After what can only be described as a too-long absence, I’m back! Too many people asked about this homily not to post it, but as usual, the problem is that I was working without notes, so all three Masses heard a slightly different version, and none of them are going to match what I reproduce here. I suppose there’s a lesson here about working ahead… friends, I’m so far behind, in my head, it’s still last week.
The readings can be found be clicking here.
As many of you know, I did the majority of my seminary studies in Rome. And for those of you who didn’t know that – surprise! One of the things they always cautioned us in Rome was this: “Fellas, don’t tell a whole lot of Rome stories when you get back home. It won’t impress as many people as you think it will, and it will just make you look bad.” I think what they really meant to say was, “Guys, when you get home, don’t start acting all snooty. Don’t be the guy that sneers and condescends and says stuff like, ‘Oh, I can’t possibly eat at Olive Garden. That’s not real Italian food!'”
Even though it’s not.
But who am I kidding, those bread sticks are worth it.
Anyway, since none of the faculty from Rome is here this morning, I’m gonna tell you all a Rome story. Every seminarian, regardless of where he studies, has to do some kind of what we call an apostolic work. It’s designed to get him used to various forms of ministry, and to encounter people in different situations. Some guys work in hospitals and hospices, others in soup kitchens or other ministries to the homeless; some help the chaplains at prisons; some of our guys work go to Naples and help the chaplains at the naval base there. At the end of my time in Rome, I was doing chaplaincy work with the study abroad programs from Duquesne and Notre Dame. But at the beginning of my time over there, I was assigned to work at St. Peter’s Basilica, in the Excavations Office.
No, I was not issued a shovel. Our job was to take people on tours of the rather extensive excavations that are beneath the Basilica. Many people don’t even know that they are there; they’re a relatively recent addition. Back in the 1930’s, when Pope Pius XI died, a large renovation of the Vatican Grottoes was undertaken. The plan was to not only create more burial places for future popes, but also to allow the faithful better access to the grottoes as a place of prayer. But the excavations had barely started when they hit something – a building.
Turns out there was an entire necropolis – a city of the dead – beneath the Basilica. (Actually, the necropolis is much larger than the Basilica.) And so our story starts with that…
2,000 years ago, Rome was a pretty happening place. It was the capital city of an Empire, after all. And because the Emperor was a god-like figure, Rome itself was sacred…which meant there were certain things that one could not do in the city itself. However, they were permissible just across the Tiber river, which was one of the boundaries of the city. Vatican Hill was just across the river. It was not permissible to bury people in a sacred city, so a necropolis was developed on the Vatican. It was unseemly to build an arena in the city, so one was built on the Vatican. It hosted, among other things, chariot races, gladiatorial games, and public executions.
In the 65 AD, (give or take a few years), this arena was host to the execution of a Palestinian man named Peter. This Peter had been a Jew, but was now the leader of a band of Jewish misfits, a group that called one another brother and sister, a group that claimed to eat the body of their God, and a group that refused to worship the Emperor. Peter was tried for these crimes, found guilty, and executed by crucifixion. As an enemy of the state, Peter was not allowed the dignity of a burial; his body was to be thrown into the river. (Or perhaps burned. Or perhaps burned, and then thrown in the river. There’s a good reason the Tiber is not clean.) His followers, however, would not allow that, so they stole his body under cover of darkness and buried it in an unmarked grave in the nearby necropolis.
The tomb was not a well-kept secret; it immediately became a spot of veneration and a pilgrimage destination. As the years went on, and persecution of the Church ebbed, more permanent monuments were erected on the grave site. Finally, when Constantine decided to legalize Christianity, he and Pope Sylvester got together and decided to properly honor Peter’s grave. And so a giant basilica was to be built…but first, Vatican hill needed to be leveled, which meant the necropolis had to be buried. Truckloads of dirt had to be moved, and this was a long time before trucks were invented. Eventually, the site was prepared, Peter’s tomb and associated monuments were encased in a giant marble box, and the first basilica went up. It lasted for about a thousand years, and then the current basilica replaced it. In both instances, the marble box around the tomb formed the base of the main altar in the basilica.
