Two of the most memorable words from today’s Gospel are “rock” and “keys.” “Rock” refers to that unshakable foundation our Lord has given to his Church: the papacy. “Keys” refer to the divinely guaranteed guidance and authority that the papacy will steadily provide about what we should believe and how we should live – faith and morals. As St Augustine once said: “Ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia”, where Peter [the papacy] is, there the Church is. Where the papacy is, there is the Church. This is why we call the pope Christ’s Vicar on earth, the visible head of the Church.
There is also a third memorable image in today’s Gospel. After talking about the rock and the keys, Jesus says that “the gates of the netherworld” will not prevail against his Church. The rock and the keys tell us how the Church is structured, but this phrase tells us what the Church does: It overthrows the kingdom of the devil, breaking down the gates of evil that closed upon the world after original sin. The Church is no passive organization, no religious or social club; it has a mission. Being Catholic means being part of a spiritual army called and strengthened by God to fight and conquer sin and evil, both in our own lives and in the greater society around us.
Today’s gospel is represented by one of our windows; it’s the window back in the northeast corner by the choir loft. In that window we have the keys given to Peter signifying his guidance and authority in matters of faith and morals. And up in the heavens is a keyhole reminding us of what is bound (locked) on earth is bound (locked) in heaven and what is loosed (open) on earth is loosed (open) in heaven. And beneath the Papal coat of arms on the shield is a ship representing the world-wide Catholic Church. Many times in art the Church is represented by a ship. The church is even sometimes called the Barque of Peter, where a barque is a type of sailing ship.
I have a story about a ship and this story comes from a saint’s dream. In May of 1862 St. John Bosco had a dream. St. John Bosco was a man gifted with many prophetic dreams throughout his life, they came true. Now in this spring time dream St. John Bosco saw a naval battle, a great ship was in the midst of a ferocious conflict at sea. This great ship is surrounded by a large enemy fleet that’s bombarding it with cannon balls and bombs, and ramming it with their pointed prows. A man dressed in white stands at the tip of the ship’s bow attempting to guide it safely to the shore. On either side of the great ship are two tall pillars through which the ship must pass in order to arrive at shore. On top of one of the pillars is an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary with the words, “Help of Christians” written below; on the top of the other pillar, which is a much taller and grander pillar, is a large white Communion Host, with the words, “Salvation of the Faithful” beneath it.
Each time an enemy ship succeeds in creating a gash in the side of the great ship a breeze arriving from the two pillars patches up the hole and repairs it. At one point, according to the text of Bosco’s dream, the captain in white falls down wounded and dies, and from the men in the enemy ships great and riotous cheers erupt. But it is short-lived because almost immediately, the other men in the great ship elect a new captain, also dressed in white, who rises up to continue to guide the ship to safety. The battle continues to rage fiercely, but the new captain eventually succeeds in steering the ship between the two pillars, bringing it into port. As soon as it’s anchored to the two columns all of the enemy ships that had fought against it flee, and in their haste to get away they collide against each other breaking into pieces. And suddenly, the waters are still and a great calm reigns over the sea. The gates of hell will not prevail against our Church.
St. John Bosco understood the great ship to be an image of the Church, the captain in white to be a symbol of the pope, and the enemy ships as representing the enemies of the Church, subjecting her to persecution. The two pillars and the images resting on them represent the protection and help that Heaven provides the pilgrim Church on earth. Heaven doesn’t forget us!
The Holy Father often asks us to pray for him. He needs our prayers. Our Lord has entrusted him with working toward the salvation and pastoral care of every living soul on earth, not just for the Catholics, but for everyone. He has many people helping him, but there are still some crosses that he alone has to bear. Let us pray today for the Holy Father, pray for everyone who works with him in the Holy See so that he will safely guide this Great Ship to the Heavenly shores.
Let us be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley