My friends, tonight I’d like to do something different. The Holy Roman Church is without a bishop. I’m sure that many of you are wondering why any of this should be a big deal. Since we are in a rare situation called the ‘Vacancy of the Apostolic See,’ I have decided that we will talk about why the Church of Rome is so important to us as Catholic Christians. So instead of a homily, you’re getting a sermon. And if you’ve got a pen and paper handy, I would encourage you to take some notes.
St Paul the Apostle went on three missionary journeys, covering what is now Greece and Turkey. Christianity, we know, grew out of Judaism, and in the short four decades or so after Jesus’ earthly life, the Church was locked in a struggle about what to do with non-Jews who wanted to become Christians. Do they have to follow the entire Jewish law, too? Eat only kosher food? Observe the festivals and Sabbaths? And, boys: For those non-Jews who came to believe in Jesus do they have to be…circumcised? The short answer, according to St Paul, was No. (Thank God for that. I do love my bacon.) If we think the aftermath of Vatican II was difficult, think about Sts Peter and Paul butting heads over the very question of whether Gentile Christians were bound to follow all 613 commandments in the Law of Moses. Paul won the day—you can read all about that in Acts 15 and his rather hotheaded follow-up in his Letter to the Galatians.
Hold that thought for a moment.
Either on his Second or Third Missionary Journey, St Paul wrote his magnum opus, his great work: the Letter to the Romans. Think for a moment about how the eyes of the world are now turned towards Rome. Bear this in mind, and listen to how St Paul opens his letter to the Romans: “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an Apostle, set apart for the Gospel of God… To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” [Rom 1:7]. Paul greets the Christian community in Rome, and continues: “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world.” The faith of the Roman Christians is “proclaimed in all the world.” This is no small compliment. This letter was written sometime in the mid-50s of the first century; St Peter would not go to Rome until at least the end of the 60s. Already, then, less than three full decades after Jesus’ earthly life, the faith of the Roman Christians had already impacted the world from the world’s capital. A few lines later, he writes: “I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at least succeed in coming to you” [vv. 9-10]. For some time, Paul’s wanted to visit the Christians in Rome, and prays that God would somehow make it happen. He goes on, “For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you, that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. I want you to know, brethren, that I have often intended to come to you (but have thus far been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles” [vv. 11-13]. There was already a sizeable Jewish community in Rome, many of whom became believers in Jesus Christ. But St Paul wanted to win more souls for Christ—to win the pagan Romans to Christ, too. “I am under obligation” he writes, “both to Greeks and to Barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish: so I am eager to preach the Gospel to you also who are in Rome" [vv. 14-15].
Now back to the Jewish Christian versus Gentile Christian imbroglio: Christian or not, Paul’s agenda was bound to rile devout, Law-observing Jews. Paul—and the rest of the Church’s leadership at Jerusalem—disagreed that Gentile Christians were bound by the Law of Moses. So he was heckled, and the heckling became a riot, and St Paul was accused of insurrection. After moving from one court of law to another, he finally saw his golden opportunity. Before a judge, St Paul said, “I am standing before Caesar’s tribunal, where I ought to be tried… If then I am a wrongdoer, and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death”—here he is opening himself up to martyrdom. But then comes that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: “…but if there is nothing in [the] charges against me, no one can give me up... I appeal to Caesar.” Little did the judge know that he would become an instrument of the Gospel: “You have appealed to Caesar; to Caesar you shall go!” Finally, I’m sure St Paul thought. Finally, he would take that long-dreamed missionary trip to Rome. Sure, he was in chains, the the Gospel can never be!
Chapters 25 to 28 of Acts show Paul bouncing from one place to the next that you’d think he was taking the LRT. The narrator pens these melodious words: “And so we came to Rome” [Acts 28:14]. By this time, his Letter to the Romans had already been received and had nourished the Christians there, and of course Paul’s reputation in Rome was outstanding. “And the brethren there, when they heard of us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns to meet us” [Acts 28:15]. That’s like walking from Leduc to Edmonton. “On seeing them Paul thanked God and took courage.” During his time in Rome, Paul explained the Gospel to anyone who would listen: “And he expounded the matter to them from morning till evening, testifying to the Kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus from the law of Moses and from the prophets” [Acts 28:23].
Remember: At the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus commanded His Apostles to preach the Gospel “…and you shall be My witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” [1:8]. At the end of Acts, the author closes with Paul proclaiming the Gospel from the City that governed the world, and it would be from Eternal Rome that Jesus’ commandment would be fulfilled: “you shall be my witnesses…to the end of the earth.” That St Paul did, and proclaimed Christ to his last moments, being beheaded, which is why his icon or statue always shows him holding a sword. He was buried and now over his grave is the magnificent papal basilica of San Paolo Fuori di Mura. In the cloister garden is a portrait of each pope, from the first to Benedict xvi.
St Peter the Apostle, upon whom Jesus built his Church—“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church…I give you the keys of the Kingdom of heaven” [Mt 16:18]—in his first letter, hinted that he was in hiding in the world’s capital: “She who is in Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings.” Because of the persecution of Christians, Peter had to obscure his whereabouts by using ‘Babylon’ as a code-word for ‘Rome.’ In this letter, he tells the bishops in Asia Minor: “So I exhort the presbyters among you, as a fellow presbyter and a witness to the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed: Tend the flock of God that is in your charge!” [1 Pet 5:1-2]. From Rome, Peter fulfilled the charge of Jesus to “confirm his brothers” in the far reaches of the Empire.
But he, too, would proclaim Christ by his life to the end. Convicted for being a Christian, he was executed; because he wasn’t a Roman citizen, he was crucified upside down. He is now buried somewhere in the Vatican Hill west of the Tiber River, over which St Peter’s Basilica now sits.
The historical records are fuzzy, but it seems that a Christian named St Linus was ordained by Paul [2 Tim 4:29?] and took up the leadership that Peter left behind: Habemus papam, we have a pope. One after the other; some great, others not so much; the march of centuries and the opposition of the world notwithstanding: the Keys entrusted by Jesus to Peter were handed down, last picked up on 19 April 2005 and then laid aside last Thursday by our Most Blessed Father in God, His Holiness Benedict xvi. Having abdicated the Ministry of Peter, he reminds us that the Church is governed, invisibly, by Christ Himself. This situation we find ourselves in now, the ‘Vacancy of the Apostolic See,’ means that the seat of authority left by the great and glorious Apostles Peter and Paul, is empty and awaits another occupant to shepherd us, a visible sign of the invisible Good Shepherd.
Dearest Sisters and Brothers in Christ: This is why the Holy Roman Church is our Mother Church. Thus the Lateran Basilica—the cathedral church of Rome, bears the following inscription on the façade: Omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput—the Mother and Head of all the Churches in the City and in the World.”
One last thing. In ancient times, it was customary for the pope to leave aside a portion of the Sacred Body from his Mass and to have it sent to the neighbouring parishes outside of Rome; these parishes would receive their portion of the Sacred Body from the pope’s Eucharist and drop it into the chalice as a symbol of their fellowship with the Bishop of Rome. That is why the priest breaks off a portion from the Host and drops it into the Chalice, to remind us that we, as Christians, are inseparably united with the Mother-Church at Rome, from whom we received the Gospel.
Bear this in mind, and when you receive the Lord Jesus in Communion, ask Christ—who is the invisible Head of the Church—to give to us a shepherd who will boldly proclaim His Gospel “to the ends of the earth.”