Saturday, August 20, 2011

The power of the keys

Okay. Rarely do we have a set of readings that elicit two (count 'em two!) posts, but the readings for this Sunday's Mass are just so chock-full of great stuff that I couldn't resist. Last post, we looked at how Jesus changed Simon's name to Peter and promised that he (Peter) would be the foundation for the Christ's Church.

As Catholics, we believe that he did just that. Peter went on to be the leader of the disciples (notice that his name is listed first in every list of the group given in the New Testament). After leading the early Church in Jerusalem and then Antioch, Peter ended up in Rome, where he was martyred for the faith. For this reason, the bishop of Rome (i.e. the Pope, a name which is derived from the affectionate term, "Papa") has always been considered the leader of the world's bishops, who are the successors of the Apostles.

But how did this come to be? How and when did Peter receive authority from Jesus to lead the Church? It goes back, again, to the Gospel reading for this Sunday. Just after changing Simon's name to Peter, Jesus continues with this powerful pronouncement to Peter: "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 16:19-20)

There it is. Jesus gave Peter "the keys to the kingdom of heaven," and the power to bind and loose. In other words, he gave Peter authority to act as chief shepherd of the Church. He also gave him the power to act and make decisions in his place. When a leader will be gone for a period of time, he often appoints another to take his place, to take over his role; to act as his "vicar." A vicar is a person who has been given authority to act and make decisions "in the person of" an absent leader. Peter was appointed to be the "vicar of Christ."

To the ears of many modern non-Catholic Christians, this might sound very strange -- to consider a man to be ruling the Church "in the place of Christ." But it is according to Christ's plan (as is obvious in the quotes above), and it is not without precedent. In fact, there is an important Old Testament precedent (a prophetic one) for a steward being given the "keys" of authority in the master's absence.

Let's look at the First Reading for this Sunday, which comes from the Prophet Isaiah.

"Thus says the LORD to Shebna, master of the palace: 'I will thrust you from your office and pull you down from your station. On that day I will summon my servant Eliakim, son of Hilkiah; I will clothe him with your robe, and gird him with your sash, and give over to him your authority. He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah. 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. I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot, to be a place of honor for his family.'" (Isaiah 22:19-23, emphases mine).
"Peter's keys" are the main element of the Papal arms.

Keys are a symbol of authority because the one who holds the keys can control who comes in and who goes out. As Isaiah says, "when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts, no one shall open." The "peg" to which Isaiah refers was driven into the framework of a building during construction, holding the entire structure together. Jesus takes this template and applies it to Peter when he appoints him to be the servant/leader of his Church. Both Peter and Jesus were certainly very familiar with Isaiah's story about Eliakim. So, in essence, Jesus was saying to Peter: "I have the same confidence in you that God had in Eliakim. You, Peter, will be my vicar, and will be a father figure and a servant/leader for all of my followers, for all in my house."

But Jesus goes one step further, not only investing Peter with the symbolic keys to the Kingdom of Heaven (a synonym for the Church), but also announcing that he is giving Peter the power "to bind and to loose" (Mt. 16:19). He also gave the other Apostles authority to bind and loose (see Matthew 18:18), so this is not specific to Peter. But the point is that Jesus gives Peter and his fellow Apostles the power to make binding decisions in matters of faith and morals - decisions which are to guide all of Christ's followers.

This explains Catholics' insistence of remaining in communion with our bishops (the successors of the Apostles) and with the Successor of Peter - the Pope. We take Christ at his word. We believe in the power of his promise that he would build his Church on Peter and that he gave Peter the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. We believe that he gave Peter and the other Apostles the power to bind and loose.

Funny thing is, all Christians recognize this power, too, to some extent - whether they realize it or not. For example, all Christians agree and recognize the same 27 books in the New Testament. What many of them do may not think about is that the canon (or "official list") of the New Testament books is not found in Scripture. Instead, it came from the Church (namely the bishops - the successors of the Apostles). They held authoritative Church councils over the course of many centuries in the early history of the Church and, among other things, codified the traditional New Testament books, deciding which books were to be regarded as Scripture and which were not. All Christians now accept their decisions without issue. Interesting, huh? (It is facts like these which led Bl. John Henry Newman to conclude that "to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.")

Anyone who accepts the 27 books of the Christian New Testament, thereby accepts the authority of the bishops and Church councils who canonized those books in the early centuries of the Church. So every Christian who accepts the Bible as authoritative negates their own argument that it is to be the sole source of authority for Christians. Indeed, without a need for guidance in matters of faith and morals, we would not need the Church. But Christ knew better than we and he generously gave us both: the Church and the Scriptures.

The "keys of St. Peter" from this Sunday's Gospel reading have led to an abundance of jokes about St. Peter being the doorman at the gates of heaven. But in truth, they symbolize an immense amount of trust that Jesus placed in the person of Peter -- enough trust and confidence to imbue the career fisherman with the responsibilities of guidance and governance for the universal Church. They also symbolize the confidence that we as Catholics can have, trusting Jesus' promises, in "following Peter," just as the first Christians did. And we still recognize the special place of Peter's successor as "a peg in a sure spot," calling him "father," and recognizing his place of honor in our "family."