Sunday reflection: Matthew 16:13–20

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.

This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 16:13-20:

Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi and he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.

This may sound like the start of a joke, but bear with me for a moment. How many priests does it take to officiate at a Catholic wedding? If we want to be really technical, the answer is zero … because a deacon can officiate when the wedding does not include a Mass. If the Catholic wedding takes place during the celebration of Mass, then at least one priest has to be present to conduct the Mass as well as officiate the nuptials.

Maybe that question was too easy. Here’s another: How many priests can one include in a Catholic wedding? Well, that’s a tough question, because it appeared to be unlimited at the wedding we attended yesterday. We did not know the bride and groom, but we knew their story through the parents of the groom, who are friends of ours. And their story demonstrates the nature of vocations, and the many ways in which the Holy Spirit calls us to serve the body of Christ.

Rather than use their real names, I’ll call the newlyweds John and Lisa. John and Lisa had something in common long before they met; they both felt called to discern about the religious life. John went into the seminary, and Lisa became a novice in a local order. Both planned on dedicating their lives to service. However, both John and Lisa eventually discerned that the Lord may not have called them to the life of a priest or nun. John left the seminary just before his ordination as a transitional deacon, which takes place one year before a priestly ordination; Lisa left her order. Neither was certain what lay ahead, but both put their trust in the Lord that He would lead them to their true vocations.

Lisa took a job at a church in our diocese, and not long afterward John applied for a job there as well. They immediately felt drawn to one another, and eventually began dating and engaged to be married. They had discovered that their vocation in the Body of Christ was to family life and service in the laity. That is a true vocation — building a family that extends the body of Christ and models Jesus’ self-sacrificial love for His church. This is how we build our Christian communities and fulfill our baptismal offices of priests, prophets, and kings, and how we build our parishes and dioceses into evangelically-oriented centers of service and neighborly love.

One might imagine that the seminary and the religious order regretted losing two such dedicated Christians, but that’s where the questions get answered. John’s seminary class graduated in June and became ordained as priests in the diocese. All of his classmates not only came to the wedding, but concelebrated the wedding Mass with him, in joy for John’s discovery of his true vocation. His seminary formator has now become an auxiliary bishop in this diocese, and was the lead celebrant of the Mass at the cathedral. The order to which Lisa aspired provided the choir for the Mass, also in delight for her discovery of her true vocation. Wedding Masses are always celebratory, but the dimensions of this celebration felt truly unprecedented.

Actually, the second question still has no answer. I didn’t get a precise count of the number of priests at the altar yesterday, but it did include two bishops (one from another diocese) and a dozen or more of our newest priests. They easily outnumbered the eight attendants to the bride and groom, and might have outnumbered the combined immediate families of John and Lisa at the Mass, too.

The joy of being called to service can be seen in the Gospel. In today’s reading, Peter receives the most significant call to a vocation in the New Testament — the keys to the kingdom and the leader of the Church. Peter spent his life pursuing a much different path before receiving Jesus’ initial call to become His disciple. Peter had learned the trade of fisherman, and already had a wife. In that time, a man with that skill would spend his life plying that trade and would hope to raise sons as apprentices in it as well. The learned were those chosen early in life to study Scripture and become disciples of a rabbi, but that opportunity would have been long past for Peter or any of the other disciples as well.

God had other plans for Peter, though. It didn’t matter that Peter had not been chosen for higher education, or that he had only developed the skills in life for commercial fishing. The Lord chose Peter for a specific vocation, and then gave Peter the necessary gifts (or “charisms”) with which to accomplish it through the Holy Spirit. That was true when Jesus first beckoned Peter to leave his boat, and Jesus explicitly proclaims it to be the case here, telling Peter that he is “blessed” because “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.”

The Lord put that in Peter’s heart and inspired him to confess it out loud. In that moment, Peter discovered his vocation — although as we saw almost immediately afterward, that does not mean that Peter had been suddenly perfected. In Matthew 16:21-28, Peter attempts to impose his own will on Jesus rather than allow God to work through him, and earns a harsh rebuke from Jesus — who had just given Peter the keys to the kingdom! In his fright during the Passion, Peter denied Jesus three times, and then hid in shame when he realized what he had done. But that did not change his vocation, and the Holy Spirit provided Peter the charisms necessary to complete his mission within the Church.

So it goes with us, whatever our vocation happens to be. We work at fulfilling our vocation, whether in the laity or among the ordained, and we will all make mistakes along the way. We have to trust that the Lord calls us to a particular vocation in life, and we must discern through prayer and action to determine what that might be for each of us. For some, that means exploring paths that we may never end up completing, just to take a surprising turn and find the road which Jesus had prepared for us all along. It takes patience, prayer, and deep trust that God has a place and a task for all of us in building the body of Christ. Our vocation may not be as dramatic as Peter’s, but no vocation is small, either, or unimportant.

John and Lisa had that trust, and so did those whose lives they touched while walking their own paths to their vocations. That is why they took such joy in the celebration, having been part of the journey. The rest of us were just fortunate to celebrate along with them — and have them all inspire us to trust in the Lord on our own journeys.

The front page image is a detail from Michelangelo’s “The Final Judgment” mural in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican.

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