A Feast of Foundations

29 June 2009. Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, Apostles
Acts 12, 1-11; Psalm 34; 2 Tim 4, 6-18; Matthew 16, 13-19

The Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul is a feast of foundations, of beginnings, and, most of all, of the people who forged the basic principles by which we live. For Catholics all over the world, it is Saints Peter and Paul. Peter and Paul risked their lives to make us free. They left us enshrined words to protect those freedoms. For Catholics, these are Scripture and tradition. The country has been at its best when it has observed its founding principles. It has been at its worst when it has not, when the power of the few rules the lives of the many, when the law is twisted to curtail freedom rather than expand it. The Church has been at its best when it has observed its founding principles. It has been at its worst when it has not: when power and corruption have contracted and suppressed the freedom and the hearts of the faithful.

The Philippines and the Church have known internal strife. For the country, it is called the different revolutions, quite like the national crisis we face today. For the Church, it is called schism. Recovery for both has always meant going back to basics, going back to the foundations and to the “founding fathers,” as the saying goes, the people--men and women--who built the nation and the Church.

That is why we celebrate the feast of Saints Peter and Paul: to call us back to the basics. The Church has known glory in the past two thousand years. Yet it is also true that the Church has known shame in the past two thousand years: times of stress, persecution, and corruption. It is no secret that right now, we are going through one of the recurrent stress times.

Since Vatican II, liberal and conservative Catholics are at odds with each other all over the world. The liberals are agitating for issues such as the ordination of women and married men, freedom of choice, the popular election of bishops, more democracy, and sexual freedom. The conservatives are agitating for order, obedience to the pope, and a return to pre-Vatican. Each is convinced that the other is destroying the Church. Whichever side is right (if anybody really can be right in a debate such as this), the Church is sick. Vocations have dried up. There are few priests left and they are aging fast. Sunday Mass attendance is down to one-fourth of the total number of Catholics.

The young have abandoned the Church. Since they are raised in a highly secular society--many come from broken homes or have parents who don’t practice their faith, as well--they get their primary impression of the Catholic Church from a media which is hostile to the Church. For them, the Church is what the media says it is over and over again: a sexist, homophobic, chauvinistic, patriarchal, hypocritical, and corrupt institution.

Well, we’ve been through all this before. Many times in history. What has always brought us back to stability, what has always brought about a glorious renewal, is a return to the basics: a return to Peter and Paul, to what they learned from Jesus and passed on to us. After all, it is instructive to remember that Peter and Paul also lived in very unsettled times. Like Christians in many parts of the world today, they, too, were persecuted. Peter was eventually crucified upside down in Rome--he didn’t feel worthy to be crucified right side up like his master--and Paul was beheaded on the spot where his cathedral stands today.

And so it is today. In the partisan church wars what often goes unnoticed is that these basics have stayed put. For all of the troubles in the Church--and no one denies them, they are so obvious--there nevertheless exists, behind the headlines as it were, a pervasive, massive, worldwide, ongoing mission to spread the Word of Jesus. Every day--every single day, on a scale you cannot imagine--reconciliation, compassion, evangelization, and prayer are common fare.

Think of the daily heroism of our teachers in the public schools, the Catholic hospitals, the orphanages. Think of the countless missionaries, clerical and lay, who even as we sit here are toiling under repressive governments, risking life and limb for Christ.

Think of the fact that the Catholic Church is arguably the largest AIDS caregiver in the world. Think of the millions and millions of people, inspired by Christ, who daily, quietly, practice reconciliation, compassion, evangelization, and prayer all over the world, even in the most remote places.

This is the Church, not the well-publicized institutional hierarchy consisting of only one percent of baptized Catholics. The Church is the ninety-nine percent who toil in the marketplace and try to bring decency and honor to it. Behind the hot issues and behind the headlines, there is that daily, consistent presence of Christ in the world that is the Church--the People of God--who are, as we speak, seeding this world with grace. We’ve got to tell both ourselves and the world such good news. We can’t leave it up to the media. We can’t be so engrossed in our own agendas that we ourselves don’t see the larger picture.

And we can’t go around blaming our leaders. Even if they were the most evil and corrupt people that ever existed, we could still find Christ, for Christ does not depend on the leaders. He depends on his Church, which is us. Corrupt popes, bishops, priests, or lousy Catholics have no power over grace; these people we shouldn’t make bigger than they are. Blaming them is an attempt to get ourselves off the hook for our failures to be Church. After all, the sacraments work even from the hands of an unworthy minister.

God is larger than us, God’s servants. Sacraments, compassion, teaching, healing, grace--they quietly abound, full-measure and overflowing every single day all over this world. I was once asked about what happens to those people who were not baptized in the Catholic church, who never heard about Christ. What happens to them? I told them, that the Lord is far larger than our Sacraments. He is not bound by our sacraments and rituals. He too saves them.

On this feast of Peter and Paul we must remember that, in fact, there are many good things about the church, many daily, endless heroisms, public and private, deep prayer, everyday mysticism, life-giving nourishment in its great sacramental life, and profound and sustaining traditions--all this in spite of the good, bad, and the ugly who make up our leaders and our followers.

The Church of Peter and Paul is wounded and always has been, even in their time--but it is alive and striving to do well. This is what you should be preaching about and inviting people into. After all, we don’t often take note of the historical fact that the Catholic Church is the longest, continuous government in the world--some 1700 years longer than the next contender, the United States. That says something about our deep roots in the apostles and in Christ.

That’s why we celebrate the feastday of our founders, because we’re still here, 2009 years later! The Christ that Peter and Paul knew, lived for, and died for is alive in his people, alive in the people of God and not just in the hierarchy. You want a motto for this feast? St. Paul says it best: “Jesus Christ: yesterday, today, and forever.” We pray that we hold on to the same faith and values as Peter and Paul.

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