This week, we arrive at the tipping point in Mark’s Gospel, for it ushers in the final phase in the life of the Messiah. The Lord begins now His journey onto Jerusalem—the place of his death, resurrection and ascension. The Gospel event is pivotal because Peter’s confession, even if he did not fully understand it, affirmed that the hope of the past was now about to take shape as the Pascal mystery began to unfold. What the ages of the past had longed for will now be fulfilled through the Passover of the Christ. Significantly the confession took place in Caesaria Philippi1, a city which overlooked the pagan country from whence the source of the great river associated with baptism flowed. With such a riverine association, you can already sense that Peter’s profession at once brings us into the territory of evangelisation.
In terms of the Gospel passage on the profession of Peter, there are a few points to be considered or clarified if we want enter into a discussion of evangelisation. Firstly, any reference to the Messiah was always pregnant with political overtones and here, the Lord tried to disabuse the Apostles of this notion by speaking of Himself as the “Son of Man”. This was a term which pointed to the Eschaton or the end time and therefore was devoid of the jingoistic connotation associated with the word Messiah. Furthermore, the need to correct any misguided understanding that Peter had, was supplied by Mark’s unflattering report of Peter’s rebuke by Christ Himself. Mark, as Peter’s close associate, would have preferred a kinder report of Peter but the inclusion of a less than positive image of Peter proved the veracity of this incident and it brings us to the point that is important when we want to consider discipleship.
Built into the definition of discipleship is the certainty of suffering. Those who follow Jesus must contend with this unavoidable reality. Thus, the first reading supplies us with the image which, if we are not familiar with, we ought to get used to. It is the song of the suffering servant whose life witnesses not only to faith but also to a faith that is purified in the furnace of suffering. At one level, this is the meaning of Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ. All saints know this and accept this as part and parcel of their confession.
At another level, the confession leads us to another plane where is often interpreted as one which proves Peter’s primacy. But, that primacy is quite secondary. It is more likely that Peter’s faith is analogous to the Church’s faith or the Church’s faith has to be synonymous with Peter’s confession. In a climate which considers the Church as irrelevant2, we recognise here that the Church is a necessity because the question that Christ posed to Peter must reverberate throughout time and to the ends of the earth. Our Lord and Saviour seeks an answer from humanity. “Who do you say that I am?” Thus, the Church founded on the rock of Peter must ring out unequivocally the answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”.
She exists, not just as an instrument of salvation. She exists so as to proclaim loudly and clearly that there is a Saviour in a world incapable of hearing the Good News of Salvation. And this is where we have gone south with our mission to evangelise and to proclaim. Either we fear, under the intolerant glare of relativism, that our kerygma is basically one amongst many OR, more likely, that we ourselves no longer believe in the kerygma.3 As a result, we shy away from the evangelisation and proclaiming. Instead, we are reduced to consorting with other religions on areas of mutual cooperation especially in the arena of ethics and morality.4
What might explain this distancing from conviction is the disconnection or the gap between what would be the ideal and what would be the reality. In short, the truth of our message has been compromised by the lack of credibility.5 The Second Reading confirms this by stating that a faith that does no justice is no faith at all. Credibility is in short supply.
Today, we are cowed by the reaction we will get rather than strengthened by the courage of our conviction. Evangelisation and proclamation must take place in the theatre of cultural wars where intolerance is directed against anyone who or anything which dares to proclaim that it stands on the side of truth. In such an intolerant world, anything is “true” except truth itself. Yet, to paraphrase JPII, we must proclaim the truth. We do not engage in attacking those who do not accept it because they are too many. We teach the truth because there is a grace attached to truth which unfolds itself at the time when it is appropriate.
And the truth we proclaim is spelt with a capital “T” and this Truth is a person, Jesus Christ. He is not a clever speaker, a good manager or even an excellent community organiser. He is God. In this endeavour to proclaim and evangelise, Cardinal Avery Dulles describes three foundational principles we must hold to: "Firstly, that there is a God. Secondly, that he has made a full and final revelation of himself in Jesus Christ and thirdly, that the Catholic Church is the authorised custodian and teacher of this body of revealed truth." The Catholic faith is not a set of doctrines. It is a lived encounter with Christ, who lives in, and teaches through, the Church.
