22 Feb February 2022 Reflection – Michael McFarland SJ


The Chair of St Peter


February 22 is the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, when we celebrate the great gift the Papacy is to the Church. The Gospel for the feast (Mt 16: 13-19), where Jesus chooses Simon Peter for leadership among the disciples, is taken as the foundational text for the Papacy. It offers important insights into the nature and significance of that office. First, Simon was singled out because of his bold profession of Jesus as Savior. In the same way, the authority of the Papacy is rooted in fidelity to Christ and its witness to His saving work, sacrificing His life to set sinners free. Second, Simon is renamed Peter, the Rock. This is the promise that Peter and his successors would be a sign of unity and stability for the community of believers, a trustworthy teacher of God’s Word and a guide on the way of salvation amidst all the confusion, divisions, seductions and threats of a sinful world. At the same time, Jesus talks about how He will “build” His Church on this rock, implying a dynamic process of continual growth, learning and improvement.  Finally, to complete the circle, Jesus entrusts to Peter the healing power of His mercy, giving Peter, and through him the Church, the authority to reconcile, to free people from the crushing burden of sin. This ministry of selfless service, reconciliation and unity in the name of Christ is affirmed in the first reading, which contains Peter’s advice to his priests, “Tend the flock of God in your midst, overseeing not by constraint but willingly, as God would have it, not for shameful profit but eagerly. Do not lord it over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock” (1 Pt 5: 2-3). This is in stark contrast to a secular model that defines the Papacy in terms of power, wealth and control.

Pope Francis has consistently embodied the Gospel view of the Chair of St. Peter through his commitment to collaboration (synodality), his emphasis on family and community (Amoris Laetitita, Fratelli Tutti), his welcome to the excluded, the rejected and the marginalized, and his prophetic teaching on human life and dignity, the environment and social justice. He understands that by being rooted in Christ, we can be faithful to the tradition while always deepening our understanding and adapting to the contemporary world, with the new conditions and challenges it poses. As he wrote in his recent book, Let Us Dream, “There is no contradiction between being solidly rooted in the truth and at the same time being open to a greater understanding. The Spirit continues to guide us in our translating the Good News into different contexts, so that the words of Jesus continue to resound in the hearts of men and women in every age.”

The Society of Jesus was founded by St. Ignatius Loyola to serve the needs of the Church specifically through obedience to the Papacy. He realized early on that to meet the challenges of the then-emerging modern world, the Protestant Reformation and a growing awareness of lands and civilizations beyond Europe, there was a crying need for a well-formed, more prayerful and better-educated clergy and a reaffirmation and rethinking of the Church’s teachings.  \That is why he founded the Roman College. That institution, now the Pontifical Gregorian University, continues the same mission it has had for 470 years, serving the Papacy and the Church by providing solid spiritual and intellectual formation in theology, philosophy, Scripture, canon law, missiology, social sciences and related disciplines to future Church leaders, lay, religious and clerical, from every part of the world. It is now joined by two other Jesuit institutions, the Pontifical Biblical Institute and the Pontifical Oriental Institute, founded at the request of the Popes in the early twentieth century to address specific needs of the Church in an evolving world. These institutions help the Pope and the Vatican think through and respond to contemporary issues with special degree and diploma programs on Catholic social teaching, ecology, Christian-Jewish relations, interreligious dialogue, theology of the family, child protection, dealing with clerical misbehavior, management of Church institutions, and so on.  They also sponsor numerous conferences, symposia and panels on recent Papal teachings such as Amoris Letitia, Fratelli Tutti, and Laudato Si’, as well as many other theological, philosophical and social issues important to the Church. The work of Fr. Yanez on Amoris Laetitia referenced below is a good example. Their faculty serve on many commissions and committees and advise the Vatican in a variety of other ways.

The Formula of the Institute at the beginning of the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus defines the purpose of the Society to be “to serve the Lord alone and the Church, his spouse, under the Roman Pontiff, the vicar of Christ on earth.” The Gregorian University has always been a key instrument in that service, which is why the Society continues to commit such a substantial portion of its own resources, both men and money, to its operation and asks its friends to do the same.

Michael C McFarland, SJ
President, Gregorian University Foundation