Summary: Human sin and human weakness will never be absent from even the hierarchy, and, as Catherine taught, prayer and repentance must always be part of our arsenal against evil.
Feast of St. Matthew 2017
The apostle Matthew was someone who nobody would pick out to be the disciple of the Jewish prophet, Our Lord Jesus Christ. Sometimes called Levi, his Hebrew name, Mattheus was the worst kind of collaborator with the Romans. He is called a te????? (telones), which is rendered here as “tax collector,” but if our first thought is “IRS agent,” we’d be way under the mark. The te????? was more like what we think of as a Mafia enforcer, because he had the Roman army behind him and wasn’t afraid to use that intimidating force to get the money. The tax agents of Rome were actually contractors, who collected from businesses and ordinary people whatever they could get, and then took a cut off the top. So they were so despised that the phrase “tax collectors and sinners” was a common term used to refer to the “trash of society.”
So besides the nobodies that Jesus had collected around Himself, Jesus recruits somebody considered to be below the rats of the culture, and then he goes and breaks bread with them. This horrifies the religious leaders, the Pharisees, who went even beyond what the Law required in terms of ritual purity. Jesus has the perfect response: “I did not come to heal the people who don’t recognize their sickness. I came to heal the sick who come to me.”
And besides, Jesus needed someone with His ministry who could read and write. Frankly, I believe that Matthew was keeping notes throughout the time he followed Jesus. We have from Matthew the majority of Jesus’s words. We also have from him that precious story from chapter 16 in which, in the shadow of the great rock of Mount Hermon, and close to the huge sinkhole the ancients called “the gates of Hell,” Jesus gave the leadership commission. “Thou art Peter [the Rock] and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” When you couple this mandate with the story of Jesus and Peter after the Resurrection, where Jesus tells Peter to take care of His lambs and sheep and lead sheep, you see how Peter can be called the “Prince of the Apostles,” their leader.
Of course, Peter became the bishop of Rome, the first pope, although his successors were not called that in the first century. There is ample evidence from earliest times that the bishop of Rome was considered the leader of what we now call the “college of bishops.” Although tensions between East and West led to a formal break between Rome and Constantinople in 1054, there was no real understanding that there were two Churches, and the mutual excommunications were lifted back in the 1970s. We now think of the Church having, in the Pope’s words, two lungs east and west, and we look forward to the day when East and West can celebrate Eucharist together.
What the East-West split didn’t accomplish–the diminution of popular acceptance of the Pope as the leader of Christendom–politics did. “Following the strife between Philip IV of France and Pope Boniface VIII and the death of his successor Benedict XI after only eight months in office, a deadlocked conclave finally elected Clement V, a Frenchman, as Pope in 1305. Clement declined to move to Rome, remaining in France, and in 1309, he moved his court to the papal enclave at Avignon [France], where it remained for the next 67 years. . .A total of seven popes reigned at Avignon; all were French, and they increasingly fell under the influence of the French Crown. Finally, on September 13, 1376, Gregory XI abandoned Avignon and moved his court to Rome, officially ending the Avignon Papacy.” (From Wikipedia) God wanted the Pope back in Rome, and He used St. Catherine of Siena’s prayers and pleadings with the pope to make it happen.
But that did not end the troubles. The French demanded there be a pope in Avignon, and they put a series of anti-popes there when Gregory died and a bishop from Naples was elected. This Great Western Schism pitted all of Europe against each other. At one point there were three rival popes. The crisis was not resolved until 1417, a hundred years before Luther’s revolution. But the reputation of the papacy was severely damaged by these two medieval departures from tradition. What the sad history of that era teaches us is that human sin and human weakness will never be absent from even the hierarchy, and that, as Catherine taught, prayer and repentance must always be part of our arsenal against evil.