I wanted to talk about how dazzled I was by Pope Benedict’s homily this morning at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York — including his bravura use of the church building as a rich metaphor not only for faith, but also faith in the midst of the secular world; as well as his using the three Scripture readings to remind priests, sisters, brothers and laypeople of their unique contribution to the church. But, despite my rushing back from a late lunch with friends, others in this space have already done so.
So let me say this: Benedict’s homily was one of the best I’ve ever heard. Period.
But there was another aspect of the speech, a few ad-libbed remarks coming immediately before the Closing Prayer, which impressed me as much as his well-prepared homily. It came as a surprise to the congregation, which had spent the past two hours listening to the pope read laboriously from his prepared texts. In halting English, Benedict suddenly said that he understood his role as the Successor of St. Peter, but reminded his listeners that, like St. Peter, he himself was a “sinful” man, a “man with his faults.” And so, he said, I rely on your prayers.
All at once I remembered a famous address given by Michael J. Buckley, S.J., a distinguished Jesuit theologian, to young Jesuit seminarians preparing for ordination. It has become something of a standard text for contemporary Jesuits. Essentially, Father Buckley noted that the priesthood — like any professional ministry in the church — requires a great deal of education and training. As a result, when we consider what is required for ministry and leadership in the church, we are all sometimes too focused on our strengths. We have to be well educated. Capable. Flexible. Confident. Strong.
Yet, as Father Buckley noted, a priest “must also be liable to suffering, weak because he must become like what he touches — the body of Christ.” So the question to ask oneself may not be, “Am I strong enough to be a priest?” But rather, “Am I weak enough?” That is, am I “weak” enough to recognize my own humanity and, therefore, my need to rely on God? Am I “weak” enough to know that I will not have all the answers? Am I “weak” enough to know that I am a human being like other human beings?
That’s where Peter comes in.
When you think about it, the choice of Peter to lead the apostles made little earthly sense. After all, the Gospels show that Peter had to be reminded constantly of the need for trust; tried to convince Jesus that he really didn’t need to suffer; and, worst of all, denied Jesus three times — just when his friend needed his support the most. Not a great résumé. Did this hotheaded fisherman have any of the qualities needed to lead the entire Christian community?
Jesus thought so. And sometimes I wonder if he knew that Peter might not have been strong enough, but weak enough to lead the church. Peter had failed Jesus utterly, and was subsequently forgiven by Jesus. Those two facts would forever remind him of his humanity, his essential “poverty of spirit,” or reliance or God. As the Richard Rohr, O.F.M., the Franciscan spiritual writer, has said: “Peter is a grand and honest statement about how we all come to God. The pattern is a great surprise, for many a great shock and even a disappointment. We clearly come to God not by doing it right, but ironically by doing wrong.”
So the successor of St. Peter, whoever he is, needs to understand his essential humanity, and how he is a “man with his faults.” As are we all — men and women with faults, men and women who sin. Hearing this from the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, a man who has often seemed sure of almost everything, was especially affecting. “Oh he’s just saying that!” a friend demurred after the Mass, doubting the sincerity of those words.
But I disagree. It’s not hard to understand that spontaneous admission of his humanity. Who wouldn’t be humbled when faced with an adoring crowd? In the face of so much approval, it’s easy to feel unworthy, especially when you know what’s in your heart — your human, sinful heart.
Just ask Peter. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus asks Peter to launch his boat into deep waters, after the fisherman has spent a long and wholly unsuccessful night fishing. Doubtful, Peter does what Jesus asks. When he lets his nets down from the side of his little boat, they are instantly filled with fish. So many fish, says the Gospel, “that their nets were beginning to break.” And when Peter sees this abundance, and realizes that he is in the presence of God, what does he do? Does he worship? Does he exult? Does he shout for joy?
No, he does what most of us would do in the presence of the divine, which is to come face to face with our limitations, our sinfulness, our humanity. And feel unworthy of the gift of grace.
And so Peter says, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
Each of the successors to St. Peter is, like all of us, a sinful, flawed and limited person in need of God’s grace and the help of his fellow human beings. The best will be those who understand that truth most fully.