So, fast forward to the 30’s and 40’s when the excavations are happening, and the necropolis being unveiled for the first time in 1700 years. There’s a lot of neat stuff being found, until the digging reaches the area underneath the main altar – and the sides of a large marble box are discovered. Could this really be Peter’s tomb? One side of the box is broken open, and inside is found a monument that looks exactly like what the histories say should be there. More careful digging led to bones, which Pope Pius XII sent out for immediate study…only to find out that it was impossible that they were Peter’s.
Disappointment abounds, but the excavations continue, and a curious thing is discovered – a niche carved into Peter’s monument, with the inscription, Petros eni – or, Peter is within. The niche, however, was empty, which struck the archeologists as being odd, until one of the laborers mentioned that there had been bones inside it; they just removed them for safekeeping. These bones were located and sent out for testing – and these results were much more interesting. They were the bones of a Palestinian man in his 60’s who had injuries consistent with death by crucifixion. The remaining bones – after all that time, there’s not much left – were put in clear plastic boxes and reinterred where they were found. One was left just slightly visibile so that people who go on this tour can see it, and it happens to be a fragment of Peter’s jaw…the same jaw that, in today’s Gospel, proclaims that Jesus is, indeed, “the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
I would often read today’s Gospel when we arrived at this point in the tour; it was a powerful moment.
The thing is, it’s also the jawbone that tries to tell Jesus not to talk about His impending crucifixion. It’s the jaw that boasts that Jesus should wash not just Peter’s feet, but his hands and his head as well, because anything that Jesus has to endure, Peter can too. It’s the jaw that denies Jesus three times as He undergoes His Passion.
And yet it is the jaw the professes Jesus to be the Christ. It is the jaw that says three times, “Yes, Lord, You know that I love You,” on the shore of the Sea of Tiberius after the Resurrection. And it is the jaw that rushes out of the upper room on Pentecost morning so that it can be the first to proclaim to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem – of the world – the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I think we can learn two important things from this. The first is this: there is something greater, something more powerful, than your sins. And that something is God’s mercy. Peter tried to silence Jesus. Peter was boastful and thought he was as good as Jesus. Peter flat-out denies Jesus and runs away…and yet, God has mercy on Peter. Peter is able to ask for and receive forgiveness. His sins were grave; his sins made him feel terrible; his sins are unpleasant…but God’s mercy was greater than them. Is greater than them. And if God’s mercy can conquer Peter’s sins, then it can conquer mine, as well. And it can conquer yours.
The other thing we learn is that we are not defined by our failings. We don’t call him Peter the Betrayer. Peter the Boastful. Peter the Obstacle. Instead, he’s Saint Peter. He’s Peter, the Prince of the Apostles. His failings do not define him, what defines him is his identity in Christ. What defines him is the fact that he is a beloved son of God. What defines him is that he is someone who has been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. And those are the same things that define me. And those are the same things that define you.
One last thing to consider. If it is as true for us as it is for Peter that God’s mercy is greater than our sins and that our failings are not what defines us, then don’t we also have to consider the question Jesus poses to Peter today as if He were asking it to us, as well? Who do you say that I am? But there’s a small issue with the text; the Greek is a little more nuanced than the English. The question isn’t simply, “who do you say that I am?” Talk is cheap; anyone can say anything. This wants more than words. This carries the idea of being definitive. This is a watershed moment. All your cards on the table, all-in, 100 per cent sure that the answer I am about to give is real and true. It’s the kind of answer that gets played out in every moment of your life, because that’s how strong the question is. It’s the kind of answer that you’re willing to die for. If Jesus really is the Christ, if He really is the Son of God, then your life, Peter’s life, my life – has to look different. It has to. Or you’re not answering the question.
Who do you say that I am?
Are you willing to live it?