The mission to evangelise and proclaim the central kerygma of the Christian message is set within the context of Church. There was a popular saying repeated almost mantra-like in the 70s onwards, and echoes of which we still hear, which went like this: “We are Church”. This is true. We make up the Church and in an epoch where the stress on personhood6 is important, this relativises the hitherto general idea we had that “Church = building”. Certainly, in an era where institutional authorities “lie” routinely, such an anti-establishment/anti-
institutional bias does find acceptable resonance with the faithful. However, consider that the contrary of “We are Church” is not true. The Church is not us. The Church cannot be us because the sum total of every living Catholic on earth is not the reality of the Church. Instead, she is Ecclesia militans, Ecclesia penitens and Ecclesia triumphans.
When we look at some of our bishops, we probably might despair. When we see some of our priests, we simply lament. When we observe our religious, we can cry. When we examine our married couples we throw in the towel. But the Church is not all these. She is more. Our despair, lamentation, cry and resignation merely expose the shortcomings of our faith. Our faith is really in our “ability” (the self-made man/self-made Church) and certainly not on Christ and His Church and certainly not on Christ to lead, guide and to protect His own body.
Yes, we are Church but the Church is more than us and even when our voices are blunted by sin and our proclamation is muted by our cowardice, the Church remains resolutely faithful as she stand at the side of Peter to shout out loudly and clearly the very answer to the question that Jesus asked of Peter and the 11: You are the Christ, the son of the Living, Saviour of all mankind. She cannot fail because She has the promise of His Holy Spirit.
1 There is another city Caesaria Maritima and the name suggests that it is a coastal city. But, this Caesaria Philippi was a city built on top of an enormous rock, by King Philip, to honour the Caesars. The symbolism cannot be missed in the context of Christ building His Church on the rock of Peter.2 However irrelevant we think the Church may be, she grows out of the event of the Incarnation. It might sound a little overboard to consider that she is a logical conclusion of the Incarnation but, here, we are not divinising the Church but merely acknowledging how the Incarnation must play itself out, if we were to accept it fully.3 The “instrument” of salvation must also be the “good news” of salvation. Unfortunately, this is not always possible because the conventional Gospel today is markedly the Gospel of Nice and in so many instances, the Church is fearful of reactions rather than She reacts in a world that longs to hear the voice of the Shepherd.4 It is a logical consequence of a heresy that “all religions are equally valid”. If all religions were equally valid, then the choice amongst them is not a matter of conviction about truth but only of personal preference or life-style. Furthermore, when transcendence is eschewed, then the struggle for a better humanity is all we need. With that in mind, how else can we bridge the chasm of solitary existence except through mutual cooperation so that the world can still “function”. Check out John Lennon’s seductively persuasive lyrics found in the song: “Imagine”. “Imagine there’s not heaven, only a brotherhood of man”.5 We have to deal with a phenomenon which the Spaniards termed as “Leyendra Negra”, translated as Black Legend. They coined the term to describe the outlandish and exaggerated accounts concerning events such as the Spanish Inquisition and the Spanish colonialisation of South America to provoke an “anti-Spanish” reaction. Likewise, it is said that anti-Catholicism is the last accepted prejudice in the Western world. Today, the Black Legend concerning the Catholic Church is that a proportionately miniscule number of paedophile and child-abusive priests has become the norm. Whatever good that is done by the greater majority of priests or religious has simply been air-brushed out of history.6 We cannot postulate a society or build a communion based on the tenets of secular individualism—it is like a net which cannot hold water. Instead, like stretched gossamer, we are suspended between the two extremes of “totalitarian socialism” and “crass individualism”. Many of the crises we encounter today are the results of a 300-year humanistic—politicians, economists, philosophers—effort to construct a society without God—a society where God does not exist. Our society is founded on lies, the three lies of secularism, relativism and individualism. Their inner logic reveals a tyranny which can only be classified the tyranny of relevance. Nothing is absolute and only “I” and its whims are the ultimate measure. Thus, an ecclesiology that is “person-centred” cannot fully overcome the question of legitimation. Personal relationship with Christ is good but it does not stand on solid ground if the Church were not involved. For example, a person claims he wants to celebrate the Eucharist. Who legitimises that celebration? Himself? I doubt so.