Posted by: Fr Chris | June 28, 2021

Saints Peter and Paul: Weakness and Strength for all of us

Hand-Painted Icon of St. St. Peter and Paul
The two pillars of Christ’s Church

Epistle 2 Corinthians 11:21-12:9

A thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.

We have no clue what the thorn in the flesh was – some kind of physical affliction obviously. The greater study should go to the verses before, and the closing lines of this section. He lists how much he suffered because of his preaching – and that is important not only because he went through all that, and it was very intense. Some of this he could have avoided because he was born as a Roman citizen and citizens were protected by law against torture and unjust attacks. Instead, he accepted all of that and emphasizes his own weakness, a weakness each of us has. None of us rule the world, none of us have perfect lives, none of us have all the answers.

But BECAUSE of that weakness, BECAUSE he accepts that weakness in himself, he has two profound spiritual experiences. The first is being lifted up into the third heaven, the peak of heaven where angels serve in the presence of God. BECAUSE he was willing to give up so much and accept so much, and acknowledge his own weaknesses, God grants him the ultimate ecstatic vision according to first century Judaism and Christianity.

God says to him My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” That is the exact opposite of not only our culture but all the cultures of the world now and before us. We exalt money, athletic accomplishments, so-called famous people whose lives everyone follows to the smallest details. People post outrageous things on the internet so as to gain followers, and track how many see it and also how many comment on it. Nobody in American culture goes around saying Look at me, how weak I am. No one would listen to them!

But God makes it very, very clear – power is made perfect in weakness. The Eternal Word of God comes into the world conceived in a woman’s womb, and leaves the world after suffering the worst suffering and death known in the ancient world. And so, Paul can honestly write to a community which knew him very well:

 I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.

Gospel Matthew 16:13-19

What does Christ offer Peter? Awesome power it would seem –  I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church. From Simon bar Jonah to Petrus, from fisherman to the rock to serve God and build up Christ’s Body on earth.

He adds:  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.” Incredible power and authority! To the man who will abandon him at the worst possible moment, who will deny Jesus in Jesus’ very presence in the courtyard on Good Friday morning just before dawn. Someone with that experience is the one who will open and close people’s futures based on their sins? Jesus knew precisely what He was doing. Here is a weak man, a man who will commit the ultimate sin of double betrayal, but who will in the end, like Paul, die so as to witness to Christ Jesus. Here is a man who will judge others with compassion, because he has been there in their shoes. He is the right man to decide whether or not to loose the sins, and that is a model for every bishop in the world, from the Pope on down, and for every priest entrusted with administering the Sacrament of Confession.

Finally, this line: “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

As we all know, Moscow became the capital of the Soviet Union in 1918, after the communist takeover of the Russian Empire. One of the first things Lenin did regarding Soviet power, in December 1917, was to establish the dreaded secret police. Until the very end of the USSR in 1991, the secret police ruled from a building called the Lubyanka in Moscow. The building used to be an insurance company, but was taken over by what became the KGB. Its cells were notorious for the physical and psychological tortures inflicted on thousands of people. For those tens of thousands, almost all of whom were innocent of the usually absurd charges against them, the Lubyanka was a gateway to hell.

 As it expanded, the Lubyanka took over the schools, convent, and rectory of the French Roman Catholic church of Saint Louis, which stands on the same block. Security cameras filmed every single person who went in and out of that church. Saint Louis and the French parish in Leningrad became the only two open Catholic churches in the entire Russian republic.

Why tell you this? That verse, The gates of hell shall not prevail against it, was inscribed in gold letters on a black banner near the church’s high altar. At every Mass, at every visit parishioners who came to pray in front of Jesus in the tabernacle, the faithful saw that banner. The Lubyanka is now run by the Russian secret police, who do whatever Vladimir Putin tells them to do to any person, so little has changed in that building. But Saint Louis still stands today, offering multiple Masses every day of the week.

People wonder how the Church will survive. They wonder if this is the worst that things have ever been. We have been shocked by the sexual abuse scandals and how so many bishops around the entire world covered it all up for decades. We are shocked by financial scandals committed by bishops and priests and even Sisters. We are shocked by some priests’ sermons. We are still shocked by the collapse of vocations to priesthood and sisterhoods in this country in the last 50 years. We are shocked by so many things that take place in the Catholic Church today. And it has been bad, and it is terrible, and it is sinful the stuff that has happened. And we have had some truly awful successors to Peter over the centuries.

But look at history – there were people who thought the Church was finished in the 4th century, in the 16th century, in the 18th century, throughout the entire 20th century. But she is still here. Peter’s successor still sits on the papal throne. Conversions to the faith still happen. During this pandemic every priest in this city told me that they had to increase the hours for hearing Confession, for binding and loosing people’s sins. Yes, we are diminished in size in many ways. Yes, there are serious challenges. Yes, there is constant propaganda and misinformation given about the faith in the media. Yes, there is continuing persecution of Catholics in many countries.

But the gates of hell itself shall not stand against the Body of Christ. Peter’s failures during Jesus’ lifetime are dramatically overshadowed by his later ministry and writing and martyrdom. When we focus on our weaknesses and accept them, when we are able to actually boast of our weaknesses and accept them like Paul, when we allow God’s grace to make us perfect, then all is truly well. The members of the Body of Christ are given the opportunity to do wonderful things, but only if we respond to that grace given to us in baptism, confirmation, Holy Communion, confession.

The rock of the Church will endure. The question for each person hearing this, in person or online, is will my faith endure no matter what the forces of hell throw against me?

Dedication of the Basilicas of SS. Peter & Paul | Communio

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