Who Do You Say That I Am?
Resolved: most Catholics can’t answer this question. Worse, many of our problems come from people who think they can.
Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi and he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. (Mt 16:1-20)
This is one of my favorite gospel passages, capturing the tension and expectations of the Jewish community at the time, the hesitation and uncertainty of the disciples, and Peter’s impetuous faith. My desk top image is Escher’s surrealist sketch of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, centered on the Latin phrase inscribed there: Dabo Claves Regni Caelorum. But I have to admit that I have a hard time answering Jesus’ question. I can repeat the creed—indeed, I have studied it fairly carefully, including the great Christological controversies that helped shape it. But middle age has given me the epistemological humility to admit that the more I know, the less I understand.
As for the rest of the folks in the pews: I am pretty sure that most of them couldn’t formulate a coherent answer that went beyond a few memorized phrases: “Son of God”, “Savior of the World”, “Second Person of the Trinity.” All true, but as answers they beg the question: what do they mean? I say this not to scorn them: even if they cannot answer the question, their lives are nevertheless shaped by faith in the One whose question they cannot answer. But as we have discussed before (e.g., here), religious education today is sorely lacking.
More worrisome to me are the people who (I believe) think they know the answer to this question. Much of the polemic and division which rends the Church (at least here in the United States) is driven by the moral certitude of the partisans, who are convinced they know the correct answer: often times (and on both sides) convinced they know better than the Church itself. At the heart of this certitude is the mistaken belief that they know the correct answer to Jesus’ question, and this puts them in the position to speak more authoritatively in His name.
Now some of you may be thinking that the pot is calling the kettle black, as I have taken sides (strongly at times!) in these various divisions. Mea culpa. I can only hope that I have never had the temerity to think I was speaking with the certainty that I know Him well enough to speak for Him. Or you may think that I am being inconsistent: on the one hand lamenting the fact that people cannot answer the question, but on the other complaining about people who can. But I think that these things are two sides of the same problem.
So what do you think?
A hat tip to our new deacon, James McCormack, Jr., whose insightful sermon today got me thinking about this question. Please pray for him as he starts to serve our parish.
Update (2 hours after posting): It seems I blogged on this question before, from a different direction.