Monday, June 29, 2009

Guardians of Souls, Purified by Obedience to Truth

Homily of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI
Mass on the Solemnity of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul

June 29, 2009

In the Collect of this solemn day, we ask the Lord "that the Church may always follow the teaching of the Apostles from which she received the first announcement of the faith." The request that we raise to the Lord also poses us questions: Are we following the teaching of the great founding Apostles? Do we really know them?

During the Pauline Year which ended yesterday, we sought to hear him again in a new way - the "teacher of the Gentiles" - and thus to learn anew the alphabet of the faith. We sought to know Christ with Paul and through him, and in so doing, to find the way for correct Christian living.

In the canon of the New Testament, besides the Letters of St. Paul, there are also two Letters under the name of St. Peter. The first of these letters ends explicitly with a greeting from Rome, although it appears under the apocalyptic cover name of Babylon: "The co-elected one at Babylon sends you greeting..." (1 Pet 5:13).

Calling the Church of Rome the "co-elected" places her into the community of all local Churches - the community of all whom God has united so that, in the Babylon of time in this world, they may construct His People and make God enter into history. The first Letter of Peter is a greeting from Rome to all of Christianity of all time. It invites us to listen to "the teaching of the Apostles" which shows us the way to life.

This Letter is a very rich text that comes from the heart and touches the heart. Its center - and how could it be otherwise? - is the figure of Christ, who is described as He who suffers and loves, as the Crucified and Risen One: "When He was insulted, He returned no insult; when He suffered, He did not threaten... By His wounds you have been healed" (1 Pet 2:23ff).

Starting out from the center who is Christ, the Letter also constitutes an introduction to the fundamental Christian sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist, and a discourse addressed to priests, in which Peter describes himself as a co-"presbyter" with them. He speaks to the pastors of all generations as he who was personally named by the Lord to pasture His sheep and therefore, received a priestly mandate in a very special way.

What then does St. Peter tell us - appropriately, in the Year for Priests - about the task of the priest? He calls Christ "pastor and guardian of... souls" (2:25). Where the Italian translation uses the word "guardian," the Greek text uses the word episcopus (bishop). Further on, Christ is described as the supreme pastor: archipoimen (5,4).

It is surprising that Peter calls Christ Himself a bishop - bishop of souls. What did he mean by this?

The Greek word episcopos includes the root for "to see" - that is why it has been translated as "guardian," in the sense of "one who oversees." Certainly, what is meant is not external guarding as one would in the context of a prison. Rather, what is meant is watching over, from on high - from God's elevation. Seeing from the perspective of God is seeing with love that wishes to serve another, who wants to help the other become truly himself.

Christ is the "bishop of souls," Peter tells us. This means: He sees us from the perspective of God. Looking from God's perspective, one has a vision of the whole - one sees the dangers as well as the hopes and possibilities. From the perspective of God, one sees the essence, one sees the man within.

If Christ is the bishop (overseer) of souls, the objective is to prevent man's soul from becoming more impoverished, that man may not lose his essence - the capacity for truth and love - that instead, man may come to know God, that he does not lose his way in dead ends, that he does not end up in isolation but remains open altogether
. Jesus, "the bishop of souls," is the prototype of every episcopal and priestly ministry. To be a bishop, to be a priest, means in this context: to assume the position of Christ. To think, see and act from the vantage point of His elevation. And starting from Him, to be at the disposition of all men so that they may find life.

Thus, the word "bishop" is very close to the word "pastor," or rather, the two concepts become interchangeable. It is the task of the pastor to pasture and watch over the flock and lead it to the right pastures. To pasture the flock means to be attentive that the sheep find the right food, that their hunger be satisfied, and that their thirst be slaked. Beyond metaphor, this means: the Word of God is the nutriment which man needs. Always to make present the Word of God and thus give nutriment to men is the task of the correct pastor. He should also be able to resist his enemies, the wolves. He should lead and precede, show the way, and keep his flock together.

Peter, in his discourse to the priests, highlights another very important point: It is not enough to speak. Pastors should make themselves "models for the flock" (1 Pet 5:3).

The Word of God is brought from the past to the present when it is lived
. It is marvelous to see how, in the saints, the Word of God becomes a word that is addressed to our time. In figures like St. Francis, and more recently Padre Pio and many others, Christ has become truly contemporary to their generation. He has emerged from the past to enter into the present. This is what it means to be a pastor - a model for the flock: live the Word now, in the great community of the holy Church.

Very briefly I would like now to call attention to two other statements in the First Letter of St. Peter which particularly concern us, in our time.

There is, first of all, the sentence, newly rediscovered today, which was the basis upon which the medieval theologians understood their tasks: "Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope" (1 Pet 3:15).

The Christian faith is hope. It opens the way to the future. And it is a hope that is reasonable - a hope whose reason we can and should explain.

