My dear People of God, we are invited today to give thanks to God for the gift of faith with which we have been blessed; to thank Our Blessed Lord for establishing His Church on the abiding foundation Rock of His Good News proclaimed by Peter and Paul and the Apostolic College; and finally to express our gratitude for the witness given by both Peter and Paul in Rome.
In the infant Church there were certain people who claimed to have knowledge of some teachings of Jesus hidden from the general body of disciples, teachings which only those could learn who had been specially initiated by rituals of a secret nature. For such people, the faith of the simple Christian was only the beginning; the first step indeed but not, of itself, enough for deep intimacy with God in Jesus.
All those who fought the very idea of such secret doctrines did so stating that:
The authentic Christian teaching is addressed to all Christians; and is essentially based on, and to be found in, the New Testament and other public and Holy Scriptures of Mother Church;
The faith taught publicly in the Church is guaranteed by the fact that it is one with, and truly expressive of, the traditional Church presentation of the original Good News of Jesus given to the Apostles and handed down to subsequent ages through the unbroken line of their successors.
In that way it was made clear that the fullness of the authentic teaching of Jesus is open and available to all in the Church.
You must remember that in the early centuries of the Church there were no printed books; what books there were had to be copied by hand and were difficult to find and very expensive to buy: there were few roads, and the best of them -- though direct -- could only facilitate slow transport by horses and wheeled carriage, while transport by sea was very slow due to ships having to wait for favourable winds and tides; and, of course, both modes of transport were open to attack by robbers and pirates. All this meant that the Church in each town generally preached what it had received at the beginning of its foundation from the wandering teachers who first came and proclaimed Christ to them and baptised them in His name. These teachers were all accepted as true disciples of Jesus risking their lives to proclaim His Gospel, but those with the greatest authority were, of course, the twelve apostles and their closest associates. Those churches founded personally by an apostle, or where an apostle was known to have been active, were specially respected. Above all, however, churches whose apostle had not only worked among them but had died and was buried in their midst in a tomb open to veneration, such churches were, indeed, shown the very greatest respect and their tradition of faith was recognized as being most sure. Such churches could be found, for example, at Antioch in Syria, at Philippi, Ephesus, Corinth, and Thessalonica. But even among these “super” churches with “surer” faith because of the originating apostolic presence and witness, even among these, there was one which stood head and shoulders above all others, and that was the church at Rome, where both Peter, the Rock on which Jesus had said He would build His Church, and Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles, had both worked and, indeed, suffered martyrdom for their unflinching witness to the truth of Jesus. If any church could remain free from heresy, if any church could preserve the teaching of Jesus in its purest integrity, it had to be the church at Rome.
All, therefore, who wanted to know the true teaching of Jesus would find it proclaimed most fully and surely in the apostolic churches, above all in the church at Rome. That true faith in Jesus and His teaching was known as the Catholic faith, because “catholic” means “universal”, and that faith was proclaimed in Christian churches all over the known world because all were teaching the doctrine of the apostolic churches, and, above all, the doctrine proclaimed by the church at Rome. The Catholic Church, was one and potentially universal because it was present in local churches to be found in cities, towns, and countryside, throughout the known world, proclaiming the one catholic faith received from Paul and the original apostolic college, and sealed, confirmed, by the witness and authority of Peter the Rock. And even today, we above all, are rightly called Christians because we believe and proclaim the authentic Catholic faith.
Let me just give you the words of two of the earliest fathers and writers in the universal Church concerning the church at Rome. First of all the words of St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in France, whose memory we celebrated yesterday, and who was writing about the year 185, having been taught himself by St. Polycarp who had heard the Good News from the lips of St. John the Evangelist:
We do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre-eminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolic tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere. (Adv. Haer. III, 3, 2.)
Let us now listen to another very early witness to the Church:
Come now you who would indulge a better curiosity if you would apply it to the business of your salvation, run over the apostolic churches in which the very thrones of the apostles are still pre-eminent in their places, in which their own authentic writings are read, uttering the voice and representing the face of each of them severally. Achaia is very near you, (in which) you find Corinth. Since you are not far from Macedonia, you have Philippi; (and there too) you have the Thessalonians. Since you are able to cross to Asia, you get Ephesus. Since, moreover, you are close upon Italy, you have Rome, from which there comes even into our own hands the very authority (of apostles themselves). How happy is its church, on which apostles poured forth all their doctrine along with their blood! Where Peter endures a passion like his Lord’s! Where Paul wins his crown in a death like John the Baptist, and where the Apostle John was first plunged, unhurt, into boiling oil, and thence remitted to his island-exile! …One Lord God does she acknowledge, the Creator of the universe, and Christ Jesus (born) of the Virgin Mary, the Son of God the Creator; and the Resurrection of the flesh; the law and the prophets she unites in one volume with the writings of evangelists and apostles, from which she drinks in her faith. This she seals with the water (of baptism), arrays with the Holy Ghost, feeds with the Eucharist, cheers with martyrdom, and against such a discipline thus (maintained) she admits no gainsayer.
Those words were written by one called Tertullian, a famous and influential figure in the early Church who lived from 160 onwards.
There are so very many ancient witnesses to the unique position of Rome in the Church! Were there disputes about the faith? Rome was asked to decide. Was anyone being persecuted for upholding Catholic truth? Such a person would go to Rome seeking sanctuary and support. Were innovators seducing the faithful? The example of Rome was invoked and her help sought, because she was known never to have been deceived by innovations detrimental to the tradition she had received from Peter and Paul.
In our present world of change and uncertainty, where faith is often denied and tradition ridiculed, we should be both grateful for, and proud of, the blessing we have received: the supreme blessing and gift of the one, true, faith proclaimed by Paul and guaranteed by Peter; the inviolate faith, preserved and revealed in the one Church of Christ through the power of the Spirit of holiness and truth bequeathed to her by the Lord. And for so great a blessing each and every one of us should, on this feast above all, give most heartfelt thanks to God our loving Father whilst offering most sincere prayers that mother Church, under the guidance of Peter the Apostle in the figure of the present Pope, might continue to further the fulfillment of the work Jesus originally committed to her charge. Though the world criticizes and even persecutes Mother Church, we -- her children -- must ever remember and unceasingly call to mind that Jesus is always with her as He promised, and that, just as He committed His mother Mary to John the Apostle's care, so also He commits Mother Church to our active care and loving service, not just to our plaints and cries:
Jesus said to His disciples, "The harvest is abundant but the labourers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out labourers for His harvest
All power in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age." (Matthew 9:37-38; 28: 18-20)