Sunday, June 29, 2008

Peter and Paul: Two Men Who Were Honest About Their Shortcomings

The former governor of New York

(Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul 2008: This homily was given on June 29, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Acts 12: 1-11; 2 Timothy 4: 6-8, 17-18; Matthew 16: 13-19.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Peter and Paul 2008]

Most leaders try their best to project a good image to others—which is not always a bad thing, since it’s important for people to have confidence in their leaders. But some men and women in positions of leadership definitely do go to extremes these days. In fact, on the very day I was preparing this homily, I happened to hear that Kobe Bryant—the recognized leader of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team—had a manicure and a pedicure between games 1 and 2 of this year’s NBA finals.

I don’t know if that made him play any better—I don’t know if it helped him to lead his team more effectively on the basketball court—but it did make him “look better” to the fans and to his teammates (at least he thought it did)!

The danger, of course, in all this is that a person’s image becomes more important than his ability and moral character. I’ve met people, for example, who don’t know the positions of John McCain and Barak Obama on any of the crucial issues facing our nation right now, and yet they’ve already decided which of the two they intend to vote for in November!

They’re reasoning is, “Well, he looks better” or “he sounds better” or “he seems better.”

Image over substance.

How different St. Peter and St. Paul were!

Here we have, arguably, the two greatest leaders in the history of the Church, and yet what has to strike you when you read the Scriptures is how brutally honest they both were about their own weaknesses and failings.

Since St. Mark was a disciple of St. Peter, it is said that Mark’s Gospel is actually the Gospel that Peter preached during his ministry. And yet, Mark’s Gospel doesn’t hide any of Peter’s failings (which means that Peter himself didn’t try to hide his failings!). Mark records Peter’s denials of Jesus on Holy Thursday night; he records Peter’s failure to believe in the resurrection when he was first told about it; he even records the scene at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!”

Peter also wrote two New Testament letters. He begins the second one with these revealing words: “Simon Peter, a slave and apostle of Jesus Christ.” Simon, remember, was his name before he met Jesus; it was a name that signified for Peter his human weakness. So even though he was now Peter, the first pope and the Rock upon which the Church was built, at the same time in his own mind he was still “Simon”—the weak, frail, human sinner. And yes, he was an apostle—the chief of the apostles—but at the same time he was also a “doulos”—a slave (something he also mentions here).

Obviously St. Peter was not obsessed with his image! No manicures or pedicures for him!

And neither was St. Paul obsessed with his. In fact, in 1Timothy, chapter 1, he says of himself: “I was once a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man filled with arrogance”; a little later on in that same chapter he calls himself “the worst of sinners”.

That was not unusual for Paul. He does something similar in 1 Corinthians 15 and in 2 Corinthians 12.

These two great apostles were humble, and honest, and “real”—all of which makes their message about Jesus Christ much more credible, I would say! If they had been dishonest about themselves and had denied their own sins and failings, I’d suspect that they were also being dishonest in some way about Jesus.

But since they were completely up front about their own moral and spiritual “warts,” I’m inclined to believe that they were also being completely honest in what they said about Jesus being the all-perfect and all-holy Son of God!

So today’s lesson is simple: We should not be afraid to admit our mistakes, weaknesses, and sins to others when it’s helpful and when it’s appropriate—even when we’re in positions of leadership.

Now please don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying that we should make public confessions to everyone we meet on the street—that would be imprudent and downright foolish! But we all need to say we’re sorry from time to time—especially to those within our own families. That’s one setting where it’s most helpful and most appropriate to come clean about our sins and failings. As we are all well aware, nothing undermines and destroys a family as quickly and as effectively as unacknowledged and unrepented sin!

But even beyond those situations where forgiveness and reconciliation are necessary, the fact is we all need a little guidance from time to time. We need to share our weaknesses and struggles with other people who have the ability to encourage us, support us, console us—and challenge us when necessary! Keep this in mind: A weakness that is totally hidden and completely denied is very often a scandal waiting to happen! And if you don’t believe me, ask someone like former New York governor Eliot Spitzer. If that man had shared his struggle with sexual temptation with another caring human being who could have helped him deal with it effectively, he’d probably still be governor. He wouldn’t have had to resign in disgrace.

Peter and Paul were open and honest about their sins and inner struggles. And it’s that openness and honesty that helped them to become great saints—as well as great leaders.

Saints Peter and Paul pray for us: pray that we will follow your example and be willing to admit our mistakes and weaknesses and sins to other people when it’s appropriate—beginning in the confessional, where we receive special graces to cope with our inner struggles, and forgiveness for our sins.