Mass Text - Latin
Mass Text - English
Saint John tells us that “God sent His Son into the world ... so that the world might be saved through Him.”[ii] And Saint Matthew tells us that at the end of His time on earth, probably just before His ascension into heaven, our Lord commissioned the Apostles to go into the world, baptizing all the nations, making disciples of them , and teaching them to observe all He had commanded.[iii] He was “going to the Father, and the Apostles would see Him no more—but, again in a little while, they would see Him again.”[iv] The second “little while” was, of course, the brief span of life on earth before each of His loyal disciples would join Him in the kingdom of heaven.
Implicit in this story is the notion of “hierarchy.” From the Father, the Son proceeds down to creation. The Son sacramentally raises up some of His creatures (the Apostles) so that they might be like Him (“other Christs”) in their ability to preach and to sanctify. And He sends these “other Christs” to “all the nations”: “Go into the world and preach the Gospel to every creature.”[v] And, if all of this is done successfully, the peoples of the world will after “a little while” be taken up to heaven, there to be judged by Jesus and His Apostles, and ultimately to be taken up to the perpetual enjoyment of seeing and knowing God in Himself.
In today’s epistle, Saint Peter also addresses this idea of “hierarchy.”[vi] We Christians are to teach the pagans by our good example, that they also may learn to glorify God. We are to be subject to the authorities of this world, without complaint, “for God’s sake.” Citizens are to be subject to their rulers, servants to their masters, (and in the next chapter) wives to their husbands, and husbands in return honoring their wives.[vii] There is even an admonition to be “merciful, compassionate, and humble lovers of all the brethren.... the eyes of the Lord are on the just.... the face of the Lord is against those who do evil”[viii] Saint Peter’s comments, by the way, are echoed in Saint Paul’s writings as well; chiefly in his epistles to the Romans, the Corinthians and the Ephesians.[ix]
If we had read just a little bit more of Saint Peter’s epistle, we would have heard one of the two reasons why we Christians are expected to subject ourselves to hierarchy of the world, even though we may find that somewhat restrictive and burdensome. He says:
It is indeed a grace, if, for consciousness of God, anyone endures sorrows, suffering unjustly.... because Christ also has suffered for us... who, when He suffered, did not threaten.... who Himself bore our sins in His body upon the tree [of the Cross], that having died to sin, we might live to justice.[x]
Peter is saying that by accepting our state in life; its difficulties and its disappointments, along with its joys; we become Christ like, and more “acceptable to God.”
As well, Saint Paul suggests another reason for earthly obedience. And it is useful to note that both Peter and Paul wrote at a time when the Catholic Church had exactly no civil authority, and, indeed, often found Itself persecuted by the officials of the Jews and the Romans. “There exists no authority except from God,” Saint Paul tells us.[xi] We heard our Lord say the same thing when He was taken before the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate: “You would have no power at all over Me, if it were not given to you from above.”[xii]
Centuries later, at a time when the Church held immense political power, Saint Thomas Aquinas would come along and explain why even pagan societies (like Roman society at the time of Christ, or Islamic society in Saint Thomas’ time) could legitimately rule their subjects and compel obedience from them. “All laws,” Saint Thomas says, “as long as they partake of right reason, are derived from the eternal law.” Government, he is saying, derives legitimacy by governing according to the laws of God.[xiii] The natural law is, as it were, “the Maker’s instructions for the operation of His universe.” Rulers will always be imperfect, but their rule remains legitimate as long as it humanly approximates the natural law, and does not lay oppressive burdens on its citizens.
As the purpose of law is to provide for the common good, “the making of law belongs either to the whole people, or to a public personage who has care of the whole people.”[xiv] To the modern reader, this may suggest a sort of government by social contract, but it is not. To Saint Thomas, it meant that all people have an interest in seeing God's laws carried out on earth. They may see to this interest personally or delegate it to a representative. In either event, it remains God's law, and not the “will of the people.” Law binds everyone, including those who are charged with making and enforcing it.[xv]
For those of us who live under some form of government by the people through their elected representatives, this imposes an important obligation. We are responsible for the legitimacy of our government; responsible for seeing to it that its laws and policies and actions closely approximate the natural laws of God. We have a positive obligation to know what is being done in our name, to understand its consequences, and to use our rights as citizens to demand the most legitimate government possible.
The burdens of citizenship and obedience may sometimes be difficult. Likewise, there are difficulties of family life. But all of these obligations must be accepted with mercy, compassion, humility, and even love. Accepting them will make us Christ-like, and acceptable to God. Our time on earth is but “a little while.” Like the woman suffering the pains of childbirth, there will come a time when we will be delivered, and our sorrow shall be turned into joy, if we but persevere in the obligations of the Faith.
“A little while ... and I will see you
[i] Gospel: John xvi: 16-22.
[ii] John iii: 17
[iii] Cf. Matthew xxviii: 19-20.
[iv] Ibid, John xvi.
[v] Matthew ibid.; Mark xvi:15.
[vi] 1 Peter ii: 11-19
[vii] 1 Peter iii: 1-7.
[viii] 1 Peter iii:8-9, 12 (quoting Psalm 33).
[ix] Cf Romans xiii; 1 Corinthians vii, xi; Ephesians v-vi.
[x] 1 Peter ii: 20-25.
[xi] Romans xiii: i.
[xii] John xix: 11.
[xiii] Summa Theologica Ia-IIæ. Q. 93.
[xiv] Summa Theologica Ia-IIæ. Q. 90, a. 3.
[xv] Summa Theologica Ia-IIæ. Q. 96, a. 5.