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The Word Embodied
21st Sunday of Ordinary Time
Year A
August 27, 2023
John Kavanaugh, SJ

Rock of Ages

Who could know the mind of God? (Romans 11:34).

   “What’s happened to the church? The last council seems to be the work of the devil.” The words still stay with me, although I heard them from an older priest many years ago.

He died not long after, and I often wonder what he would think if he were still alive. The apparently serene and steady church he once knew, that ark of sure safety, has been sailing troubled waters, to say the least.

Elders question whether our young know enough dogma or tradition to pass anything on to their future children. Nagging doubts stimulate questions: does the language of holiness and transcendence, of sin and forgiveness, of objective right and wrong, of the sacred and eternal even make sense to most Catholics?

As for Peter’s ark, that church, our church, how often it neared disaster: in the shadow of imperial armies, under threats of martyrdom and flame.
Divisions are so stark and sharp. One invites complete perplexity by daring to read conservative and liberal Catholic publications in the same sitting. The demons of the one pose as angels for the other. Actions judged sinful by some Catholics are called virtuous by others. The papacy of Pope John Paul II inspired pride, hope, and trust for some, bitter disappointment—even anger—in others. Vocations to the priesthood and to the once-thriving religious congregations dwindle, despite the stronger showing among communities that are more conservative or “orthodox.

If we even halfway agree with this account, what might we think of Christ’s words to Peter? “You are Rock, and on this rock I will build my church, and the jaws of death shall not prevail against it.” This text, understood both in terms of papal primacy and the church’s durability, surely challenges the faith of the contemporary Catholic.

But when has it not been so? What kind of “rock” was Peter when only moments after his great profession, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Jesus would say, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me”? (Mt 16:23). That was only the beginning of Peter’s reign which has, of course, included braggadocio, denials, betrayals, reconciliations, victories, later struggles with Paul, and disappointments with his people.

As for Peter’s ark, that church, our church, how often it neared disaster: in the shadow of imperial armies, under threats of martyrdom and flame, in the depths of dark ages, infidelities of monks, scandals of popes, in the great wounds of schism, the slaughter of religious wars, the unraveling of the priesthood, the selling of bishoprics, the seductions of fascism, Communism, and capitalism.

Yet doom was not our destiny. Through all of history’s storms, despite infidelities, diminishments, and failure, the church has carried in its womb, to be born over and over again in scripture and the Eucharist, the Christ who asks of us, whether pope or peasant, “Who do you say I am?” From Borgia palaces to the huts of Connemara, in the convents of Lisieux and in the slave ships of Cartagena’s harsh harbors, on Korea’s crosses or Colorado’s mountain hermitages, the answer was given which made Peter a rock and the church an ark: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

St. Paul plumbed the mystery. “How deep are the riches and the wisdom and the knowledge of God. How inscrutable his judgments, how unsearchable his ways.” (Second Reading)

John Kavanaugh, SJ

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Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
The Word Embodied: Meditations on the Sunday Scriptures
Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York (1998), pp. 96-98.
Art by Martin Erspamer, OSB
from Religious Clip Art for the Liturgical Year (A, B, and C). This art may be reproduced only by parishes who purchase the collection in book or CD-ROM form. For more information go
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