With yesterday’s feast of the Confession of St. Peter and the Gospel reading appointed for it (Matthew 16:13-19), I’m reminded of one of my pet peeves on the interpretation of said passage. Correcting this interpretation seems particularly appropriate at the given moment.
Here’s what Jesus says in part: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”
The issue is with the last part.
The way I see this passage typically read is through the lens of a fortress mentality. That is, we have to hold the line with the church, we have to crouch behind some kind of doctrinal bulwark in order to not be overcome by the devil and his minions. Usually some kind of infallibility is invoked here—whether papal or biblical—to assert that only within this circumscribed space can we be spiritually safe.
This is a complete failure to correctly interpret the metaphor.
Yes, Simon Bar Jonah receives the name Kephas (in Aramaic), Petros (in Greek), or Rocky (in English.) And he is a central foundation upon which the Church is built. However, even though a rock is an excellent place to build a fortress, a defensive structure, that’s not the point. Jesus does not inform Peter and us that the gates of the Church will thereby be safe—because they’ve got a great defensive setup. Rather he informs them that the gates of Hades will not prevail against them.
The Church here is not defensive; it is offensive. This isn’t about sheltering within the Church to stay safe. It’s about having a firm foundation from which to sally forth and conquer Hell.
We as the Church are called to be on the offense against “all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God . . . the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God . . . the sinful desires that draw us from the love of God.” This is the calling of Baptism. To be sure, this is an offensive characterized by the virtues of Christ—humility, love, and compassion—but holding firm to truth and justice and conviction nonetheless.
The calling of the Church is to conquer, not to cower.