Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register
(From the April 28, 2005 edition of the Inland Register)
In the vestibule of one of our local Catholic churches there hangs a most gorgeous and skillfully executed tapestry depicting the Biblical scene in which Jesus hands on the keys of the Kingdom to the Apostle Peter. One of Peter’s hands is pressed back against his chest, as if to say “Who? Not me!” His other hand is outstretched toward the keys. His face is unusually expressive. Coupled with his body language, Peter seems to be saying, “Yes, give those to me! I’m ready to go!”
Do not recent events in our Church make us mindful of the handing on of such keys? A man now known to the world as Benedict XVI is the possessor of the keys. The exchange marks the 265th passing on of the Petrine office of Chief Shepherd to one apostle after another. Some of those shepherds have been talented; others, not. Some have been men of inspiring holiness; a few, not so haloed. A few have been extraordinary shepherds; most, just humble proclaimers of the Gospel. Nearly all have done well in leading the flock to God’s kingdom; a couple have thought only of themselves. History has given us quite a mix.
And once again in our lifetime that history continues. In our own day we have seen for ourselves the handing on of the keys. And we join our sisters and brothers around the world in praying that the 16th Pope Benedict in the long line of succession will be a man of wisdom, holiness and grace whose true concern is the welfare of the flock entrusted to his care.
The symbolic action of handing on of the keys is not one born of the things of nature. It remains, however, a significantly powerful symbol. Regardless of their shape or size (even “card keys” nowadays), the possession of keys communicates power and influence.
Take the young child who asked the school janitor the other day why he had to carry such a large wad of keys on his belt. The janitor tried with increasing embarrassment to explain the “necessity” involved in each piece of jagged metal. The longer it took him to work his way through the wad, the larger grew the eyes of this young lad. He seemed sincerely impressed with the portable clutch of power. “Wow! You must be important!” was written all over his awe-struck face.
Of course, the maintenance man knew himself well and needed no reminder of his relative importance – expressive of a true humility which should characterize us all. He certainly was not as influential on the course of human history as the young child’s face seemed to anticipate. Typical of the innocence of the young, this child teaches us all an important lesson about keys. It is the same lesson we learn from the Gospel story in which Jesus hands on to St. Peter the metaphorical keys to the Kingdom.
In our culture, keys do speak of power. The one who possesses them appears to have a position of privilege. In using them to lock and unlock, the holders of keys can develop a sense of control and manipulation of their surroundings. There can develop an inner sense of power that comes with being the holder of the keys.
Unfortunately, keys speak the language of power to us so impressively that when we witness Jesus handing on to St. Peter the keys to heaven, we run the risk of missing the central message of this Gospel scene. Without realizing it, we conjure up in our minds images of Jesus encountering the first pope, whom he entrusts with the jurisdiction of a powerful church.
This image is foreign to the Gospel message. The influences of the papacy are historical developments long in the making. Likewise, next to his chastisement of the Pharisees and Sadducees, Jesus’ words of admonition are strongest against his disciples when he catches them in the vanities of power games.
Obviously, the scene of Jesus handing on the keys to Peter is a metaphorical one. Having nothing to do with the papacy as culturally interpreted and even less to do with power, this scene has everything to do with the mission and ministry of Peter and everyone in the Church. Peter is not “the first pope” in this scene; he is the grubby fisherman of waffling faith whom we encounter throughout the Gospel narrative as one quick to speak but slow on performance. Peter is a broken, sinful man who knows in his heart that he needs a Saviour, a source of personal salvation.
To the likes of this man Jesus entrusts the keys of the Kingdom – not giving him jurisdictional power so much as indicating that through such sinful brokenness the power of God is most clearly manifest. The broken, the needy, and the poor are for real; pretences of power are foreign to them because they are dispossessed. They know full well the giftedness of the Reign of God and their inability to earn or deserve it because of their good looks, intellect, talent or financial resources.
Such a receiver of the Gospel was the sinful man Peter. To such a one Jesus can entrust the keys; to heaven. On this rock of faith he can build his Church. Whenever we find Peter in the Gospel we find ourselves. Although he shared life and ministry with Jesus as first among the apostles, Peter is a living icon of our own life and ministry in the Church. What Jesus entrusts to Peter he entrusts to each of us.
In our own awareness of the weakness and sinfulness we are encouraged to recognize still the transforming power of the Lord. We are called to ministry in the Church not because of our looks or financial resources, but precisely because of the graciousness of God. To the extent that we become distracted from that awareness through the vain trappings of power, position, or status we fail in our ministry as disciples of Jesus. The way each of us lives in Christ literally will be the key to how others come to know the reign of God in their lives. The manner of our own living will lock or unlock for others their perception of the Kingdom of God which is theirs as free gift. We make the Gospel believable for others to the extent that we live our own recognition of needing salvation ourselves, and finding it in Christ Jesus.
All life and all holiness come from God – that is the heart and soul of the Gospel. In proclaiming that Gospel in our weakness and brokenness we become genuine holders of the keys. Benedict XVI now holds the keys at the Vatican. May we all use them responsibly and well.
(Father Savelesky is pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane. His book, Catholics
Believe, is available from Harcourt Religion Publishers.)
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