24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Cathedral of Mary Our Queen
Live streamed and broadcast
September 12, 2021
Throughout this weekend, our Nation observes a somber anniversary, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a day that will forever be known as 9/11. We remember as well the heroism of those airline passengers over Shanksville, Pa., who gave their lives to prevent a further attack on our Nation’s Capital. Those of us old enough will never forget that day. At the time, I was the Bishop of Fairfield County, Connecticut, close to New York City. Many parishioners in my former diocese lost their lives that day in the Twin Towers. The suffering and grieving that followed are etched indelibly in my mind and heart. Time has not erased the memory of those who died that fateful day, nor the heroism of first responders—firefighters, police, EMS, and chaplains. Let us not forget those who still suffer from illnesses generated by the wreckage, and the many people who still grieve for loved ones lost on that latter “day of infamy”.
The Relevance of Peter’s Confession of Faith
Opening the Holy Scriptures on this particular Sunday, overshadowed as it is by the memory of 9/11 – what do we find? We find Jesus engaging his disciples in conversation. He asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” – and they share with Jesus popular opinions regarding his identity. Then Jesus asks his disciples, and now he asks us, “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answers for all of us: “You are the Christ”, he said, God’s anointed One, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
What relevance does Peter’s confession of faith in Christ have for us as we reflect on the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and subsequent acts of terror? Perhaps Pope Saint John XXIII gave us an answer to that question in his speech at the opening of the II Vatican Council on October 11th, 1962. He said: “The great problem confronting the world after almost 2000 years remains unchanged. Christ is ever resplendent as the center of history and life. Men are either with him and with his Church, and then they enjoy light, goodness, order, and peace. Or else they are without him, or against him, and deliberately opposed to his Church, and then they give rise to confusion, to bitterness in human relations, and to the constant danger of fratricidal wars.” Listening to the words of Pope St. John XXIII, can we not see how Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, has the greatest relevance to the somber anniversary we observe and to the dangers we continue to face? What was the saintly Pontiff saying to us in his prophetic address?
The Encounter with Christ
Let me begin with what Pope John XXIII was not saying. He was not calling for a theocracy – a world ruled by religion and religious leaders, nor was he holding out the possibility of a utopia, even a Christian utopia, an imaginary earthly paradise where everyone behaves ethically and virtuously. Rather, when the Pope spoke of Christ as “resplendent as the center of life and history”, he was suggesting that it is possible for us, in our times, to encounter Christ, to meet him on a deeply personal level – and to do so as individual believers and as members of the Church. In other words, to have Jesus engage us, his current-day disciples, in conversation just as he engaged his first disciples, when he asked, “Who do you say that I am?”
If we would open our hearts to a living encounter with Christ, then let us remember that Peter’s reply to Jesus’ question was not merely a theologically correct answer, as if he had read The Catechism of the Catholic Church in advance. Rather, the Holy Spirit inspired Peter’s answer to Jesus’ question, an answer that arose from his encounters with Jesus of Nazareth, that mysterious Prophet, who gazed like no other into the depths of Peter’s soul. Even at that, Peter did not fully understand what he was saying. He did not yet grasp the Father’s will that the Messiah had to suffer, and that Christ’s crucified love would not only take away the sins of the world but also give rise to a new vision of life, a new understanding of human dignity, and a selfless way of living together in society… as a mustard seed, as leaven in the lump of dough, as salt and light, as soul to body. Unless and until you and I encounter Christ in the same way as did Peter, our faith may remain a mere matter of ideas and practices but not a life-changing event. As both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have said, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a Person – namely Jesus Christ – an encounter which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (cf. DCE; EG). This is what Peter’s confession of faith means for us and this, I submit, is what Pope John XXIII said so prophetically some sixty years ago.
City of God and City of Man
In the same vein, St. Augustine in the 5th C wrote about the coexistence of two cities, the City of God and the City of Man, as they are known. The City of Man is identified with a purely secular world, a world that has made and continues to make laudable progress but also a wounded world that often discounts, discourages, or even suppresses the inbuilt human desire for God and for the infinite and the eternal, our religious sense. Living in a purely secular world, it is easy for us, even as believers, to idolize not only our possessions but also our plans, our projects, our values and our virtues. But a world devoid of God is doomed to turn in on itself, to be divided, angry, and opinionated, ultimately at war with itself. This is at the heart of John XXIII’s warning that confusion, bitterness, and war result when we, as Christians, fail to bear witness to the Risen and Exalted Christ who remains, like it or not, at the heart of the earthly reality he created and redeemed.
By contrast, the City of God is built on Christ Jesus, upon this man, Jesus of Nazareth. To confess Jesus as the Christ, as the Son of God, is to say that, in his hands are the totality of our lives and the destiny of the world. It is Christ’s truth and love that correspond fully to our inward desire for God, and to our desire to build a world characterized by “light, goodness, order, and peace” – but not an utopia or a theocracy, for the City of God and the City of Man will coexist to the end of time. Being ‘in the world but not of the world’, we do not get to choose one or the other. Rather, as disciples of Jesus and as members of his Church, we are called to represent the City of God in the midst of the earthly city, and not only represent it, but indeed to be ourselves the bearers of Christ’s light and love, like a mustard seed, a leaven in the lump of dough, salt and light, as soul to body. Thus do we bear the “light, goodness, order, and peace that flows from the Christ, whom we, along with Peter and his successors, confess to be “the Son of the living God.”
On this anniversary, we remember our fallen heroes and those who continue to suffer. But let this remembrance prompt us work together to create a more peaceful world, as a community joined to one another in Christ, who lives and reigns with the Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God forever and ever!