“You are Peter.”

The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is 448 feet high. It’s the tallest dome in the world and has been standing since the 1620’s when the church was completed. There are many amazing and world-famous works of art in St. Peter’s including Michelangelo’s Pieta and the breathtaking bronze canopy over the main altar by the artist, Bernini. But there’s a relatively small detail in the dome that is the most breathtaking revelation of all in this historic and majestic building. Written in gilded plaster letters around the middle part of the dome is a verse of scripture, Matthew 16:18. It’s in Latin and the English translation is: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church.” “Tu es Petrus.” “You are Peter.” With these words, Jesus established His Church and named St. Peter as its head. That authority, first vested in Peter, exists today in Pope Francis. His visit to our country last week brought that authority and the office and function of the papacy into the media spotlight.  

Three little words. When Jesus proclaimed Simon to be Peter, He changed more than his name. We know that when God changes people’s names, He changes their purpose in life and He gives them the grace to carry that purpose through. Abraham. Jacob. Paul. And Peter. “Tu es Petrus.” Peter the fisherman became the fisher of men. He left his home, his family, and everything he knew in order to follow Jesus. He knew Who Jesus was and he knew that only Jesus was the way to eternal life. What else could he do ?Well…..he could have told Jesus, “no.” The God Who made him and chose him also gave him the free will to reject Him. See, that’s the thing about Jesus. He loves us enough to die for us, even knowing that many of us will say, “no.” But Peter, with all his flaws and wounds, accepted Him and with that, God gave him the keys to the kingdom of heaven. You give your keys only to the person you trust the most. You trust them to take care of all that you have. And, if something happens to you, you trust them to take care of things after you die. The “things” that Jesus entrusted to Peter were the lives and eternal souls of all His followers. Jesus trusted St. Peter that much. And that’s good enough for me.  

Peter’s faith in Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit made him the first among the Apostles. They looked to him to settle their disputes and to define the faith. Eventually, Peter went to Rome and was crucified for that faith. “Tu es Petrus.” After Peter came Linus, and then Anacletus, then Clement, and now, 265 Popes later, Francis. When the bishops of the Church elected him Pope, he left his home in Argentina, left everything he knew and went to Rome. He took a new name and stepped into the shoes of the fisherman. The trust that Jesus had placed in Peter now rests on Francis’ shoulders. Those crowds who gathered in Washington and New York and Philadelphia last week to see Francis, were also seeing the heir of St. Peter. Maybe you noticed all those yellow and white Vatican flags they were waving? The keys to the kingdom are emblazoned on each one.  

“Tu es Petrus.” You are Peter. One of the reasons I entered the Catholic Church almost 40 years ago was that only in Rome can we follow our faith back to the fisherman. Back to that first follower of Jesus. Like Peter, our popes aren’t perfect. But God still uses them to lead His Church and care for the souls of all His followers. He told us that His Church would never fail, never be destroyed. Even the very powers of hell will never overcome it. Since Peter’s day, every empire and regime that has opposed the Church has turned to dust. Yet the Church prevails, through God’s grace. And through that grace, led by the Holy Spirit, comes a humble pastor from the slums of Buenos Aires. Riding in a Fiat, eating with the homeless, blessing the sick and the imprisoned, challenging the wealthy to be more generous and more accepting. Fishing for the hearts of men. Just like Peter.  

“And I tell you that you are Peter and on this rock I will build My Church and the gates of hell will not overcome it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven: whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

         —–Matthew 16: 18-19 

In The Quiet


The first thing you notice is the smell. Like wet leaves on a forest floor. It’s damp and cool and the only light comes from the string of weak electric bulbs strung along the passageway. Because we had arranged a private tour, we were able to linger here in the catacombs beneath the streets of Rome. Our tour guide, a young nun, led us into tunnels and rooms not often seen by the public. She pointed out frescoes showing Jesus, the Apostles, and some of the earliest Saints of the Church. I especially liked the graffiti left by these hidden Christians who used the catacombs as both burial tombs and worship spaces. Most of the scratched words are prayers for a loved one who has died. Some were just names or single words. A few frescoes showed people in prayer and receiving Holy Communion. Here in this musty and dark place, hidden from pagan eyes, our ancestors in faith celebrated Mass, went to confession, were baptized and married, anointed and laid to rest. For many of them, their Christian faith was a death sentence and so these dark, quiet tunnels were a safe place to proclaim Christ, to come together as a family of faith. It’s a sacred place.  

Sitting there I remembered where we’d been just the week before. That place, too was heavy with history and memory. Ten miles outside Munich is Dachau, the first of the Nazi death camps. Low brick buildings, gravel walkways and that hateful iron sign at the entrance, “Arbeit Macht Frei”(Work make you free). The work of Dachau was hate and the freedom found there came on April 29, 1945 when American troops arrived and liberated the prisoners who were still alive there. Almost 32,000 died at Dachau in the 12 years it existed. Most were Jews, but many others were political prisoners, Catholic priests, immigrants, gays and the disabled. The Nazis carried out horrible “experiments” on prisoners here. It’s like walking through an abandoned corner of hell. But here, too are glimpses of the souls who had lived here. A small Star of David scratched into a barracks wall. A tiny brown shoe in a pile of hundreds of adult shoes. The name “Helga” in the collar of a prison shift. So much loss. The quiet here cries out for justice. This place, too, is sacred. 

Places like these peel away everything that isn’t eternal. They aren’t easy places to experience, but “easy” and “eternal” are rarely the same thing. Like the catacombs, a death camp forces you to answer the big questions: What do you believe? What is true? What are you willing to die for? These timeless questions require silence in order to be heard. You can’t hear eternity in a world full of noise. Jesus knew that. He retreated to quiet places in order to pray and hear the voice of the Father. Our daily lives are crammed with noise and distraction. We become starved for spiritual nourishment. Even many of our own worship experiences are filled with noise and light shows. We can’t tolerate silence. Yet God speaks to us in our quietude, not the in the earthquake, nor the fire, nor the mighty wind, but in a gentle whisper (I Kings 19:2). A whisper that speaks to us of the faith of our ancestors in the catacombs who risked their lives for their love of Christ. A whisper that speaks to us of justice and our calling to love and serve others in a world broken by sin and hate.  

Today, in the streets of Rome and Munich, Calais and Paris, thousands of people have come seeking a better life. They have left their homes and loved ones and risked everything out of hope. What will be our response to them? We ourselves know what persecution and hate can do. We’ve seen that already in our history. Before we protest, before we build fences and pass laws, let’s go to a quiet place and listen for that whisper of God. Our hearts will never find peace in the noise of politics and rhetoric, of CNN and Fox News, or in partisan debates. As Christians, we follow the One Who is before all things and in Whom all things hold together (Colossians 1:17). He and He alone can lead us to the answer, if we only sit quietly and ask Him.

“Silence makes us whole if we let it. Silence helps draw together the scattered and dissipated energies of a fragmented existence.”                                 —–Thomas Merton