“And to you I also say, You are Peter [Rock], and upon this rock I will build my assembly, and the gates of Hades shall have no power against it. I shall give you the keys of the Kingdom of the heavens, and whatever you bind on the earth will have been bound in the heavens, and whatever you unbind on the earth will have been unbound in the heavens.”Matthew 16:18-19
Today is the feast of The Chair of St. Peter. As we celebrate the feast this year, there is taking place at the Vatican an unprecedented meeting to deal with the ongoing scandal of the sexual abuse of minors and other sexual misconduct of priests and religious. Today’s reading from Matthew, given the Roman Catholic interpretation of the text in which we have been formed, seemingly confronts us, who live continually with this scandalous abuse of power, with a grave contradiction. Is the promise of Jesus, at least as it has been interpreted to us in our tradition, false? What is the meaning for our faith and our life of the revelation of the squalor and even perversity of our institutional leadership? If God speaks in every moment and event, what is the revelation in this present experience?
In Book Two, Chapter Three of The Ascent of Mount Carmel, St. John of the Cross writes:
Our deduction is that since faith is a dark night, it illumines the soul that is in darkness. We verify, then, David’s assertion on the matter: Et nox illuminatio in deliciis meis (Night will be my illumination in the midst of my delights) [Ps. 139:12]. This amounts to saying: The night of faith will be my guide in the delights of my pure contemplation and union with God. By this passage David clearly informs us of the darkness demanded on this road if a soul is to receive light.
In John’s comprehension, faith deepens and purifies in darkness. We have many different experiences of faith. We put faith in the pilot of the plane in which we are flying; we put faith in the basic good will of those with authority and power over us; we function because of our faith in the workings of the culture and society around us. Yet, none of these is yet the profound faith on which Jesus builds his assembly. That is a faith that, as he says following Peter’s proclamation that Jesus is God’s anointed, comes not from flesh and blood but rather from Jesus’ Father in the heavens. It is a faith beyond “natural” faith, inspired and infused by God’s spirit in us.
All of us as human beings and every human institution fall prey, in time, to our own arrogance and inverted awe. Long before the current scandals became so public, I would often cringe when I would hear members of the hierarchy speak of their “love” of the Church. It is not that love of the Church is a bad thing, but they would speak in an affective, and often sentimental way, that led me to fear that “the Church” as an institution had displaced God in their lives. Lest, the judgment be too harsh, however, it is important to realize that this is a danger, a temptation to which we all fall prey. It is all too natural for us to devote our energies to the preservation of those institutions that we create and that afford us security, in the same way that we can reduce our life and concerns to self-preservation.
It is not difficult to understand that a person, like a bishop, who has power within a structure becomes very committed and dedicated to that structure. It is but a manifestation of humankind’s “original” sin. We have a persistent tendency to make ourselves, in our false forms, and our institutions our gods. This is precisely what makes power so dangerous for us. We cannot help but think that those structures and mores that so inflate our egos must be of God. And, since those situations and institutions have placed us in a position to patronize others, they must reflect God’s “fatherhood.” The idol, of course, that we are most likely to create in our lives is ourselves. Although we would never say it aloud, we unconsciously think that what gives us “god-like” power over the lives of others must of course be holy and true. And if we are to keep this place, we must devote ourselves to its defense and preservation. Since we are already above the others, it is easy to fail to recognize when our pursuit of our standing and the good of the institution harms them. It is our status and the good of our divinely created structures that are the greater good.
Thus, the darkness of faith in God that John of the Cross describes is replaced by faith in the institution, its dogmas, and it teachers. Having long enough been treated as children and sheep, we cease to see ourselves as members and equals in an assembly founded on and seeking to deepen in the darkness of faith. Rather, we are reduced to having faith in those above us in the hierarchy and in what they tell us. In the current revelations we see that wherever power over others was most strongly and effectively exercised, it was there that the abuse of that power was greatest.
In the tenth Chapter of Acts we read of Cornelius, a devout centurion who had been told in a vision to summon Peter. When Peter arrives at the house of Cornelius, Cornelius falls at his feet and prostrates himself. Peter, however, says to him: “Stand up; I too am a man” (Acts 10: 26). We see repeatedly in Acts how the Apostles rejected, at every moment, any attempt to confuse them for the one whom they had come to proclaim. They realize that they are, in a sense, to disappear, to be transparent so that the love and power of the Risen Jesus may be manifest in them. Thus, they are to be the least powerful of human persons. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians, “For we proclaim not ourselves, but Jesus the Anointed as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4: 5).
In our current ecclesial experience, we are increasingly aware of the pain and humiliation that has been caused by the abuse of power. For many, there is also the pain of what feels like a loss of faith. And so it is. It is a loss of faith in humans, like us, and in the deified institution they had come to represent. The assembly which Jesus calls us to, however, persists. It persists in those who have been abused, in those who experience being lost and estranged from themselves and the world, and in those who continue to know a dark faith, hope, and love, but do not know its meaning. It is on our faith in Jesus alone as Lord that the assembly is founded.
The current institutional crisis in the Roman Church is a crisis of faith to the degree that our faith in God alone has been reduced to faith in ourselves and our creations. In the earliest days after Jesus ascends into heaven, Peter reminds Cornelius that he, Peter, is only a man like him. Cornelius is not to fall and prostrate himself at Peter’s feet. As Peter says to the assembled “heathens” in Cornelius house, “In truth, I perceive that God is not a respecter of persons; rather in every people, whoever reveres him and performs works of righteousness is accepted by him” (Acts 10: 35). The call of Jesus is that of knowing ourselves as members of a great assembly, so much wider than we can even imagine, of those who revere God and perform works of righteousness. It is not an exclusive club for the superior and for those who would opt to abdicate their self-responsibility to others they childishly accept as superior.
The darkness of the present moment may be, for the faithful, the call to a deeper and purer faith in God. The psalms constantly remind us not to put our trust in human beings like ourselves, because we are all weak and fallible. This does not mean that we cannot learn from each other. But no one, or no group has a privileged and gnostic access to the truth, certainly no group that designates and forms its own successors. However weak the messengers, the reality of Jesus’ presence and God’s love and the core of a centuries old wisdom tradition remain undefiled. No human created light, however, can alter the truth that to walk in faith is to walk in darkness. It is trust that a light and truth, so beyond us that it seems like night to us, accompanies and guides us. On the faith that Peter expresses, Jesus creates the assembly of those who together are to walk in the light of the Lord. Yet, as we measure in human terms, that light seems only dark. As John of the Cross writes in his poem The Dark Night:
On that glad night
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.
This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
—him I knew so well—
there in a place where no one appeared.
O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved ,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.
And now, on the other hand, let us contrast such a temper of mind, which loves to walk in the light, with that of the merely professing Christian, or, in Scripture language, of the hypocrite. Such are they who have two ends which they pursue, religion and the world, and hence St. James calls them “double-minded.” Hence, too, our Lord, speaking of the Pharisees who were hypocrites, says, “Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Lk 16:13). A double-minded person, then, as having two ends to view, dare not come to God, lest he should be discovered; for “all things that are reported are made manifest by the light” (Eph 5:13). Thus, whereas the Prodigal Son “rose and came to his father,” on the contrary, Adam hid himself among the trees of the garden. It was not simple dread of God, but dread joined to an unwillingness to be restored to God. He had a secret in his heart which he kept from God. He felt towards God, — as it would seem, or at least his descendants fo feel, — as one man often feels towards another in the intercourse of life. You sometimes say of a man, “he is friendly, or courteous, or respectful, or considerate, or communicative; but, after all, there is something, perhaps without his knowing it, in the back ground. He professes to be agreed with me; he almost displays his agreement; he says he pursues the same objects as I; but still I do not know him, I do not make progress with him, I have no confidence in him, I do not know him better than the first time I saw him.” Such is the way in which the double-minded approach the Most High, — they have a something private, a hidden self at bottom. They look on themselves, as it were, as independent parties, treating with Almighty God as one of their fellows. Hence, so far from seeking God, they hardly like to be sought by Him. They would rather keep their position and stand where they are, —on earth, and so make terms with God in heaven; whereas, “he that doth truth, cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest that they are wrought in God” (Jn 3:21).John Henry Newman, Sermon XVI: Sincerity and Hypocrisy