Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The keys and the sword

By Archbishop José H. Gomez
By Archbishop José H. Gomez 

Last week I had the blessing to be in Rome for the Solemnity of St. Peter and St. Paul. Every year on this feast, our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI bestows the pallium on new archbishops from around the world.

Among the 44 new archbishops receiving their pallium were four of my brothers and friends from the United States — Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver, Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore and Byzantine Archbishop William C. Skurla of Pittsburgh.

It was a happy day and a beautiful celebration. I prayed specially for all of you, giving thanks to God for this privilege to be your archbishop. It was an emotional time for me, as I recalled my own feelings from just one year ago, when I was among those who knelt before the holy father to receive my own pallium from his hands.

In his homily for this year’s Mass, Pope Benedict offered a beautiful reflection on the fraternal bonds between Peter and Paul and the “mystery and ministry” of the church. He talked about the symbols traditionally related with Peter and Paul — the keys and the sword.

St. Peter’s “keys” are a sign that Jesus gave his church the authority to forgive sins and to open the gates of heaven. These keys are also a sign that by God’s grace and Spirit, the church’s bishops and the pope are able to “bind and loose” — to make decisions on earth that are “valid in the eyes of God,” as our holy father said.

St. Paul is usually represented with a sword. That’s a symbol of how he was martyred. But it’s more than that. The pope talked about how the sword symbolizes the word of God and Paul’s faithfulness to the church’s “mission of evangelization.”

The church is human and divine, an historical and earthly reality. But she is also “a spiritual edifice built upon christ as the cornerstone,” as the pope put it.

So by God’s gift of light and strength, our human capacities and weaknesses can be “transformed through openness to God’s action.” And by God’s action, we who are only human, are made able to cooperate with God’s designs and graces.

Our holy father said beautifully: “The Church is not a community of the perfect, but a community of sinners, obliged to recognize their need for God’s love, their need to be purified through the cross of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ sayings concerning the authority of Peter and the apostles make it clear that God’s power is love, the love that shines forth from Calvary.”

I carried the pope’s beautiful reflections home with me from Rome this week as we celebrated the Fourth of July. I always associate Independence Day with the memorial of Blessed Junípero Serra, the apostle of California, which we celebrate on July 1.

The Christian faith — carried here by missionaries like Blessed Junípero — is the cornerstone of California and our nation. Now more than ever, we need to reclaim that history and heritage! We need to remind our fellow citizens — and we need to remind ourselves — that America’s founders spelled out this nation’s ideals in frankly religious terms.

The Declaration of Independence begins with a statement of biblical faith. That all men and women are created by God and endowed with “inalienable” rights — rights that can’t be denied or taken away. The whole purpose of the government established by our founders was to defend these God-given rights.

The Declaration ends with what amounts to a religious vow: “With firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

We can’t let ourselves become so political or cynical that we no longer feel the truth and power of these ideals. We can’t treat these ideals as “museum pieces” belonging to some distant America from days long past.

Our times call for a new faith and a new evangelization. Our mission as Catholics and as citizens is to carry on the work of America’s founders and her first evangelists.

Each of us in the church is called to follow Christ — bearing the keys and the sword. The sword of God’s word. The keys that unlock heaven’s door.

In his homily, Pope Benedict said our missionary duty requires “from each of us … a constant commitment to conversion.”

Let’s make that our prayer for one another this week. Let’s pray that we will all embrace our missionary call to continuous conversion. Putting our faith into practice. Proclaiming Christ’s Gospel of hope and love.

May our blessed mother, the queen of the apostles, walk with us on our missionary way!

Archbishop José H. Gomez is archbishop of Los Angeles. His weekly column is provided by and appears in The Tidings, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Reach Archbishop Gomez on Facebook at www.facebook.com/archbishopgomez

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