In the first Reading, (Is 22:19-23), we read about the deposing of Shebna, the palace minister, (chief of staff), to King David because he was extravagant. In his place, Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah, was elevated. The symbol of his elevation and authority was the handing over of the keys to the palace, (House of David), to him. He has the authority to open or close the doors, to let people in or to shut them out.
The second Reading, (Rom 11:33-36), presented us with the immensity of God. He is omnipotent, omniscience, and immutable. He is our Creator and the one who sustains everything that exists.
Socrates had warned that unexamined life was not worth living. So, when Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, (Matt 16:13-20), he enquired from his disciples who people thought he was. He discovered that a considerable number thought he was a holy person or a prophet of God like Jeremiah and Moses of old, or John the Baptist. While the people’s hunches about Jesus were impressive, they were grossly inadequate, hence, Jesus turned to his disciples to supply the missing part of the puzzle. Peter did supply the missing link by declaring that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Jesus rewarded Peter for his intuition by assuring him that he, (Jesus), was going to build his Church on the faith he had professed. He promised to give him the keys of the kingdom of heaven: what he, (Peter), binds on earth would be considered bound in heaven, and what he shall loose on earth would be considered loosed in heaven. The giving of the keys to Peter symbolised his authority, (first Reading). This made Peter the leader of the Church and the first among the apostles. This authority to bind and loose which Jesus gave to Peter, he also extended to the rest of his disciples after his Resurrection when he breathed on them and said, “receive the Holy Spirit, what sins you forgive on earth would be considered forgiven in heaven and what sins you retain on earth will be retained in heaven”, (Jon 20:22-23).
Authority in the Church should be discharged through service. Jesus warned his disciples that it was only through service that a disciple becomes great in the community. He cautioned that no disciple should be made to feel the brunt of authoritarianism. For Jesus, authoritarianism belongs to non-believers. He advocated that all Church leaders should imitate his example, for he came not to be served but to serve and to offer up his life as ransom for many, (Mk 10:44 45; Matt 23:11).
To be in authority does not mean that one is faultless. Hence, Jesus promised to pray for Peter, and he asked him to encourage his brothers and sisters after he had recovered from betraying him by denying that he knew him, (Jn 18:15-27). While it is true that leadership has sometimes failed us both in the Church and in the civil society, none-the-less, we have become too critical of leadership that we almost expect every leader to be beyond reproach. I am not condoning mediocrity or ineptness in leadership, but we must realise that leaders are mere mortals. Those in leadership could do well to emulate the good example of Peter when they make mistakes. They should unambiguously apologise for their mistakes and not try to cover them up or explain them away. Peter acknowledged his fault and wept after betraying Jesus. Jesus re-instated him after his Resurrection by asking him trice if he loved him. He then asked Peter to feed his flock and his sheep.
Authority in the Church is to guide and protect the deposit of faith. Those in authority should always listen to the voices of the people of God. But we should also realise that being in a majority may not mean being right. In our individualistic world of today where relativism is the order of the day, authority in the Church ensures that our core Catholic beliefs are safe guarded. But those in authority must be on their guard that authority does not degenerate into authoritarianism.
Fr Chinua Okeke CSSp