Friday, May 09, 2008

"Do You Love Me?"

[text of a homily given on the Friday before Pentecost, on John 21: 15-19]

Right before the most recent papal conclave, a news reporter asked then-Cardinal Ratzinger if he believed that the electors would select the man that the Holy Spirit wanted to be the next pope. He responded (and I must loosely paraphrase): "There are too many example in history of popes whom the Holy Spirit would surely not have chosen. Rather, the promise we have from Christ is that whatever choice we make, we can't mess things up too badly."

A few weeks ago, we had a week of readings from the tenth chapter of John's gospel. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who will not leave the flock untended. What He didn't tell us at that point was that He was going to ask Simon Peter to help with the feeding and tending. This 'human touch' is frankly, on the face of it, a less comfortable arrangement than having Christ govern us directly. If it's true that we aren't able to mess things up too badly, we and those before us would seem to have tried our hardest, popes or not.

On the other hand, the choice of Peter should be a consolation for us mere humans. In the poignant encounter we hear this morning, Jesus puts Peter on the spot. But He does not ask, "How could you have denied me? What were you thinking?" Nor does this interview of sorts focus on Peter's administrative competency for tending sheep. Rather, Jesus asks, rather personally and bluntly, "Do you love me?" As Peter acknowledges, the Lord already knows the answer to this. After all, let's be fair to Peter: he would not have been in position to deny Jesus had he not cared enough to follow Him after His arrest. This gesture of love, feeble as it seems in retrospect, is at the foundation of the Church.

Surely there are days when we might wish that following Jesus Christ did not involve the ambiguities of a loving relationship. There is always a temptation to turn discipleship into a set of rules to be followed, whether they be found in the Catechism, the Rule of St. Benedict, Canon Law, or simply in our own personal set of rules, based on what has worked before. The successful fulfillment of precepts offers us an objective, measurable indication of our progress in our spiritual lives, or perhaps an opportunity to compare our progress with others' lack of progress. When this system fails in somes way: when we backslide, or stop making progress, or when someone less worthy than ourselves receives preferential treatment in the Church, we might be tempted to throw up our hand in frustration and ask God, "What do You want me to do?"

We are again in this position because, like Peter, we love the Lord. Perhaps, however, we are being invited to a deeper level of love and trust, one that will lead us out of our comfort zone, to "where we do not wish to go." We should recall at these times that we are very much in the presence of the Good Shepherd, who does not scold, but simply says to us, with that incomparable love, "Follow Me."

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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