I remember in the parish where I grew up, there was one older priest whose homilies were captivating to me as a youngster. While I may not be able to recall the details, I remember the substance. His homilies often included details about the Jewish culture, traditions, and environment and how they impacted the people of Jesus’ time. Even now, homilies with this sort of information help me appreciate the gospel message much more.
In Matthew 16:13-20, Caesarea Philippi is mentioned. I recall one homily when the priest explained the significance of that mention: the city is located beside a sheer rock wall. So when Jesus renames Simon to Peter, calling him the rock, it is in juxtaposition to the visible rock. If you dig deeper into this location, even more significance emerges. This location is one of the sources of the Jordan river. It is also home to pagan temples, which were in ruins at the time of Jesus.
“And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’” (Mt 16: 17-19)
In declaring Simon the rock and that the gates of hell would not prevail, Jesus promises the Church will last longer than the pagan temples that had fallen into ruin. While there have been times of uncertainty, He has kept His promise to this day. I have been blessed to see three men in the office of Pope illustrate different ways to be humble servants of God. Saint John Paul II struggled gracefully with his declining health. Benedict XVI, like my early parish priest, illuminates us with his teaching. Francis both advocates and illustrates how to put the gospel into action. These men have been and are the rock of the Church. If we can strive to practice even just a little from each, we will be grounded in the faith and able to stand tall in the face of difficulties. And learning a little bit more about the context of the gospel stories gives a richness that can increase our faith in God’s plan for salvation.