Rolheiser: Binding and Loosing

01 November 2021

Appears in: Archdiocesan NewsColumnists

To tell someone, with fullness of heart, ‘I love you,’ is virtually the same as saying, ‘You shall never die. Twentieth century philosopher Gabriel Marcel wrote those words and they echo words written five hundred years earlier by Blessed Magdalen Panattieri, a Dominican Tertiary, who wrote to a friend, I could not be happy in heaven if you were not there too. Moreover, both Marcel and Panattieri echo words spoken by Jesus two thousand years ago: Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

What does it mean to “bind and loose”? Among other things, it means that as a Christians, as members of the Body of Christ, like Jesus when he walked this earth, we have the power to dispense God’s mercy and forgiveness and be a salvific cord that connects others to God’s family. If someone is connected to us, she is connected to Christ and to the community of salvation.

In previous writings, I used this example as an illustration. Imagine you have a child, a spouse, or a friend who is not going to church and is indifferent or hostile to religion. She has seemingly cut herself off from the community of faith. However, as long as you love that person (and she doesn’t reject your love) she cannot be lost. As long as a bond of love exists between her and you, she is connected to the Body of Christ and to the community of salvation, and this is what Gabriel Marcel meant when he says that to say to another ‘I love you’ is to say to him or her ‘You shall never die.’

Almost every time I have written on this, I have been challenged on its orthodoxy (though never by a professional theologian or a bishop). Invariably, the challenge comes in one of two ways. One group voices this objection: How can you say this? Only Christ has the power to do this! Ironically, that answers its own question. It’s true, only Christ has the power to do this, but we are the body of Christ. It’s Christ, not we, who are doing this. A second group objects by saying that they simply find the concept incredulous: How can this be true? If it were true, it would be too good to be true! But, isn’t that in fact an apt description of the incarnation? It’s simply too good to be true! The incarnation gives us that power and consequently, like Blessed Magdalen Panattieri, we have the power to tell God that our heaven needs to include a loved one.

Perhaps a more serious challenge is this. To whom exactly was this power given? Wasn’t it given explicitly to Peter, as the Vicar of Christ, and by extension to the institutional church in its sacramental powers, as opposed to it being given to every sincere Christian?

A first glance at Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 16) would seem to indicate that it was given exclusively to Peter. Here is its context: Peter had just made a powerful confession of faith, saying to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” In reply, Jesus says to him, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my community. And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

So are binding and loosing reserved exclusively for Peter? No, rather through Peter it is given to the whole church and to everyone who makes the same confession of faith he did. It’s given to everyone who confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God because it’s this confession of faith and love that makes for “the rock” that no power, including hell itself, can prevail against. When we make the same confession of faith Peter made, we too become the rock, with power to bind and loose.

In making a confession of faith, we become members of the Body of Christ and then, just as was the case with Jesus when he walked the earth, when people touch us they are touching Christ. Moreover, as Jesus assures us, “whoever believes in me will perform the same works as I do myself, and will perform even greater works.” (John 14, 12)

Love is the ultimate power within life. God is love, and in the end there will only be love. Already at a purely human level, outside of any faith considerations, we sense its power, as something that can ultimately withstand everything. Love is the rock! This is doubly the case when it happens inside the incarnation. Love is the rock on which Jesus built his church. Hence, when we love someone and he or she responds to our love, being members of Christ’s body gives us the power to say, my heaven includes this loved one.