Every Sunday we recite the Apostles’ Creed (Nicene version), called so because it contains the twelve fundamental articles of our faith. One of these is the Church. “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.”
Today’s gospel provides the scriptural foundation of our belief in the Catholic Church. Jesus builds his Church on Peter, whom he likens to a rock. In fact, he changes his name from Simon to Peter, which means rock. Jesus gives Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven, which is the power to bind and to loose, guaranteed with a heavenly seal. He further assures the stability and permanence of this Church with a promise that it will withstand all powers of hell.
The gospel narrative clearly establishes the primacy of Peter and the hierarchical nature of the Church. Because of this our understanding of the Church is often limited to that of an institution or an organizational structure (Pope, bishops, priests, and laity). The Church however is more than just a hierarchical entity. The Church has many facets, and the richness of its nature is expressed in various images. Hence, we speak of the Church as the Body of Christ, the People of God, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, the Bride of Christ, the New Jerusalem, etc.
These days, the Holy Father invites us to deepen our understanding of the Church as a Synodal Church. It means that the Church is not only a hierarchy; it is also a community of the baptized, all children of God. While God speaks through the Pope, bishops, and priests, God also speaks through the faithful for they too have received the Holy Spirit in baptism. Hence, a synodal Church is one that listens. As a community, all members journey together and participate in carrying out the mission of building God’s kingdom.
In this homily, I would like to invite you to turn our gaze on another image of the Church – that of a mother. The Church is a mother from whom we receive the new life of grace in baptism. She nourishes and sustains us with the Eucharist and the sacraments. She guides us on the path of salvation and enlightens us with the Word of God. She fosters our growth in communion with our brothers and sisters and forms us into a community of love. She leads us to maturity in Christ and sends us on mission to participate in the building of the kingdom of God. What a mother! Indeed, we can only praise and thank God for giving us such a mother.
I was blessed to spend some years in Kabankalan and experience the people’s strong sense of Church. It must have been their experience of the difficult years of the martial law and the post-revolution days of the Operation Thunderbolt which formed in them a deep ecclesial sense. Often caught in the crossfire between the military and the New People’s Army, they found no other refuge than to run to the Church, just as frightened chicks run for protection under the wings of the mother hen. The Church was for them the lone defender of the defenseless and the voice of the voiceless.
This is true even now particularly in the far-flung areas of Negros where the conflict is still present, like Himamaylan and Guihulngan. The Church continues to be the only credible protector of the people in these places. For this I commend and salute my brother-bishops in Negros whose leadership as true shepherds of the Lord’s flock reveals the face of the Church as a Mother.
Let us always love the Church and be ever grateful for she is our Mother. Let us defend her whenever we can and pray for her when we cannot. We think of the Church in Manipur where 120 Christians have been killed, 400 churches burned and more than 4,000 Christian homes destroyed because of persecution perpetrated by political leaders and their ideological agenda. We remember the many more Christians in the Middle East, South America, Africa, and Asia who suffer similar persecutions.
Today more than ever, the Church is besieged from all sides. It is said that in these recent years, more Christians have suffered and died for the faith than all the martyrs of the past centuries combined.
The persecution however comes not only from outside the Church, but also from within. While the scandals in the Church are a cause of great suffering, they are at the same time a wake-up call to conversion and purification. The worse persecution though comes from Church members (including some bishops) who attempt to divide the Church by undermining the authority of Peter.
Pope Francis refers to this in his closing address to the Synod of Bishops in 2018.
“I think of our Mother, the Holy Mother Church. [In the document], the last three items on holiness show what the Church is: our Mother is Holy, but we children are sinners. We are all sinners… And because of our sins, the Great Accuser always exploits them, as the first chapter of Job says: he goes to and fro upon the Earth, looking for someone to trap. At this moment he is accusing us vehemently, and this accusation even becomes persecution… And it also becomes a different type of persecution: continuous accusations to tarnish the Church. But the Church must not be tarnished; her children, yes; we are all tarnished, but not our Mother. And for this reason, it is time to defend our Mother; and our Mother is defended against the Great Accuser with prayer and penance… It is a difficult time, because by attacking us, the Accuser attacks our Mother, but our Mother is not to be touched.”
I close by quoting the great theologian Karl Rahner, who said, “The Church is an old woman with many wrinkles and furrows. But she is my mother. And no one strikes my mother.”