibility people faced every day up until the early 4th century. For, the truth which the Trinity reveals and which the faith of the Church conserves, deepens and understands more and more fully through the centuries by dint of the same Spirit who revealed the faith to Peter: that truth penetrates into the deepest heart and conscience of anyone who hears it. The truth of the faith is not a pastime, a hobby. No, it penetrates into the depths of human life. The truth of the faith reveals to us what it means to be human. It unfolds for us the great mystery of human life, the purpose of it, the way to achieve that purpose, the means to gain the reward it promises.
In the process, of course, the faith purifies, it strips away what remains of sin and resistance in us. And it is at this crucial point that human beings can resist the truth that Christ teaches through his Church, in his apostles and their successors. The resistance comes from our preference to choose our own path. We don’t like to be told that we are in the wrong, that we’ve made mistakes or that we have committed sin. And yet the truth reveals these things to us, not to oppress us, not to wear us down, but to cleanse us, to open up the way for us to grow more fully. The way a physician would remove extraneous elements in the body, in order to allow the body to regain full health and flourish, so the truth is preached to purify and liberate us, to make us whole, to make us flourish in our humanity, to enable us to embrace the fullness of what the Trinity desires to give us through the gift of that faith.
But there will be resistance and persecution. It won’t just come from outside the Church. It will also come from within the Church. It will come from attempts to distort the faith, to dumb it down, to water it down. But the faith will resist, it will survive, because the gates of the underworld will not prevail according to the promise and power, not of us human beings, but of Christ himself.
Remember, too, that the persecution of the Church is at the same time the persecution of Christ. Jesus said very clearly to his apostles: if they hate you, it is because they have hated me before you. We must grasp very clearly and profoundly that Christ is one with his Church. Remember when St. Paul was on the way to Damascus and was thrown to the ground when the Risen Jesus appeared to him. Paul asks, who are you, Lord? And Jesus answers: I am Jesus and you are persecuting me. Jesus is telling Paul that to persecute the Christians, as he is doing, is to persecute Jesus himself. In other words, Christ is one heart and soul and body with his Church.
Some people will say yes to Jesus but no to the Church. Others will say that they have their own direct line of contact with Jesus and don’t need the Church. But that’s impossible! There is no Christ who stands apart from and over against the Church. There is no self-standing Christ and self-standing Church whereby an individual can pick between the two and judge between the two. What faith does is to marry us to Christ in a bond far deeper than between husband and wife. We are one with him and form one mystical body with him. And so, when Christ is persecuted, so is the Church; when the Church is persecuted, so is Christ.
And this can happen within the Church herself. We have seen the terrible things which consecrated men of the Church have done to her children. Is that not one of the worst forms of persecuting Christ and the Church? Throughout the history of the Church there have been men of the Church in the highest offices who had little or no interest in Christ but only in the Church, perceiving her as a means to their own selfish ends. That certainly would scandalise anyone, and so you could understand someone, in frustration with the institutional Church, saying yes to Jesus and no to the Church.
But let’s not forget our own sins. The sin of any member of the Church becomes a sin of the Church. Let us hope that our sins are not as egregious as those just alluded to, but even so we still contribute to the persecution of the Church and of Christ by our sins.
But we must be careful. If the Church is sinful, it’s because of us. Yet she is still holy, because of Christ and the presence of his Holy Spirit in the Church. So, yes, in the Church, too, there must be purification. But purification does not consist of picking and choosing between the teachings of the Apostles and their successors, or proposing the abolition of the hierarchy or a change in the sacramental structure of the Church written into her very being by Christ himself. Tweaking structures and adopting secular methods and planning and even goals will not purify and strengthen the Church.
The way we purify the Church is through holiness of heart and of life. One saint, one martyr can change the whole life of the Church. Look at St. Benedict in the 5-6th century; look at St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century; look at St. Ignatius of Loyola in the 16th century; look at St. Teresa of Calcutta. It is holiness which purifies the Church and manifests her true face. If we see problems in the Church, all they do is show up the inauthentic face of the Church. The true face of the Church is the face of holiness.
My brothers and sisters, you and I don’t have the keys of Peter. But there is one key we do have. It is the key to the door of holiness of heart and of life. By remaining faithful to the faith of Peter which is a gift given to all of us by the Blessed Trinity, we are invited to imitate the saints and the martyrs, including Peter and Paul and ultimately Jesus himself, by living according to the will of God as revealed to us through the ministry of the Church. We will not improve or change the Church by using that key to walk out of her. If you walk out of the Church, you will be without Christ, the Son of the living God.