Sunday, August 24, 2014

Peter, Pius, and What We Leave Behind

I generally have two books going at any given time—one for spiritual enrichment and the other for entertainment. I’m currently reading Jesus: The Son of Man by Kahlil Gibran and Love In the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I’ve also been making my way through an audio version of Michael Cunningham’s The Snow Queen: A Novel.

A few days ago, I was listening to The Snow Queen as I went for a walk and I was struck by this passage:

There’s something about the courting of disaster, in shopping terms, that fascinates Barrett [one of the book’s main characters], that holds his attention, helps render him satisfied with his current stature. It’s the technically extinct but somehow still plausible hint of calamity implied by the impulse purchase—the impoverished dowager or disinherited young earl who says, “I’m going to walk the earth in this perfectly faded Freddy Mercury t-shirt (two-fifty), I’m going to party tonight in this vintage McQueen minidress (eight hundred), because the moment matters more than the future. The present—today, tonight; the sensation of walking into a room, and creating a real if fleeting hush—is what I care about, it’s all right with me if I leave nothing behind.”

At this risk of sounding unnecessarily harsh, I have to say that the reason this passage stayed with me is because I think it captures the prevailing attitude of our culture in general, including those of us who profess to be committed to our faith. 

Convenience. Expedience. Comfort. Security. Passivity. Independence. Rapacity. These are dark, hard words. And yet, we can also see how, in many ways, they are the guiding values of the culture in which we live. Each of these values is focused on “me” and what is best for my life. They give us permission to ignore what is going on around us (as long as “I” am not effected) and effectively prevent any outside voice from disrupting or forming the life that I lead. These same words can become the guiding values of communities, as well. 

And this tendency to live only for the self and for the present moment reveals how hard it is to live for the future. But the demands of the Gospel force us to see the world and our selves through different eyes. Being a disciple automatically places us within a community because faith cannot be lived out in a sort of private experience that is only focused on seeking out and gaining what is best for me and mine. 

In the Gospel for this Sunday, we hear the Peter’s great profession of faith: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” But we also hear Jesus’ reply to Peter: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church… 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.” For Catholics, this passage from Matthew’s Gospel forms the foundation for belief in the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, the successor of Saint Peter. And whether you accept the Catholic understanding of this pericope or adopt the Protestant perspective (that the emphasis should be placed on Peter’s confession rather than Peter himself), this is a pivotal moment in the lives of Peter, the other Apostles, and all Jesus’ followers. 

But even after this wonderful exchange, Peter “the Rock” continues to get things wrong. His personality continues to get in the way and, at the time we would expect him to stand by his friend and Master, he denies Jesus three times (cf. Matthew 26:69-75; Mark 14:66-72; Luke 22:54-60; and John18:15-18, 25-27). However, as Sr. Kathleen Howard, O.S.B., observes, “It is not Peter’s character or virtuous achievements that make him a rock. It is his faith in Jesus that makes him stable and strong enough to be a foundation stone for the church… Peter’s faith is more than intellectual knowledge; it is a trusting relationship with Jesus. When he confesses that Jesus is the Christ, Peter is speaking out of deep loving communion with him. He knows Christ as friend knows friend, as husband or wife knows a spouse. Knowing in this deep, loving way with heart as well as head makes Peter willing to place all his trust in Jesus, the Messiah, God’s Son” (from Give Us This Day¸ August 24, 2014). 

Despite his faults, we do see Peter begin to fulfill his mission in the Acts of the Apostles. The same can be said of all the Apostles. They shepherded the Early Church through persecutions, internal divisions, scandals, growing pains, and theological exploration, leaving us a legacy of faith that in enshrined in both the New Testament and in the most ancient traditions of the Church. In their ministry, Peter and the Apostles were mindful that their work and witness had consequences, not only for those first generations of Christians, but for those who would come later. We are given a hint of this in the Letter to the Ephesians: “You are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone. Through him the whole structure is held together and grows into a temple sacred to the Lord; in him you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (2:19-22). The building up of the Body of Christ continues and we are a part of that process. Peter’s future is our present. We are the beneficiaries of this great legacy. And this legacy places demands upon us, because our present and our future will shape those who come after us.

