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 used to read this line and picture the Church being battered and attacked by the devil, but ultimately prevailing. But recently it was pointed out to me (and I can’t remember where!) that this actually is the opposite scene: the gates of the netherworld are being attacked by the Church. And they will not prevail. This is not just a statement on the endurance of the Church through ages of persecution; it is even bolder than that. This says that the Church will be an active force for good in the world, so strong that it will dismantle structures of sin and evil.
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, and we reflect upon the role of the Church in our lives. When I think of all the many ways the Church has influenced me personally, of how my life has changed because of the Sacraments, of all the people I never would have known if not through the Church—it is overwhelming. Christ could have chosen to reveal Himself to each of us individually and privately, but instead He chose to minister to us through the Church. He founded a Church that would bring us all together into one interconnected Body.
We are designed for community; we are meant to need the support of the Church in order to thrive. Think of how the Catholic sacraments are structured. In order to receive absolution, we have to actually show up at church and articulate our sins, out loud, to ourselves and to a priest—and thus to God. In order to receive the Eucharist—the living, physical presence of God Himself—we have to show up; we have to be physically present, exactly as we are; we have to come together as a community of Christians. God made it this way on purpose. He knows that without that structure and accountability, we would have the tendency to distance ourselves from one another, to rationalize our faults and weaknesses so that we didn’t have to reveal our wounds to other people. But how would He reach us if not through each other? If every man is an island, there is no room for God to do His work. We are not meant to be able to go it alone.
Allowing others to see us for who we really are, with all our defects, is humbling—but this is how we are truly nourished and healed. It can be difficult to have the humility, patience, and forgiveness required to foster and maintain community, but it is always worth it. I have been reminded many times recently of just how much I really need community, and how grateful I am for the times God has led me to friends I didn’t know I needed. It can be so freeing to have an honest conversation with someone about both our struggles and our joys, to support one another, and to realize that we are not alone. I don’t have to pretend to have it all together or try to impress people; I just need to show up, be present, and leave room for grace. (Think of who Jesus picked to be the first shepherd of the Church—the ever-imperfect, yet penitent, Peter.) And I am called to be part of a Church that continually draws people in to this kind of community.
By our coming together, allowing the barriers between us to fall away, accepting each other for who we really are: this is how the gates of the netherworld will fall.