'For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been His counselor? Or who has given a gift to Him, to receive a gift in return? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things...' -- Rom 11:34-36

We are nearly at the end of August! As if to mark this fact, our Sunday Scripture readings give us a sort of summer-school teaching about the choice of St. Peter as the first pope, and about the mission and role of the papacy today.

The first reading (Is 22:19-23) sets the scene. Isaiah is referring to a historical event. Shebna was the steward or palace governor of King Hezekiah of Judah. Experts think this king reigned at the end of the seventh century or beginning of the eighth century BC.

Hezekiah was a just and good man, caring for the poor, and a man of great faith. Shebna, sadly, was not. He was proud and arrogant, a schemer. Isaiah prophesies that the king will replace him with Eliakim, a good and faith-filled man. This emphasizes the importance of good stewardship.

This element of choice and stewardship is given further focus in the Psalm 138. It sings of how God, in His great love and kindness, gives us many gifts, but we must remember that they are His gifts and He builds them up. We should avoid becoming arrogant or proud about them, for God knows the proud and recognizes those who are lowly.

In the second reading (Rom 11:33-36), St. Paul has finished a long discussion about how God's plan of salvation has happened, and he concludes with a prayer of praise and thanks­giving. As he writes, who can grasp the ways of God, and who can give God anything or repay God? After all, we are stewards and not possessors of God's many gifts to us: family, friends, goods and even our new life in Christ!

Upon this rock
The Gospel is the well-known passage about the choice of Peter as "the rock." It is a controversial passage; the Roman Catholic interpretation about Jesus' choice of St. Peter as the first pope has been questioned by other Christian denominations.

Let's focus on the dynamics of St. Peter's choice by Jesus. This begins with his renaming. He is now not Peter, but "the rock." Names are important in many cultures. They indicate a person's identity and purpose. The naming of Peter indicates a new identity and mission: to be the leader of the Church.

A similar thing happens at our baptism. The first question parents are asked is what name they have given their child. Why is this done? Because the soon-to-be-baptized will receive many gifts, but also a new identity, purpose and mission. St. Peter was a disciple, first and foremost. He was chosen out of the other disciples. This remains true today: The pope, like anyone placed in a position of trust and authority, is first of all a disciple. As someone observed, the funeral of St. John Paul II had many world leaders present and had some extra elements, but it was basically exactly the same as the funeral of any member of the Catholic Church.

Imperfect popes
As a disciple and leader, St. Peter was not perfect: He made mistakes, as Scripture attests. When Pope Francis was elected and appeared on the balcony of St. Peter's, he asked for prayers -- for, he said, "I, too, am a sinner." What St. Peter had and Pope Francis has, though, was a love of God, despite their faults or failings.

Our Gospel also makes clear that St. Peter was chosen by Jesus (not the other way around) and given a particular mission to be exercised with authority in Jesus' name: to safeguard, to build up and to be a focus of unity in the Church.

The job description has remained the same for 2,000 years! The "keys" (also mentioned in our first reading) in the coat of arms of popes indicate authority, but also stewardship. The pope is a steward of so much and of so many people. This is why he is called the "servus servorum Dei," the "servant of the servants of God."