“Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them” (Matt 18:20).
Just two Sundays ago, the gospel passage from Matthew 16 was about the famous conversation between Jesus and Peter in which he gives him the keys to the kingdom and the power to bind and loose. The passage is famous because it became the basis for Rome’s claim that the pope, the successor of Peter, holds ultimate authority over the church.
Today’s gospel passage from Matthew 18 appears to extend that same authority to all the disciples: “I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (18:19). Jesus promises that agreement in prayer or consensus by even two or three disciples guarantees that he will be present with them.
Together, the two passages reflect the long debate in the church over the balance between the role of the pope and the role of the college of bishops (papal primacy and collegiality). This debate was central to the Second Vatican Council, which, in the end, leaned in a complicated compromise toward papal supremacy.
Pope Francis, by calling himself the “bishop of Rome” instead of a traditional title like “supreme pontiff,” by appointing advisors on every issue and by opening next month’s synod on the family to a broad consultation with the whole church, seems to lean toward collegiality as a better approach to leadership than autocratic fiat. Consultation is far more complicated than fiat, and consensus requires that every view be heard and respected before debate reaches a conclusion everyone can support. But the benefit of consensus is full participation itself and the likelihood that in the end the group will own decisions they have helped make.
Today’s Gospel does not resolve the debate but does affirm that Jesus is with the church in the process and blesses all our efforts to reach communal decisions as something good in itself. Any parish that struggles to reach agreement on any issue is already witnessing the church’s message that dialogue, consensus and reconciliation are possible in our fractious world.
Sunday liturgy is an exercise in gathering all our differences around the one altar, the one sacrifice of Christ, and taking from that altar a Communion in love that is our mission to the world.