Acts 12, 1-11; 2Tim 4,6-8.17-18; Matt 16, 13-19
Custos of the Holy Land,
Dear brothers and sisters,
May the Lord give you peace!
Today, as per tradition, the Church of Jerusalem celebrates the Solemnity of Saint Peter and Paul, but not only that! We also rejoice with the friars of the Custody of the Holy Land over the new priests entering the service of the Church within the Franciscan Order.
From today’s readings, I would like to point out a few elements, which reveal the character of St. Peter and St. Paul, but also give meaning to our daily life.
These are the same readings we hear every year. But they remain a treasure from which we can always "draw both the new and the old" (Mt 13:52) from.
I would like to pause for a moment on St. Paul, specifically on the second reading, which we tend to overlook.
Apostle Paul described his life as a constant battle. So often in his letters, he uses the imagery of a battle to resemble faith (1 Cor 14:8, 2 Corinth 10:3, Ephesians 6:12, 1 Tim 1:18; 6:12, 2Tim 4:7). An example of that is the well-known phrase: “Compete well for the faith” (1 Tim 6:12). The image of a battle may not fit well with today’s culture that yearns for peace. Although, I must admit that it fits very well with our ever so violent context, here, in the Holy Land. However, we are more likely to associate faith with a journey; an encounter; an experience; a relationship; a choice…etc. But, faith as a battle seems more foreign to us. Apostle Paul goes even further to describe it as a “good” battle.
Elsewhere, the apostle explains clearly that it isn’t a carnal battle, which means going against someone, or imposing oneself on others by fighting. But a battle "with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits…” (Eph. 6:12). In another passage, he further explains: "For, although we are in the flesh, we do not battle according to the flesh" (2 Cor. 10:3).
To sum up, St. Paul says that faith certainly is a relationship and a personal encounter with Christ, but it’s also a life-changing choice that must endure rejection, opposition, and misunderstanding. It needs to be ready to confront infidelity, sin, and the shadows of death, which are both within us and outside us. This requires us to remain vigilant and ready like sentinels, always on guard to not give the enemy a foothold in our lives. And never giving up or tiring.
Ultimately, with this imagery, apostle Paul reminds us that we must be under no illusion: Although the Christian life remains gracious and filled with serenity, yet it demands firmness and clarity. First, with ourselves, in our inner being, and then in the bearing of witness to others.
The early Christian martyrs and contemporary testimonies of martyrdom, testify that today’s faith is still a "good fight," it is a struggle (see also Lk. 22:44). Each person is called to constantly protect and guard his/her relationship with God, through faithfulness, love, and steadfastness. Without relenting!
You, dear brothers, are not asked to give witness through martyrdom, yet this imagery of Paul also applies to you. First, in your life of faith, and second in your priestly life, as you are called to be brothers, fellow travelers, friends, fathers, and teachers. But you must also be soldiers, defending the faith and guarding it carefully, in your personal life through prayer and study; in the life of the Church through preaching and teaching, and finally in respect to the world, which will always seek to dilute the purity of your faith.
You will be called to be close to the communities entrusted to you; to accompany them in transitions; to rejoice with them; to console those who mourn, to reassure the doubtful, to encourage the disheartened, to support the weak. In a nutshell, you are called to carry out the normal duties of a priest, who gave his life to the Church. Still, you will also have to be ready, like soldiers in a battle. To defend yourselves from the temptations of the present time, which in different forms and ways, today as then, wants to render harmless the Christian faith. Our faith requires us to be fervent, to run with perseverance, and keep the flame of love continuously burning in our hearts.
It is not something to accomplish in your own strength. In the same passage, St. Paul adds: "But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the proclamation might be completed, and all the Gentiles might hear it" (2 Tim. 4:17). You can entrust yourself to the Lord, in life, and in death, the Lord will be close to you and sustain you. He will do so through your Franciscan community, to whom you belong; the Church; and through the many brothers and sisters you will meet during your priestly ministry.
The Gospel reading, which befell in Caesarea, takes us a step further in our reflection.
Jesus asks the fundamental question, which is at the origin of our faith and your vocation: " Who do you say that I am?” (Mt 16:13, 15). The whole Christian life revolves around this central question.
This isn’t a new question. The entire Gospel particularly answers this question, which was asked by many. It was asked by those who saw Him calm the Storm at the sea (Mt 8:27); by John the Baptist from prison (Mt 11:3); and the same question rose again in Matthew's Gospel (21:10) when Jesus entered Jerusalem and the whole city was shaken and stood in wonder saying, “Who is this?”
However, in Caesarea, the question was asked directly by Jesus to challenge and provoke His disciples. This is the only difference between this context and the others. The same question is directed at you today. You will not be able to proclaim and defend the faith, if you do not ask yourself, day after day, this central question: "Who is Jesus for me?” And if you do not jealously guard your personal relationship with Him. Your whole life as priests will hinge on this question, and on the answer, which you will give from time to time.
It will never be the same answer. Because for it to be true and honest it must come from personal encounters, and from different life experiences, which will include small and great failures, moments of loneliness, and misunderstandings, as well as moments of joy and consolation. This is essentially what the Apostle Paul is highlighting in the second reading: Although he was abandoned by all, close to death, and in prison, he nevertheless saw the Lord as his strength. And in a state of impoverishment and loneliness, the Lord was faithful to Him.
Therefore, you too, whatever circumstance you find yourself in, don’t stop asking yourselves: "Who is Jesus for me?" And keep alive your relationship with Him, which gives meaning to your priestly ministry. Do not expect people to listen to your sermons about Jesus if they cannot get an answer to that central question through the testimony of your life.
If you know how to keep the love of Christ, which has won you over, alive in your heart (see 2 Cor. 5:14), and if that question truly gives meaning to your priestly life, then, you will surely become defenders of the faith and courageous fighters in the "good battle." For a faith lived out with boldness, becomes a living testimony for others. The two always go hand in hand.
Take courage then! The Church needs good fighters of the Faith. Soldiers who know how to fight against worldly thinking using the weapons of light (Rom 13:12), and justice (2 Cor 6:7). But also, those who with an unwavering love, take care of their brothers and sisters in the communities they have been entrusted to.
I am certain that today the Church will have four new "peaceful fighters" of the Faith. Guardians and defenders of this Love; that redeemed the world; that captivated you; and saturates those who follow it with true peace.
Jerusalem, June 29th, 2023
Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem