Any curious person picking up the Christian Scriptures and reading them with an open mind must be struck by the prominent role that St. Peter holds throughout the Gospels, Acts and various letters that constitute the New Testament. Sometimes the citations regarding St. Peter are very positive, as when Jesus Christ uniquely blesses Simon Peter after the apostle's celebrated profession of faith: "Blessed are you, Simon, son of John."
Some references to St. Peter are honestly negative, for example when an agitated Christ accuses, "Get behind me, Satan!" or when St. Paul recalls confronting St. Peter "to his face" regarding the observance of the old Mosaic. But the shear volume of references to St. Peter must never be overlooked. Surely this man was uniquely prominent in the mind and writings of the early Christian community and, happily, has remained so in the life of the Roman Catholic Church.
Along with his brother Andrew and his co-workers James & John, St. Peter was the first apostle called by Jesus. Lesser-known St. Andrew is later identified as "Simon Peter's brother." With the same James and John, St. Peter is privileged to witness the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. When Jesus is perceived walking on the waters, it is St. Peter who takes his chances in walking out toward the Master. It is St. Peter who inquires about the man born blind, "Who sinned.?" and St. Peter who retrieves the temple tax from the fish's mouth.
St. Peter wants to know how often he must forgive his brother, " seven times?" St. Peter is the one whose mother-in-law is cured of a fever and St. Peter is the one who demands an explanation concerning the blind leading the blind. St. Peter wants to know what is in store for those who have left all to follow Jesus. Again St. Peter points out the withered fig tree and he is surprised when Jesus inquires about who has touched his garments effecting a cure. St. Peter - the only one of the disciples to do so - has his name changed from Simon. St. Peter, along with St. John, is commissioned to prepare the final Passover supper and St. Peter questions Jesus as he washes the disciples' feet. All four Gospels record the aforementioned confession of St. Peter's faith and sadly, all four Gospels record the denial of Christ by St. Peter.
When Jesus rises from the grave, he entrusts Mary Magdalene with the news of his resurrection, which was to be reported to "Peter and the other disciples." St. Peter was accorded the privilege of being the first to enter the empty tomb. After Christ returned to the Father, St. Peter preached the first church sermon on Pentecost and he worked the first church miracle, healing the cripple on his way to the temple. St. Paul was intent on meeting St. Peter to lend validity to his own ministry. During the Last Supper and during the post-Resurrection meals, most of the dialogue takes place between Christ and St. Peter.
In this Sunday's Gospel, St. Peter is explicitly and solely commissioned to feed Christ's sheep and to strengthen his brothers. All of these citations are generously scattered throughout all four Gospels.
After the Resurrection, the apostolic band was scattered all throughout the Mediterranean world. The authors of the Gospels all had their own constituencies with their own differing localities, readerships and traditions. Yet, St. Peter dominates the apostolic activity in all four Gospel accounts. His confession of faith in Jesus Christ as Messiah is a watershed in each of the Gospels. In all four Gospels, many weighty matters of ministry are entrusted to St. Peter alone. Clearly, the place of honor that St. Peter held in the early church and in the Gospels is a reflection of the status accorded him by Jesus himself during the Master's public life. The respect granted St. Peter by the first Christians, following the lead of Christ, matured into the office of Peter that Catholic Christians hold dear today in the words and work of our Holy Father, the pope, the Bishop of Rome.
A later pontifical title, Vicar of Christ, while not ancient, is nonetheless accurate in summing up the office of Peter.
The papal office of unique authority, collegial yet definitive, did not evolve from the Christian community's need for organization. Rather, the office of pope descends from the explicit will of Christ, who pledged unfailing legitimacy and unerring guidance to this church through St. Peter's successors. St. