As the Holy Father lifted up the Blessed Sacrament in its monstrance last Friday, to impart his blessing, Urbi et Orbi, to the city of Rome and to the world, one of the members of my household got down on her knees in the living room before the big TV. She bowed her head, to receive the blessing. And then so did everyone else, following her lead. By the time the blessing was over, all of us were in tears, struck by the profundity of what we had just witnessed. Perhaps you too were deeply moved. Why? The answer, I think, lies in some fundamental truths of Catholicism.
One truth, so obviously on display last Friday, is the rootedness of our piety in objective realities, which have a power prior to our believing that they do. How better to show that the grace of God comes ultimately from “the work performed for us by Christ” (ex opere operato), than to empty the Vatican and St. Peter’s Square of all the faithful? And yet although “we” were not there, God was there, in the Blessed Sacrament, and God blessed us. This enduring truth was vividly manifested for us, in the here and now, on television and other screens.
Another truth was that the whole Church was there, even though “we” were not there, because Peter was there. When we watch a livestreamed Mass on television – there are many excellent ones now, and I am grateful for them – we are not attending that Mass. We are praying along with the Mass. It’s a fine point, but I doubt even that the priest’s blessing at the end comes directly to distant viewers. And yet we did attend the Holy Father’s Eucharistic Adoration last Friday; and his blessing did radiate out through the city and, to us, in the world.
The truth at work here is ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia, “where Peter is, there is the Church.” If Peter worships, the Church worships. If Peter adores, the Church adores. If Peter implores, the Church implores.
That maxim derives from St. Ambrose, in his commentary on Psalm 40 (which we know as Ps. 41). To explain the line, “Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted his heel against me,” St. Ambrose brings in Gen 49:17-18: “Let Dan be a snake in the way, a serpent in the path, that biteth the horse’s heels, that his rider may fall backward. I will look for thy salvation, O Lord.”
St. Ambrose says that, likewise, although sinners may try to trip up the Lord by deceits and deceptions, he triumphs over them by “falling back” on us and saving us. He has to fall back to do so, not forward, St. Ambrose explains, because “everyone is after him; no one is before him. . . .by falling upon us, he softens the hardness of our hearts.”
Then the saint goes on: “Listen to how he would fall on the Church! Peter was behind him. He was following him, when he was led by the Jews to the house of Caiaphas, the chief of the Synagogue. This was the very Peter to whom he said, ‘You are Peter, and upon this rock I shall build my Church (Mt. 16:18).’ Therefore, where Peter is, there the Church is: where the Church is, there death no longer is, but eternal life,” (Migne, Patrologia Latina, 14, 1133a-34b).
Yes, St. Ambrose knows that Peter would deny Jesus then and there, but no matter: his role, his office, was to be the rock on which the Church is built, and through this office the Church was in him, regardless of his clear personal failing.
Another profound truth exhibited for us is the reality of Christ’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament. There he remains with us, concretely. After all, we saw Francis, the Holy Father, beloved and admired by billions around the world, put everything aside, and simply sit before the Blessed Sacrament, to pray and to adore. He thereby invited us to do the same, and not simply then:
The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits, and priorities. It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain, and strengthen our lives and our communities.
St. Pope John Paul II wrote a magnificent Apostolic Letter likening the Lord’s continuing presence to his friendship with the men walking to Emmaus, Mane nobiscum Domine : “The presence of Jesus in the tabernacle must be a kind of magnetic pole attracting an ever greater number of souls enamored of him.”
We’d do well to meditate on this letter now, and make resolutions for when the churches re-open.
Pope Francis exemplified this truth very clearly last Friday. At the same time, he presented a striking and (I believe) original analogy: the Lord in the tabernacle is as if the Lord sleeping in the back of the boat. He may appear imperceptive and unconcerned, but he will arise and help us if only we go to him and ask for his help in faith.
Jesus in entrusting his Mother to St. John (Jn 19:27) showed that she would be the easy path to the “softened hearts” that he desires. Finally, we saw this truth, too, in the Holy Father’s invocation of Mary, salus populi Romani:
Dear brothers and sisters, from this place that tells of Peter’s rock-solid faith, I would like this evening to entrust all of you to the Lord, through the intercession of Mary, Health of the People and Star of the stormy Sea. From this colonnade that embraces Rome and the whole world, may God’s blessing come down upon you as a consoling embrace.
Quis est homo qui non fleret? Who among us could fail to be deeply moved?