Life on the Chrism Trail

Homily for the Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

August 23, 2020
Saint Patrick Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas

Isaiah 22:19-23
Psalm 138:1-3, 6, 8
Romans 11:33-36
Matthew 16:13-20

The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth possesses in its collection a painting by Nicolas Poussin. The painting depicts the very scene described in our Gospel reading from this Sunday; Christ entrusts the keys of the Kingdom to Peter. The painting is entitled The Sacrament of Ordination; it is one of a series of seven Poussin paintings depicting the sacraments. The artist presents this scene involving Christ entrusting the keys to Peter taken from today’s Gospel as representing Peter’s ordination by Christ. Honestly, upon initially viewing this beautiful work of art, I must state that I was puzzled over the choice of this passage of Scripture to present the Sacrament of Holy Orders. I would have selected scenes from Scripture like the Call of the Apostles, or perhaps the Last Supper, or the Washing of Feet to represent Holy Orders — not the entrusting of the keys to Peter.

Yet, in a very profound way, this is what Christ intends the Sacrament of Holy Orders to bring about — order out of chaos. Just as God created the ordered universe and all within it out of the primordial chaos of nothingness, and sin brought about disorder through selfish abuse of all that is good, thus Christ restores order (beyond that of the original order of creation) sacramentally through the ministry of His priests sharing in the ministry of the Bishop in the pastoral care of His people. It must be noted that only priests only in communion with their bishop can govern, teach, and sanctify the People of God, the Church. The ministry of the priest is ordered to the forgiveness of sins administered kindly in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and made present fully in the celebration of the Sacrifice of the Mass. So, it underscores the importance of remembering that a man is called by Christ to be a priest; a priestly vocation is heard and answered by a man through the gift of faith and not entitlement. It is the simplicity of faith that in an earlier passage from his Epistle to the Romans Saint Paul reminds us comes from listening. The simplicity of faith is essential to every vocation but in a particular way to the priestly vocation because our human condition encounters so many temptations to complicate the nature of our call. A vocation begins with listening in faith to and for God Who is incomprehensible. Listening is to be done not only by the man discerning the vocation but also on the part of all the faithful members of the Church who pray for vocations.

In our second reading today, taken from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Paul abandons himself to the mystery of God, whose judgments are inscrutable and whose ways are unsearchable. While Paul is speaking particularly about the question of Israel’s destiny, his point is that only the truly wise and prepared are humble enough to acknowledge that they really do not know “the how,” “the why,” and “the when” of God’s call to them. Paul faithfully trusts the One whom no one can comprehend. Thus, we should each believe that God is upright and will never reject us His People, His Church, even when we cannot grasp the details of the entire picture. Perseverance in faith is required and specifically sought from each of us in our respective vocations born of faith received at Baptism.

In our first reading from Isaiah, we see that this is precisely what occurs to Shebna. He stops listening. He stops persevering. He forgets that he has been entrusted with the keys of the Master’s Household; he stops letting the Master’s people into the Master’s House (which is the Master’s reason for so entrusting him with the keys). At a time of crisis when the people most need to brought into the security of the Master’s House, Shebna refuses to do what he has been called to do and instead builds for himself a majestic and expensive tomb — perhaps a foreshadowing of the scribes and Pharisees condemned as “whitened sepulchers” by Jesus later in Matthew’s Gospel. An expensive tomb is the best our human condition can do without the grace of faith. Shebna loses and gives up his faith. The result is that the Lord thrusts Shebna from his office and instead entrusts the authority of office to Eliakim because Shebna has abandoned faith and instead replaced it with an undue sense of entitlement and an extension of his own ego and self-will.

The authentic authority entrusted to Peter to serve the Messiah’s House — that is, the Church — is the task of admitting the People of God into the Kingdom. This is carried on today through the sacramental and authentic teaching ministry of priests united with their bishop in communion with the Vicar of Christ, who is Pope Francis. This ministry provides order to God’s People and saves them from the chaos of the evil one. There is no authentic priestly ministry apart from the communion a priest shares with his bishop in communion with the Successor of Peter, the Holy Father.

Finally, it is important to note that in today’s Gospel passage from Matthew, Peter is addressed as “Simon bar Jonah.” The name “Simon” is derivative of the Hebrew word “shema” — to listen. “Jonah” is referent to the Old Testament prophet who precisely refused to listen. The point is that the Church, and those who are entrusted with authoritative offices in service to Her — are called to listen first and so to recognize that the authority is indeed entrusted to them but belongs more profoundly in truth to Christ. It also means that conversion on each of our parts is a gradual endeavor that marks fully our entrance into God’s Kingdom, just as it was for Simon Bar Jonah who gradually was configured to Christ in becoming Peter, as named by Jesus. Patient perseverance and mercy must characterize our respective vocations and particularly a priest’s pastoral ministry.

The ministerial gift of rightly ordered authority by Christ to His Church underscores the need for rightly ordered servants who can only become so through the honest simplicity of faith. These can only be born of prayer, so we pray for priestly and religious vocations. There is no lasting hope or legitimate charity without first entering through the door of faith. This simplicity of faith begins with listening; it then responds to the heard Word with persevering service to those most in need. Those who are most in need are those to whom the Master sends us to save from the chaos of sin and selfishness and to admit them with His keys into His Kingdom and Household, the Church. Listen, have faith, and be attentive for God’s voice that speaks His Word.

This week I ask you to join me in praying for three graces. First, pray for the willingness to listen to God’s voice spoken in His Word and with peace in your heart, freed from chaos and egotism. Secondly, pray for the grace of the simplicity of faith that establishes no complicated conditions for belief. Finally, I ask you to pray that each of us might accept the gift of the tranquility and peaceful order of the Gospel as a sign and witness to so many affected by the chaos and cacophony of contemporary discourse in the Church and within our society.

If we do that, if we live and pray with the graces of peace, simplicity, and tranquility, then we can make our own the words of the psalm we prayed today: “I will give thanks to your name, because of your kindness and your truth. When I called, you answered me; you built strength within me.”

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