The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Homily: Vigil, Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul

Note: I've already posted a homily for this solemnity (back in June of 2011), and this is pretty much the same homily, with only a few changes to reflect the differences in the readings between the Vigil Mass, at which I preached this past weekend, and the Sunday Mass, at which I preached in 2011. I've included it again because so many people have kindly contacted me about the earlier homily, asking if they could use it. Anyone can use any homily I post, anytime. And I don't care if I get credit. After all, the credit always goes to God, and homilies are supposed to shine the light of truth on the Word of God, not on the preacher. 

Non nobis, Domine, non nobis, sed nomini tuo ad gloriam. [Ps 115:1]

Readings: Acts 3:1-10; Ps 19; Gal 1:11-20; Jn 21:15-19
God calls us all to be saints, and for that very reason saints can really be irritating. After all, how can normal folks like you and I possibly become as holy as a Francis of Assisi or a Mother Teresa? How can we mirror the courage of the martyrs?
The saints set some very high standards, so high as to seem virtually unreachable.  And that can be pretty discouraging as we stumble along on our own journey of faith. Can we ever achieve the saintliness that God wants for each of us?
Quite simply, no. Because no one becomes a saint through his own efforts. It’s God who makes saints.
If you want evidence of this, of God’s saint-making handiwork, look at the two saints we honor today. Today is the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, the greatest of the Apostles, two men chosen by Jesus: one to lead His Church and the other to spread the Faith throughout the world. God could hardly have chosen two more different or unlikely men as these two.
Simon Peter, the callused, sun-burnt fisherman, a man of action, a rough and tumble blue-collar worker of first-century Galilee. A man full of bluster and passion, one who often spoke and acted before thinking. A seemingly simple and straightforward man, but beneath the surface, a complex man full of flaws.
Yes, he responded to Jesus' call, and yet often resisted the message and mission that went with it. He spent three years with Jesus listening to a message he didn't really comprehend. His faith underwent wild swings from deeply fervent to barely lukewarm. He could pledge undying loyalty to Jesus one day, then deny Him the next – a man who failed the test as often as he passed it. And yet Jesus chose this man, Simon Peter, this complex mix of human strength and weakness, to lead His Church.
Recall that day described by Matthew. The disciples, standing with Jesus under the rocky cliffs at Caesarea Philippi, are asked by the Lord: "And you, who do you say that I am?"[Mt 16:15]
Jesus, Peter at Caesarea Philippi
Only Peter dares to respond, openly proclaiming the revelation he’s received from the Father: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God." [Mt 16:16]
It’s to Peter alone that Jesus then turns and declares: "You are 'Rock,' and on this rock I will build my church." [Mt 16:18]
Commissioned by Jesus, he is first among the Apostles, the first Vicar of Christ, the first Pope, the one chosen to represent the entire church: "I will entrust to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you declare bound on earth shall be bound in heaven; whatever you declare loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven." [Mt 16:19]
And then in today’s passage from John we join Peter and the apostles as they encounter the risen Jesus. And what an encounter it is, a breakfast of loaves and fishes prepared by Jesus Himself. They’re on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus had made a charcoal fire, a fire not unlike that at which Peter had warmed himself in the high priest's courtyard the night Jesus was arrested. Here, by the fire, it’s Peter alone whom Jesus asks to confess his love, not once but three times. [Jn 21:15-19]
Risen Jesus and the Apostles at the Sea of Galilee (Jn 21)

Peter’s threefold response, each a sign of love and faith, brings forgiveness, allowing him to recapture what he lost when, overcome by fear, he turned his back on the Lord, denying Him three times. Peter now knows he is weak, so he puts everything in Christ's hands: "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you."
Jesus’ command, too, is threefold: "Feed my lambs…tend my sheep…feed my sheep." With these words, the earlier promise at Caesarea Philippi is fulfilled. Peter is singled out. He alone is given primacy. He becomes the shepherd of the entire flock, the universal church. And because "the jaws of death shall not prevail against" the church, Peter's authority is passed on to his successors down through history to our present day, even until the end of time.
Only weeks later, on that first Pentecost, we see a new Peter, no longer fearful but bursting with zeal to spread the Gospel and baptize – to teach, to preach, to heal. He is a man transformed by the Holy Spirit. Such is the Spirit’s power, the power of God's grace, that it turns weakness into strength, cowards into martyrs, fishermen into popes. Peter is the Rock, not because of Peter, but because of Jesus.
Peter, the ordinary man who went on to do extraordinary things for God, gives us more than an example to follow. He gives us, the ordinary men and women of today, that which we need more than anything else. He gives us hope. He reminds us of the greatness to which we are all called. But like Peter, we can realize that greatness only if we first humbly acknowledge our own emptiness and weakness before God.
In contrast to Peter, Paul was no ordinary man. He came from Tarsus, a Hellenized cosmopolitan city in Asia Minor, a center of culture, philosophy, and education – “no mean city” Paul called it [Acts 21:39].
An educated Jew and a Roman citizen, Paul was also a Pharisee, one of those legalistic nit-pickers so caught up in the minutia of Mosaic Law that they had lost any understanding of its spirit. "Hypocrites," Jesus called them, "A brood of vipers" [Mt 12:34]. Clearly the Pharisees were not high on His list of role-models.
Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls (Rome)
We first encounter Paul, then named Saul, in the book of Acts. He takes part in the execution of Stephen, the first Christian martyr -- and, I might add, a deacon -- by guarding the cloaks of those who cast the killing stones. A zealous persecutor of the early Christian Church, Paul seems a most unlikely candidate for sainthood. But with God all things are possible.
We all know of Paul's miraculous conversion when Jesus reveals Himself on the road to Damascus. Like Peter, Paul accepts Jesus only because he first recognizes the truth about himself. Indeed, his conversion is symbolized by the scales that cover his eyes and blind him...scales that are removed only when he enters the embrace of the Church.
Paul not only embraces the Church, he goes on to become the great evangelist, the Apostle to the Gentiles, spreading the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire. As the spiritual descendants of those 1st Century Gentiles, we owe Paul a debt of gratitude for our Christian faith.
But Paul knows that the glory for his work goes to God, for it is through God's grace that he was brought to the Truth, and it is God's grace that sustained him in his ministry. Recall today's second reading in which Paul admits:
“But when God, who from my mother’s womb had set me apart and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him to the Gentiles.” [Gal 1:15-16]
Yes, Jesus called these two men, made them saints, and gave them to the Church: Peter who had been Simon and Paul who had been Saul.
Peter the fisherman, the small-town Galilean Jew. Paul the Pharisee, the scholar of the Law.
Peter always conscious of the Faith's Old Testament roots, and Paul who found in Christ, "all things new" [Rev 21:5].
Peter who had lived and walked with Jesus. Paul who encountered Him outside of time itself on the road to Damascus.
Peter and Paul in Rome. Peter in chains. Paul imprisoned.
Peter crucified on an inverted cross because he felt unworthy to die as His Lord had died. Paul martyred by the sword, as befit a citizen of Rome.
Two very different men, and yet their message and their example of total abandonment to God's Will go out through all the earth.
Then and now.
To Him be glory forever and ever.

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