The Barque of Peter
In this beautiful homily for 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Father Hanly talks about Christian Unity.
First Reading: Isaiah 8:23–9:3
Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 27:1, 4, 13-14
Second Reading: First Corinthians 1:10-13, 17
Gospel: Matthew 4:12-23 or 4:12-17
Today, as once a year, we gather together to pray for Christian unity.
When I was young, all those years ago, we don’t hear it too much, we always used to talk about the Church as the “barque of Peter.”
The barque of Peter comes from right after today’s gospel, the gospel of the disciples being on the Sea of Galilee and a huge storm blew up and it threatened to sink them all.
And then, suddenly, one of them saw Jesus coming, walking on the water, and Peter says, “If it is you, Lord, let me come to you.” And he leaps out of the boat and travels over the water. And he begins to sink, because he begins to doubt that Jesus really cares. And Jesus reaches out his hand and takes him and brings him back to the boat.
And from that time on, the early Christians felt that the boat, the ark (Noah’s ark), the barque, which is another word for boat, the barque of Peter meant the Church, because Jesus had also said to Peter, “Upon you, Peter, upon this rock, I will build my church.”
And so it was that the barque became the sign and symbol for early Christians that they were in this boat and often they were tossed by the tempests of time and the difficulties of being persecuted and the many things that they needed in order to survive on this rocking water in this rocking boat. And it was then that, of course, Jesus would appear and take them carefully through the storms of life and bring them safely home.
On this story is rooted modern ecumenicalism. Ecumenical movement means that the churches who have been separated for so long, baptised Christian churches so long separated that we begin to think that we are different from them and they are almost a whole different kind of organisation and they are many, many numbers. But it’s not true. We are all in that boat still. We are still in that boat.
I remember my mother when I was young, she would talk about the barque of Peter and she would explain just like I explained to you.
“You see, everybody in that boat has to have an oar and we have to pull and pull and work with Jesus to get us safely to the shore,” she said. “But the trouble with us is that what we do with the oar is, we’re so busy batting each other over the head and fighting over it that the ship should sink.”
But the ship does not sink, because Jesus in all his patience waits for us to learn how to bring that ship to shore eventually and he has great patience.
That is why the churches, finally, after many years of separation and anger and fighting and arguing, are coming closer and closer and closer together.
I’m sure you read in the newspapers this week three Anglican bishops asked to be received back into the Roman Catholic Church. And this was extraordinary.
But the extraordinary thing was not that they were asking to be brought into the Catholic Church, it was they knew they were already in the Catholic Church. And they went to their own bishop, the Anglican bishop, and he gave them permission to leave at that period of time and to come in to the Church, for he understood their hearts and they longed to be one in the barque of Peter.
So when we talk about ecumenicalism, when we talk about the churches coming together, we’re talking about brothers and sisters finally laying down their arms against each other. We are the ones that refuse to be one, not God. We are all one in God. God creates only one church and it’s the church of Jesus. And the disciples of Jesus and everyone who is a disciple of Jesus belongs to it.
And he prayed so hard at the Last Supper, afterwards in the Garden of Gethsemane, which was the place of his torture: “Will these disciples of mine learn how to love each other and care for each other so that the world might know that God is truly among them?”
And we have all these silly arguments and it goes on and on and on.
But there are great lights.
I remember when I was in Taiwan, one night one of our parishioners got sick, and there was a very nice doctor, a Protestant doctor, an Englishman whose father was also a minister before him and he became a doctor and we got to be acquaintances.
But in those days the separation between the churches was very strong, especially in Taiwan, not because of the Taiwanese but because of the missionaries.
We kept insisting that we were right and they were wrong, and we did this and they did that, and bla bla bla. Waste of time, you know, a waste of time. The whole thing’s about love. Yes, you have differences, you have difficulties, but if the whole thing is about love, you learn to settle them just like husbands and wives often have differences and they fight and they make up and they cry and they hold hands. But they never leave sight that they are one. They are one and the whole family depends on them. And the world depends on families. And so it’s time, in a sense, to lay this aside.
Anyhow, Dr Landsborough, wonderful man, I went down and I woke him up. I said, “One of our Christians is in very bad shape.” And he was the only Western doctor in town, so he said, “I’ll go with you.” So we went, saw the patient, he said, “Yes, very serious. We have to go and wake up the Chinese medicine man to find out if he’s got the right medicines in the village.”
So we woke him up and the poor guy comes. And he said, “We need this,” the doctor is saying, “we need this kind of medicine. There’s a sick person there.”
And, of course, the medicine man knew me and he knew Dr Landsborough, because we were the only Westerners in that whole town, in that whole city, really almost.