As I reflected on this reading and the idea of what we “leave behind,” I thought of the ministry of Pope Francis, but also of another pope, Pius X, whose liturgical memorial was celebrated on August 21. This year marks the centenary of the death of this important but controversial pope  who was canonized 1954. 

In his Lives of the Saints, Father Richard McBrien observes that Pius X was “the pope best known, unfortunately, for the war he waged against Modernism, an ill-defined grab bag of liberal but not necessarily unorthodox opinions, in the course of which campaign he set back Catholic theological, biblical, and historical scholarship at least fifty years.” But Pius X is also the pope who encouraged frequent reception of the Eucharist (in an age when many only received Communion once a year, if that often) and determined that First Communion could be celebrated at the “age of discretion” (around age seven). 

Giuseppe Sarto was born to an impoverished family (his father was a postal worker) in the region of Treviso, Italy. Following his ordination in 1858, he served in country parishes before being appointed diocesan chancellor and a seminary spiritual director. In 1884, he was consecrated as bishop of Mantua, a poor and tired diocese that he reformed and renewed. Then, only nine years later he was appointed Patriarch of Venice and named a cardinal. He was revered by his people for his simplicity and humility, but he was also known for his strong opinions. All of these were characteristics that he took with him to Rome when he was elected to succeed Pope Leo XIII in 1903, taking the name Pius the Tenth. 
Pope Pius’ papal motto was Instaurare Omnia in Christo (“To Restore All Things in Christ”) and he made it clear that he intended to be a pastoral—rather than political—pope. Despite his wishes, however, he became immediately involved in international tensions and even broke off diplomatic ties with France. The majority of his efforts were focused on the internal life of the Church. Pius used all of the resources at his disposal to rout out the error of Modernism, which he condemned as the “synthesis of all heresies” in his encyclical Pascendi Dominici gregis. Three years later he imposed the “Oath Against Modernism” on all clerics. These actions led to the dismissal of seminary professors and Catholic academics and led to a sort of reactionary theological war within the Church. Pius saw himself as the steward of the Church’s treasury of teachings and traditions and understood that the pope was responsible for maintaining the fabric of the Church in the face of an increasingly secular and fast-moving culture. 

And yet, he also reorganized the Roman Curia, called for a new, definitive edition of the Code of Canon Law (the first official collection in Church history), established the Pontifical Biblical Institute, and encouraged the laity to collaborate with their bishops. Finally, he initiated a system of liturgical reforms that paved the way for the great “Liturgical Movement” and the continued reforms of Pope Pius XII and the Second Vatican Council. 

In 1913, Pope Pius X suffered a heart attack from which he never recovered. He died on August 20, 1914, less than two months after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the outbreak of the First World War, which he desperately tried to prevent. It is said that he died of a broken heart. In his last will and testament, he wrote, “I was born poor, and I have lived poor, and I wish to die poor.” In keeping with his wishes, he was buried in a simple, unadorned tomb beneath St. Peter’s Basilica. 

Like Saint Peter, Pius X understood that something precious had been entrusted to his care and he spent his life working to shore up and beautify the building of the Church. While some of his tactics can be seen as harsh and reveal a limited perspective, he lived for the future, conscious that those who would come after him would benefit or suffer because of the decisions he made.

As Pope Francis, another successor of St. Peter, observed this morning, “what happened in a unique way in Saint Peter, also takes place in every Christian who develops a sincere faith in Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God. Today’s Gospel challenges each of us: ‘How is your faith?’… For his part, Peter is the rock, as the visible foundation of the unity of the Church; but every baptized person is called to offer to Jesus his or her own faith, poor but sincere, so that He can continue to build His Church, today, in every part of the world” (Angelus for August 24, 2014).

Part of our offering of faith, part of living this faith is being mindful that our acts or omissions have an impact on those who come after us. Living for our own present isn’t an option. Just as we have been the beneficiaries of the prayer and work of both great saints (like Saint Peter and Saint Pius) and generations of nameless, holy Christians, we have been entrusted with a responsibility to live for the future. How this reality takes shape in our lives reveals itself in our prayer and discernment and especially in how we actively engage our faith communities and the world around us. The essential point of all of this is that we have to begin to be mindful of the times and ways that we settle for the values canonized by society, as we offer our homage to the myriad of gods our culture has enshrined. We are called to do and be more. Living for the future is hard, as is living for others. But it is only in engaging in this hard work that we will find our salvation.

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