The Papacy (Pope) and St. Peter – An Overview

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  (Matthew 16:18-19)

There is perhaps no aspect of Catholicism more challenged and misunderstood than the office of the papacy.  Misconceptions abound, as well as the view the papacy is not Biblical.  “There is no pope in the Bible!” is an oft repeated mantra by those who disagree with the Catholic Church on this topic. 

It is true the term “pope” does not appear in the Bible.  It is also true many Christian terms used to convey doctrine do not appear in the Bible, like Trinity, Incarnation, Hypostatic Union, Original Sin, Purgatory etc.  Just because the word does not appear in the Bible doesn’t mean the theological concept is not present and valid.  The same is true with the papacy, and we find the validation of this teaching in Scripture in the leadership of the person of St. Peter. 

The Catechism conveys the following to explain the Catholic view regarding St. Peter’s role:

CCC552 Simon Peter holds the first place in the college of the Twelve; Jesus entrusted a unique mission to him.  Through a revelation from the Father, Peter had confessed: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  Our Lord then declared to him: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”  Christ, the “living Stone”, thus assures his Church, built on Peter, of victory over the powers of death.  Because of the faith he confessed Peter will remain the unshakable rock of the Church.  His mission will be to keep this faith from every lapse and to strengthen his brothers in it.

CCC553 Jesus entrusted a specific authority to Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  The “power of the keys” designates authority to govern the house of God, which is the Church.  Jesus, the Good Shepherd, confirmed this mandate after his Resurrection: “Feed my sheep.”  The power to “bind and loose” connotes the authority to absolve sins, to pronounce doctrinal judgements, and to make disciplinary decisions in the Church.  Jesus entrusted this authority to the Church through the ministry of the apostles and in particular through the ministry of Peter, the only one to whom he specifically entrusted the keys of the kingdom. 

CCC567 The kingdom of heaven was inaugurated on earth by Christ.  “This kingdom shone out before men in the word, in the works and in the presence of Christ” (LG 5).  The Church is the seed and beginning of this kingdom.  Its keys are entrusted to Peter.

Over the next several posts I will be discussing the verses in Scripture about Peter being the rock upon which the Church is built, the meaning of his receiving the “keys of the kingdom” from Christ, how he exercises the authority of those keys in the early Church, his commissioning by Christ as shepherd, papal infallibility and how that role is active in the Church today. 

There are many signs within Scripture St. Peter is not simply an equal to the other apostles but chosen by Christ to be their leader, especially in his absence.  Some of these are quite clear and others are more subtle.  For example, in all the listings of the names of the apostles in Scripture, even though he was not the first apostle to be called, Peter’s name is always placed prominently at the first of the list, and Judas is last.  Some try to explain this by saying the order of the listing is due to age, but there is no Biblical evidence to support that.  And the apostle John is traditionally viewed to be the youngest of the apostles (perhaps even a teenager when he started to follow Christ) and didn’t die until approximately the year 98.  Yet his name is prominently within the first 3-4 apostles listed.  In Matthew’s Gospel, the list is presented this way – “The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zeb′edee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.”  (Matthew 10:2-4).  The use of the word “first” to denote Peter is not insignificant and gives us a sign of the importance of St. Peter among the twelve.

St. Peter is mentioned in Scripture more than all of the other apostles combined.  While with Christ, he generally takes the role of asking questions and speaking for the group of the apostles (Matthew 19:27, Mark 10:28, Luke 7:40-47, Luke 12:40-46, John 6:67-69, Matthew 18:21, Luke 8:45).  At the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-32) only those three apostles in Christ’s most inner circle (Peter, James and John) accompany Christ and see him in his glory.  In verse 32 of the passage, the Bible says “Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep but kept awake, and they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.”  Referring to James and John as “those who were with” Peter requires more text than simply listing their names, but it does show a pattern we see throughout Scripture to separate Peter from the other apostles and that separation places him in a unique position. 

We also see this in the garden of Gethsemane when Christ takes Peter, James and John with him to be closest during his time of agony (Mark 14:33).  All three of them fall asleep, but it’s only Peter Christ holds accountable “And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep?  Could you not watch one hour?”  (Mark 14:37) One has to ask the question why only Peter is asked this? 

After the resurrection when the women see the angel at the tomb, the message they are given is “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.”  (Mark 16:7) We are also told after the resurrection Christ appears to Peter alone before he appears to the other apostles as a group (Luke 24:34, 1 Corinthians 15:5).  Some want to dismiss these passages as pointing to Peter’s unique role, and profess Christ appeared to Peter to chastise him for denying him.  Some even say the reason the angel referred to “his disciples and Peter” is at this point, Peter was no longer even considered to be a disciple of Christ!  There are a couple of things to remember as to why that view would be problematic.  First, Peter wept bitterly after he recalled Jesus had foretold he would deny him (Matthew 26:75, Mark 14:72, Luke 22:62).  His repentance was sincere and complete.  There is nothing in Scripture to indicate Jesus “chastises” him.  The second thing to remember is except for John, all of the apostles abandon Christ (Matthew 26:56, Mark 14:50).  They all flee the scene the minute trouble shows up.  Peter however, follows Christ from a distance.  That’s how he ends up in the courtyard where he is accused of being a follower of Christ and denies him (Matthew 26:69-75, Mark 14:66-72, Luke 22:54-62, John 18:15-18,25-27).  None of the rest of them even made it that far so are never confronted with that choice – they had already denied him by their actions.  To somehow believe Peter’s betrayal was worse those who ran away immediately when Jesus was arrested isn’t valid in my view.  John alone makes it to the foot of the cross, and there stands with Mary and the other women.  As a side note, John was the only apostle who was not martyred and died a natural death, and many believe the reason he was spared a martyr’s death was because of the fidelity he showed Christ during his passion.

Even though all of the apostles except John would fail to stand with Christ through his passion, at the Last Supper it is specifically Peter Christ prays for, and the reason is so he will be able to strengthen the others after his repentance.  “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.”  (Luke 22:31-32) Far from no longer being considered a disciple, he is still in the leadership role and is to be the “rock” others depend on for strength. 

In John’s Gospel he records both he and Peter run to the empty tomb when Mary Magdalene tells them the body of Jesus is gone.  John outruns Peter, but he waits until Peter arrives and allows Peter to enter the tomb first.  (John 20:2-8) There is a deference of respect displayed here for Peter.

After the resurrection and ascension of Christ we see Peter stepping into this leadership role among the apostles.  He leads them in choosing a successor for Judas (Acts 1:15-26).  He is the first to speak the word of God and proclaim the Gospel on Pentecost — But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them” (Acts 2:14).  And in response, we hear “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’” (Acts 2:37-38)

Peter is also the first to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 10), he performs the first recorded miracle of the apostles (Acts 3:1-10), and he is the only apostle recorded that people would place the sick so his shadow might merely pass over them and they would be healed (Acts 5:14-15). 

To deny Peter has a unique role among the apostles simply can’t occur without denying Scripture itself.  No other apostle receives the same coverage of both his high and even his low points.  To understand the intention of this role, we have to seek to understand the significance of the change of Simon’s name to mean “rock,” and his reception of the keys of the kingdom from Christ. 

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