And so he decided to ask the great question in Chinese which is (something in Chinese) “What’s the difference between (something in Chinese) god of heaven people (that’s the Catholics) and (something in Chinese) the followers of Jesus?”
I was too tired even to think, so I looked at Dr Landsborough and he looked back at me and he said to this gentleman in perfect Taiwanese, “Once we were one and now we’re divided, but in our hearts we hope that in the future we will be one once again.” Very wonderful, you know. I wish I had said it. I didn’t even think of it. But there it was.
The Pope this week spoke about coming together. I know there is a lot of coming together now. I used to teach in a Protestant seminary. That’s how together we are. And in a fundamentalist Protestant seminary. I was invited in New York City when I was working at Maryknoll to give lectures, not on church unity but on the crisis that was going on in the cities at that time during the ’60s with the tremendous changes and the great immigration in and around Brooklyn and New York at the time.
Anyhow the Pope has come out this week and he has said that he would like us all to join the major people of the highest part of our religion and their religion together and pray during this week. And he mentioned four things that we should always remember.
These four things are: we are one already, a crippled one, a torn one, but we are one already.
We are one in teaching. And what is the teaching? The teaching of the apostles. Everybody that’s a Christian believes in the teaching and the teaching of the apostles, but we forget little elements like, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” “All men know that you are my disciples when you show your love and concern and compassion for each other,” we forget that one.
We argue about history and we argue about theology and we argue about everything that isn’t that important now. So the first one is we’re one in teaching: the teachings of Jesus.
The second thing that makes us one is we’re in communities. Jesus came to make sure that we weren’t individuals believing in God, but that we would form communities, groups of people, people who could understand where they came from, their background, different races, different religions, different everything and come as one because we are in a fraternal communion with each other. This has nothing to do with Protestant, Catholic, this, that or the other thing.
The third thing we all share in is the breaking of the bread. In those days, the breaking of the bread meant, for us Catholics, the Last Supper, and for Protestants, the Last Supper, because all venerate the Last Supper.
And you remember when Jesus took the bread and he said, “This is my body. Take this and eat. This is me. This is my body.” And he took the chalice and said, “Take this now and drink of it for this is my blood which is being poured out for all of you,” the whole world, not just for a group of Catholics at Mass, for the whole world.
“And whenever you come together remember that and to do these things.” Break the bread, pour the wine, that you might know that you are one with God because Jesus says, “This is me.” And Jesus is one with the Father, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, and he brings us all into a unity with God in the breaking of the bread.
Now, every Protestant group I know has some sort of breaking of the bread. They don’t drink wine, many of them. They drink, instead, grape juice. But there is the sign and symbol that makes us all one as brothers and sisters before God.
And, of course, the third thing we all share, and everybody does this, is prayer. No matter how far you might have left the Sacraments, you’re always going to pray in times of trouble. We always come back to prayer in groups, individuals, large numbers.
And this is what the Pope says. This is the cornerstone that makes all of us who are Christians one.
And what’s left? Understanding. Understanding! We have a task to understand more and more that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, that the divisions that we have set up for ourselves are wrong. They were never intended by God. They were never intended by Jesus.
Jesus is one with us all, whether we’re Protestant, Catholic, whether we’ve come from other religions, because the unity of God means that all men are brothers and sisters.
And as the Chinese say, I love this saying: (something in Chinese) “Under heaven, one family.” It’s Chinese New Year’s time. One of the things that’s wonderful about the Chinese New Year, it’s a celebration. A celebration of what? A celebration of family unity.
My first time in Taiwan, a wonderful Taiwanese doctor invited me to have the (something in Chinese) with his family. In Taiwan that was a very rare gift to give someone because it was only for the family. And there we sat together, me from Brooklyn and he from Taiwan with his family. And he was also a Protestant and, not only a Protestant, he was a Protestant minister, a Presbyterian.
And how did I get to know him? Because he went to intern in a place in Brooklyn and my mother was in charge of social service. And she saw he was a bit lost so she brought him home and he became a member of our family.
And now we have it, in Taiwan, with all the missionaries fighting back and forth, I am sitting to the (something in Chinese) with this lovely Presbyterian doctor and his family. And we’re cutting across race, history, everything that separated us, including the division of churches. And that’s the way it should be and that’s what we strive for.
Remember we are already brothers and sisters. It’s up to us to express it, not as fighting brothers and sisters, not as brothers and sisters in a family that can’t get along, but finally giving up and knowing that family unity can change the world. And family love is the strongest force in any society.
And that is why I think today is a very special day. Because we know that to be one with each other, and only when we’re one with each other can we really say, we are one with God.