The setting of today’s Gospel is like a cross between Lourdes and Las Vegas.
Caesarea Philippi is like Lourdes because there was a grotto and spring there, which was a place of pilgrimage. The Greeks built a pagan Temple dedicated to Pan at the grotto.
Caesarea Philippi is like Las Vegas because it was a place of outrageous excess. Immoral rituals occurred in the temple sanctuary. Sacrifices were thrown into the cave. If victims disappeared into the water, that was a sign that Pan had accepted the sacrifice. But if blood from the sacrifice turned the spring red, that was a sign of Pan’s displeasure.
For all these reasons, “Pan’s Grotto” was also known as “the Gates of Hell,” or a portal into the underworld.
So that’s the setting of today’s Gospel. Our Lord obviously planned this interaction with his disciples. “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” he asks. But he probably wasn’t very interested in the answer. That was just a lead in to his second question. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter gets it right! So Jesus then makes one of those divine calls which resonate down the ages — as significant as God’s covenant with Abraham, and His Law given to Moses.
“You are Peter and on this rock I will build my –”
We know how it finishes. Jesus doesn’t say, “I will build my Temple.” He doesn’t say, “I will build my Synagogue.” But in that same spirit, nor does he say, “I will build my Church.” In this instance, the English language betrays our Lord’s meaning.
What our Lord actually says is, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my ἐκκλησία.” “My gathering of people.” “My popular movement.”
It’s an important distinction. A growing movement has to grow and has to move. But the very human response is to build walls which contain that movement. So maybe there’s some psychological explanation to the English translation of ἐκκλησία. “Church” doubles as our Lord’s assembly, and the buildings in which they gather. Strictly speaking, an ἐκκλησία is a constant work in progress, but a church is a finished structure.
This contrast was underlined at an Evangelisation conference I’ve just returned from. The whole focus of the conference was on the parish. How to inspire the churched. How to attract the unchurched. How to rebuild our Lord’s popular movement.
The conference was attended by 500 people from all over the country. Nearly ten per cent of those people came from parishes in the Ballarat diocese. This is a huge investment of people, time and money from a small diocese.
This week’s conference showed how we can arrest the Church’s decline, and get the movement growing again. In the weeks and months ahead, you’ll hear how we can do this at a parish level. You and I need only look around this church to see one symptom of the decline. There’s lots of empty pews.
We can look at our own families and see something similar. There we find people whom we love, people whom Our Lord loves, people who love our Lord, but they’re not going to Mass. It’s discouraging. It’s disheartening. It can foster something like the Church’s decline in our own hearts.
But today’s Gospel reminds us that the Church Jesus built isn’t about walls and structures. It’s a popular movement. A work in progress. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it.