5th Sunday of Easter, Year A--2005
Readings: Acts 6: 1-7; 1 Peter 2: 4-9; John 14:1-12
“Do not let your hearts be troubled”
“Habemus papam—We have a Pope.” Anyone who has been watching TV news or reading the papers knows that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has been elected and has today been invested as Pope Benedict XVI. The new Pope Benedict is known as a theologian with very strong commitment to Catholic doctrinal tradition. This led one of my more conservative students to rejoice at his election. On the other hand, one young woman student came into my office the other day and said in desperate voice: “What am I going to do with this new Pope? What will happen to my Catholicism?” During the first few days of his papacy, before he has done anything at all, he is already controversial.
On this day of Benedict XVI’s formal investiture, I think it would be good to step back a bit from the debates about what his papacy will be like to reflect on what today’s readings tell us about deeper realities of our faith.
The second reading from the first letter of Peter helps put the role of the pope in perspective. Peter—the first pope—speaks of the whole body of the church—all layman and laywomen—as “a holy priesthood, God’s own people.” Peter echoes the book of Exodus, which tells us that God’s covenant with Israel is with the whole people, not just with Moses, Aaron and the Levites. God’s covenant of steadfast love makes the whole people of Israel into “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” Following this lead, the Second Vatican Council spoke of the laity as God’s priestly people. The church is the whole people of God. This means that the church is the laity, not just the Pope or the Cardinals, or the bishops and priests.
The new Pope is an accomplished theologian, so he knows this well. Recently, someone reminded Cardinal Ratzinger of an earlier pope Benedict, the ninth, who lived in the eleventh century. The father of Benedict IX bribed people to make his son pope. Benedict was then deposed. After the next pope, he again was elected, and this time he voluntarily resigned in exchange for the promise of a large sum of money and a wife. When that did not work out, he became pope once again. Finally he was deposed one last time by the Council of Sutri. Cardinal Ratzinger reflected for a minute on this papacy of Benedict IX and said that this case shows the Church does not depend on the holiness of its pope. Rather, it depends on God who is much bigger than the papacy. The Holy Spirit protects the whole church—the whole people of God—from disaster, but does not always guarantee the right person becomes pope.
We need to remember this bigger picture today. The new pope is certainly important, but our faith is in something much deeper than what the pope says or does. Our faith is in God. The church is the whole priestly people joined together by the love of God, and that people is us. We need to remember this whether our first response to the new pope is enthusiasm or apprehension.
The words of today’s gospel also direct our attention to this bigger picture. They tell us that Jesus, not the Pope, is “the way, the truth and the life.” The way we are called to follow is the path followed by Jesus. This is the way of compassion and forgiveness. The truth on which we are called to base our lives is the truth that God’s love for us is always faithful, always reliable. And the life that we are promised is a life given to us by the risen Jesus—a life freed from fear of death and thus from all other fears. Jesus’s words to his disciples are directed to us: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Do not be afraid! God’s way is to be with you always. God’s truth is ever faithful love. God’s life is given to you—a gift of eternal life itself. So Jesus calls us: “Have faith in God, have faith also in me.” “Trust in God, trust in me.” Do not let your hearts be troubled; be at peace.
This trust is the heart of our Christian faith. Sharing it with others brings the church into existence as the holy people of God who together offer our priestly sacrifice of praise to God. It enables us together to care for our neighbors with the loving service that helps the world see a reflection of the face of God. Let’s pray that our new pope will help us trust God in this way. Let’s try to help each other trust God this way and to live in joyfully and without fear. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in me.” That is Jesus’s enduring call to the church. It is his promise that God is with us now. Let us trust this promise.David Hollenbach, S.J. St. Ignatius Church April 24, 2005