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For Your Weekend: The Hard Rock Life for Us

Kristy Malik

Dig Deeper into Sunday’s Gospel: Read Matthew 16:13–20

As I write this, I’m sitting on the banks of a river in West Virginia. We come here every year. Rising twelve feet from the middle of the river is a massive rock, seventy feet long by fifty feet wide. My kids and husband like to swim to the rock, climb it, and jump off it into the deep water below (I usually close my eyes for that part). Sometimes they’ll use kayaks and shuttle over towels and snacks to set up “camp” on their little island for the day. 

This rock is the image that comes to my mind when I read the gospel passage for this weekend. Peter answers Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” with “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:15–16). And then…

And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).

For the first time in the gospels, we hear Jesus mention “church:” ekklesia in Greek, which means “assembly” or “congregation” of the people of God.[1]

Jesus isn’t talking about the building you will be sitting in on Sunday when you hear this reading. He’s talking about the community of believers He will gather from every nation and time on earth. “And like a building, it will have Peter as its solid foundation.”[2]

Notably, Jesus doesn’t tell Peter to build the Church, nor does He say that the Church will belong to Peter. No, Jesus is the one who will build—and the Church will belong to Jesus. So what, then, is the role of Peter? What is the function of the rock upon which this Church will be built?

Theologian Peter Kreeft explains: 

“Because of Peter’s confession, Jesus chooses him as the rock on which to build his Church. Peter’s confession is greater than Peter. Peter is still a fallible human being, as are all his successors, the popes; but the infallible Christ uses them as the unchangeable rock, and he has never let a single one of them change doctrine, only explain it better. As the first pope, it was Peter’s confession, not Peter’s human personality, that was infallible.”[3]

Papal infallibility can be a prickly term for many people who aren’t Catholic and perhaps even some who are. It does not mean that everything the Pope says is correct, that we must do everything he says, or that he does not sin. What it does mean is that when he is speaking or writing to the Church as a whole “he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals,” and we need to listen up.[4] 

The authority Jesus gave Peter to do this in Matthew 16:19 [5] directly correlates to our first reading from Isaiah. During the reign of King David, the Lord said: “I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder (Eliakim’s); what he opens, no one will shut, what he shuts, no one will open” (Isaiah 22:22). The role of Eliakim was essentially a prime minister—one who was to take charge of the kingdom in the king’s absence. It’s only logical that Jesus (called the son of David) would leave a steward, a vicar, on His behalf until He returns. 

The Church, belonging to Christ, began with Peter and continues through an unbroken line of apostolic succession, continually guided by the Holy Spirit. This is what we mean when we recite the Nicene Creed at Mass, saying, “We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”

During the last night of our stay in West Virginia, a massive thunderstorm dumped heavy rain for a few hours. As the daylight hours passed, the river crested almost five feet higher than it was the day before. The storm had churned the water to a murky brown color, not crystal clear like it was the day before. The new higher water level dwarfed our giant rock—it appeared smaller and much less significant. If you were to pass by the rock on a boat, you probably wouldn’t even see the massive structure below the surface.

Much like that rock, our Church has faced murky and tumultuous waters that have risen and receded. Revolutions, dictators, cultural influences, heresy, and scandals have come and gone—sometimes it would appear as if the Church would succumb to these forces or seem rather insignificant in the face of these issues—but 2,000 years later, she still stands. 

“The gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).

G.K. Chesterton wisely said, "Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”[6]

And that’s just it, isn’t it? Our God died and rose for us. He defeated death to restore us to the fullness of life, and then He built the Church—a community of believers with an appointed vicar—to help us along the way. He cared enough to leave us a Church that belongs to Him and will never fail. I don’t know about you, but that’s the rock I want to cling to!

With you on the journey,

Food for thought or journaling:

Today, dedicate some prayer time for our Holy Father, Pope Francis, and the Church.

Jesus, You never leave us alone. Thank You for appointing us a steward on earth for Your Church. Let us live as faithful members of this holy assembly You have built. When our faith wavers or it seems that the Church is sinking, let us remember Your promise that the gates of Hell will never prevail against her. Amen.

[1] Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, The Gospel of Matthew (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture) (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 207.
[2] New American Bible, Revised Edition (New Jersey: Catholic Book Publishing Corp, 2011), Matthew 16:18 footnote, p 37.
[3] Peter Kreeft, Food for the Soul: Reflections on the Mass Readings Cycle A (Parkridge, IL: Word on Fire, 2022), p 632.
[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd edition (Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2012), #891
[5] Matthew 16:19: I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
[6] Chesterton, GK, The Everlasting Man: Part 2, Chapter 6, “The Five Deaths of the Faith.” (Accessed August 9, 2023): https://www.worldinvisible.com/library/chesterton/everlasting/part2c6.htm

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