Today we observe the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, Apostle. Yesterday we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the re-dedication of our beautiful Mother Church, The Cathedral of the Madeleine. “Chair” is the English translation of the Latin word cathedra. It is the presence of the bishop’s cathedra that makes this Church a Cathedral. It is from this chair that Bishop Wester presides in love over our local Church, the Diocese of Salt Lake City. He does so in communion with his fellow bishops and, along with them, in communion with the Bishop of Rome. It is the Church of Rome “who,” according to the second century bishop and martyr, St. Ignatius of Antioch, “ presides in love” over all the Churches.
Next Thursday, precisely at noon Mountain Time, when the surprising renunciation of the papacy by our beloved Pope Benedict XVI goes into effect, the Chair of St. Peter will be sede vacante, that is, “a vacant seat.” So, we observe this feast and celebrate this liturgy, with a bit of sadness, but certainly not without hope and joy.
As Fr. Julían Carrón, President of the Fraternity of Communion & Liberation wrote about Monday, 11 February 2013: “For an instant, the world stopped. All of us, wherever we were, stood in silence, seeing our same amazement reflected on the faces of those around us. Everything was contained in that moment of silence. No communication strategy could have provoked a similar reaction: we were faced with a fact as incredible as it was real, a fact that imposed itself with such evidence that it drew us all, forcing us to look up from everyday things.”
He asked, “What was capable of filling the entire world with silence, all of a sudden?” Writing further of this extraordinary moment, which demolished “in one stroke, the images that we normally have of Christianity” as “a past event, an earthly organization, a group of roles, a morality about things that we should or shouldn’t do,” he observed that none of these common reductions of the Church are capable of answering this question. Facing squarely the Holy Father’s gesture caused Fr. Carrón to wonder if anyone will ask, “who Christ is for Joseph Ratzinger, if the bond with Him led him to carry out an act of freedom this surprising, which everyone—believers or not—recognized as exceptional and profoundly human?”
Freedom is the key to understanding the Holy Father’s initiative, with which, turning again to Carrón, he “gave such a witness to Christ that it made all of [Christ’s] attractiveness shine powerfully through,” forcing us to “admit how rare it is to find a witness that forces the world, [even] for an instant, to fall silent.” It is precisely this freedom that is mentioned in our first reading from 1 Peter, which exhorts priests- “Tend the flock of God in your midst, overseeing not by constraint but willingly” (1 Pet. 5:2). After all, one can only preside in love freely because without freedom love is impossible.
Msgr. Luigi Giussani, founder of the ecclesial Movement Communion & Liberation, who passed into eternity eight years ago today and for whom this Mass is offered in memoriam, begins the preface to the final work of his magnificent trilogy, Why the Church?, with this quote from the magisterial document Dominus Iesus: “Jesus Christ continues his presence and his work of salvation in the Church and through the Church, which is his Body,” noting that “The Church offers itself as the continuity of Christ.”
Therefore, the question for us, especially in light of this extraordinary present moment we are living, is “how can the Church be recognized as the continuity of Christ?”
Giussani presents three ways the Church can be so recognized: one way is through rationalism; inner enlightenment, the chief focus of most forms of Protestantism, is another; the working of the Holy Spirit: the mystery of the communion of believers, as set forth in historical, especially conciliar, documents, is the focus of Orthodox Christians. It bears noting that what makes us Catholic is not our rejection of any of these: the use of reason, our need for inner enlightenment, or, as believers, participating in the mystery of communion, the very act in which we are presently engaged.
Because, at least for those who follow the charism given to the Church through Luigi Giussani, we always start with the present moment, it is in the mystery of the communion of believers that gives us the answer “to the question of the historical reading of texts and the movement of the Spirit… in order to understand who is standing before us.” If we are not attuned to recognize Christ precisely here, in this liturgy, where He is already really and truly present in our gathering together, in the proclamation of the word, and in Fr. Silva presiding in persona Christi capitis, then how can we be recognized, either individually or together, as His continuity in the world when are dismissed?
Fr. Carrón, in his judgment concerning the extraordinary gesture of the man who renounced the papacy out his freedom, quoted Jacopone da Todi: “Christ in His beauty draws me to Him.” It is because Christ, in His beauty, has drawn us to Him that in freedom we can say to Pope Benedict XVI and to his successor what Christ says to Peter in today’s Gospel: Tu es Petrus (Matt. 16:18).
It is the constant duty of the one who walks in the shoes of the fisherman from Galilee along those over whom he presides in love, to proclaim what we affirmed in our Psalm response: “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want” (Ps. 23:1). Jesus is the Good Shepherd, who not only laid down His life for us, but took it up again, which means that even on this Friday of Lent, in our freedom, we say, Christos anesti; Christ is risen!