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A postcard from Rome: Stewarding the confession

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of posts reflecting (1) on Covenant’s recent seminar in Rome on Catholic ecclesiology and ecumenism, and (2) fresh approaches to, and promises of, Christian unity in our own time. The first was Shaun Blanchard’s “A Catholic observer in Rome?

Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16)

On a recent Monday, I swam with and through “the madding crowds” of tourists and pilgrims at St. Peter’s Basilica on the Vatican Hill in Rome. Before entering the Sistine Chapel, my tour guide explained a detail of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment (1541) that I had simply never noticed. I had used this image in countless lectures for seminarians and undergrads, but I had not seen it this way: Peter is handing the keys back to Jesus, those same keys that Christ had entrusted to Peter in Caesarea Philippi.

Perhaps this interpretation of the work is open to criticism, but it remains boiling in my mind. There in the Sistine Chapel, where the successors of Peter are elected, one can clearly see an image on one wall of Jesus giving Peter the keys. But, looming over the altar, is Peter returning the keys to their rightful owner, the head of the Church, Jesus Christ. Peter’s ministry — the ministry of all shepherds — is stewardship. Ministry, even that of bishops and prelates, is one of care for what was never ours in the first place.

I thought that morning of the money invested in me by my parish and my diocese to make this pilgrimage — what would they have me do here? What would the Master want me to do when I return to my corner of the vineyard, to the communities to which I am responsible? And, to be specific and practical, if ministry is stewardship, then what exactly does a shepherd steward?

The crowd moved down marble steps, emerged into sunlight, and then through more doors — great doors — into the basilica. Eventually I found myself down in the crypt, by the tomb of Peter himself, a shrine traditionally known as the confessio. The connection between what is known as Peter’s confession in Matthew 16, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” and his martyrdom raced to my mind.

Peter had stood near Caesarea Philippi, a city famous for its collection of shrines to so many deities (contemporary pluralism has nothing on the ancient world). Peter stood there, surrounded by idols, surrounded by voices clamoring for his love and his devotion. They silently called to him: follow me, let me shape your heart, let me shape your priorities; give me your time, your money, your children, your family.

Each called out to him in a siren voice: I will keep you safe; I will make you wealthy; I will make you a great name.

There in Caesarea Philippi, surrounded by idols, Jesus looked into Peter’s eyes and asked, “Who do you, Peter, say that I am?” Peter clearly had options at this moment. But over the noise of the idols, Peter said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

Above the crypt, in the great basilica, are written Christ’s words in response. Beneath the soaring dome, golden letters, six feet high read in Latin: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” Peter’s confession — that Christ is the hope of the world — is not discerned by any skill, but is rather a gift from God himself, the gift of faith. And what is Peter to do with this gift, this good confession which comes to him not by flesh and blood, but by Christ’s own Father in heaven? Jesus, tell us and Peter.

If you, reader, will permit me some license, Jesus then says:

On you, O Rock, I will build my church; I will give you authority, the keys of the sovereign government of heaven. Steward this good news; share this good news; live ever more deeply into this good news. Say it with glee. Say it when down-trodden. Say it when you speak up for justice. Say it when you see the chains of addiction and dehumanizing greed. Say it when you speak up for the poor and the vulnerable. Say it when you are lonely and weak in heart. Say it when the swords of this world, glinting in the sun, are raised against you. And do not be afraid: the gates of hell will not prevail.

We should make no mistake about what that confession brought to Peter and will bring to any disciple who says the same. There is a direct line from Caesarea Philippi to the Vatican Hill in Rome, where the bones of a martyr were laid to rest in what was, two thousand years ago, not a grand basilica, but a third-rate cemetery used by early Christians. Whether cried or whispered, claiming Jesus is Lord has consequences. Peter’s confession brought him into open conflict with the power and principalities of this world, those idols which clamored for his love back in Caesarea Philippi. The same confession brought Peter to a martyr’s death, crucified upside down in Rome.

Behold the cost of discipleship. And this is what he and all shepherds and in fact all believers are to steward: “You are the Christ, the son of the Living God.” This is a costly truth, but one revealed to us not by flesh or blood, but by God himself. And against this truth the gates of hell will not prevail.


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