Faith comes from eternal Reason which has entered our world and has shown us the true God. It goes far beyond the native capacity of our own reason, just as love sees more than mere intelligence. But faith speaks to reason, and in the dialectical confrontation, it can hold its own against reason. It does not contradict reason, but keeps step with it, while at the same time, leads far beyond reason - to the greater Reason that is God

As Pastors of our time, we have the task to be the first to understand the reason of faith, the task of not leaving faith to be simply a tradition, but to recognize it as the answer to our questions.

Faith demands our rational participation, which is deepened and purified in a sharing of love. It is part of our duty as Pastors to penetrate the faith with our thought in order to be able to show the reason for our hope in the disputes of our time.

Nonetheless, thinking, by itself, is not enough. Just as speaking, by itself, is not enough. In his baptismal and eucharistic catechesis in Chapter 2 of the First letter, Peter refers to the Psalm used by the primitive Church in the context of communion, "Learn to savor how good the LORD is" (Ps 34(33):9).

Only "tasting" (direct experience) leads to seeing. Think of the disciples at Emmaus: it was only during their convivial communion with Jesus, in the breaking of bread, that their eyes were opened. We become capable of seeing only in an authentic experience of communion with the Lord. This goes for all of us: beyond thinking and speaking, we all need the experience of the faith - that vital relationship with Christ.

Faith should not remain a theory: it should be life. If in the Sacraments, we encounter the Lord, if in prayer we talk to Him, if in our day-to-day decisions we adhere to Christ - then we shall always and increasingly "see" how good He is. Then we can experience how good it is to be with Him. From such a lived certainty comes the capacity to communicate the faith to others in a credible way

The Curate of Ars was not a great thinker. But he "tasted" the Lord. He lived with Him in the minutiae of every day as in the great demands of the pastoral ministry. This way he became "one who sees." He had "tasted" and so he knew that the Lord is good.

Let us pray the Lord so that He may give us this capacity to "taste" and that we may become credible witnesses for the hope that is in us.

Finally, I wish to note another small but important statement from St. Peter. Soon after the opening of the Letter, he tells us that the goal of our faith is the salvation of souls (cf. 1 Pet 1:9). In the language and thought of Christianity today, this seems like a strange statement, and for some, even outright scandalous.

The word "soul" has fallen into discredit. It is said that its use would lead to the division of man unto spiritual and physical, soul and body, whereas in fact, he is an indivisible unity. Besides, the "salvation of souls" as a goal of the faith would seem to suggest an individualistic Christianity, a loss of responsibility for the world as a whole, in its corporeality and its materiality.

But none of that is found in the letter of St. Peter. Zeal in bearing witness to hope and responsibility for others characterize the entire text. To understand the statement about the salvation of souls being the goal of the faith, we must begin from another side.

It remains true that lack of attention to souls and the progressive impoverishment of the interior man not only destroy the individual, but threaten the destiny of mankind as a whole. Without healing souls, without healing man from within, there cannot be salvation of mankind. The true illness of souls is what St. Peter calls ignorance, that is, non-knowledge of God. He who does not know God, who does not at least seek Him sincerely, remains outside of true life (cf. 1 Pet 1:14).

Yet another sentence from Peter's Letter can be useful to us in order to better understand the expression "salvation of souls": "Purify yourselves by obedience to the truth" (cf. 1:22).

It is obedience to the truth that makes the soul pure. And it is living with lies that contaminates it. Obedience to the truth starts with the small truths of everyday, which may often be difficult and painful.

This obedience extends up to the obedience without reservations to the Truth itself which is Christ. Such obedience does not merely make us pure, but above all, it makes us free to render service to Christ and therefore to the salvation of the world, which must always start from the obedient purification of one's own soul through the truth. We can show the way to truth only if we ourselves - in obedience and patience - allow ourselves to be purified by the truth

And now let me address myself to you, dear brothers in the Episcopate, who will shortly receive the pallium from my hands. It was woven from the wool of lambs that the Pope blessed on the Feast of St. Agnes. In this way, it recalls Christ's lambs and sheep whom the risen Lord had entrusted to peter with the task of pasturing them (cf. Jn 21:15-16). It recalls the flock of Jesus Christ which you, dear brothers, must pasture in communion with Peter.

We are reminded of this by Christ Himself, who as the Good Shepherd, has taken upon His shoulders the lost sheep, mankind, in order to bring it back home. It reminds us that He, the supreme Pastor, wanted to be the lamb Himself, in order to take charge from within of the destiny of all of us; in order to carry us and heal us from within.

Let us pray the Lord so that He may grant us to follow in His footsteps as just pastors, "not by constraint but willingly, as God would have it...eagerly - examples to the flock" (1 Pet 5:2ff). Amen.

No comments: