Homily of Bishop Niall Coll at Order of Malta Investiture Mass

Homily of Bishop Niall Coll, Bishop of Ossory

Order of Malta Investiture Mass, St Mary’s Church, Haddington Road, Dublin

29 June 2024

Happily, many of you, members of the Order of Malta in Ireland, gather today in faith and friendship to worship God, partake in the Ceremony of Investiture and pray to be renewed and strengthened in your particular ministry in the service of the Church.

Interestingly, today happens to be the Solemnity of two of the greatest Christian saints, Peter and Paul, a feast which honours the belief that both of their missionary journeys two millennia ago lead them to Rome, the epicentre of the Roman Empire. The place to which all roads at the time were said to lead. There, at different times, both would be martyred for their faith in Christ.

Tradition, tell us that Peter was crucified upside down and Paul beheaded. Peter, tradition recognises as the city’s first bishop and Paul as the fearless preacher, teacher and theologian.

As I know from my student days in Rome, the joint feast of Peter and Paul continues to be observed there as both a religious and public holiday. Both apostles are honoured as patron saints of the Eternal City.

Today’s gospel text sheds light on why Rome and its bishop, the pope – the successor to St Peter – is of particular importance to Catholics, not least those who constitute the membership of the Order of Malta. At Caesarea Phillippi Jesus turned to the group of disciples who have been following him and asked them a striking question, “And who do you say I am?” The emphasis in the question is not so much on the content of his teaching as on who he is in himself.

The disciples gave various replies which reflected their knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures: some said he was John the Baptist, others Elijah or Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets. Mention of Elijah and Jeremiah reflected Old Testament expectation that their return would herald the coming of the long-awaited Messiah. Only Simon has had the grace and insight which allowed his to recognise Jesus’ full identity: ‘You are the Christ … the Son of the living God’ he exclaimed.

In this gospel, Simon is the first to confess Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God and Jesus replied approvingly: ‘you are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church’. He thus gave Simon a new name, in Greek Petrus, which means rock – a name which is rendered in English as Peter. Simon Peter then is distinguished as the first one to recognise that Jesus is God’s Son, moving among his people. He recognised that Jesus is thus a figure about whom we cannot be neutral. If he is God’s Son, then there is an all or nothing quality about him. He is either the most important reality in life whom I must follow as a disciple, or an utter fake who is to be rejected.

Catholics believe that St Peter occupies a pre-eminent place among the twelve apostles because of this testimony of faith and also because of his testimony later to the Resurrection of Jesus. Tradition asserts that he was the first bishop of Rome. It is around Peter’s confession of faith that Jesus established the Church, that community of faith which stretches across the centuries down to us and includes us. That community of faith that has handed the faith on generation after generation. That community which finds in Jesus’ person and work the very meaning and purpose of life – the One to whom all roads truly lead! Therefore, the Catholic tradition accords a special role and dignity universally to Peter’s successors, the popes, across the centuries.

Evidence of this just now, touching on the Order of Malta, is to be seen in press reports that the Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta had an audience with Pope Francis this very week in which they discussed the main spiritual, humanitarian and diplomatic works carried out by the Order across the globe. Such meetings take place annually circa the feast of St John the Baptist, patron saint of the Order of Malta, which falls on 24 June. Interestingly, the same press reports pointed to activities carried out in the past year across 120 countries, involving a network of 13,500 members, 100,000 volunteers, 52,000 employees and over 100 diplomatic missions. Well done.

Back to that question that Jesus asked: who do you say that I am? A question which is also addressed to you and me too today in this liturgy? In fact, this question never had more urgency. In the more individualistic, materialistic and secular world in which we find ourselves today it is only too easy and fashionable to live as if God does not exist, to live for the moment and for only what this world can give us.

The German protestant pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in 1945 just before the Nazis executed him: ‘who do you say that I am?’ is the most important question one can ask, on it hangs everything else. How I answer it guides how I live, the decisions I will make, how I understand my own hungers and concerns, how I will treat others, what I hope for at the end of my life.

We Catholics believe that the successor of Peter, the Pope, has a lot to teach us about the answer to that question. His very presence is a constant reminder of the importance of Christ in our lives and Church. The present pope, Francis, in his preaching and teaching frequently urges us to take Jesus’ question – “And who do you say I am?” – to heart.

May all here present, so representative of the Order of Malta community in Ireland, hear the urgency of the question and recognise the need to dig deeper in faith, in our sense of discipleship. Indeed, Pope Francis, constantly urges us to see ourselves as missionary rather than passive disciples. May we return to our own tasks, missions, apostolates, families and wider communities following this Eucharistic celebration of investiture strengthened in faith, hope and love, determined to make a difference in the world by the quality of our charity and service. Amen.

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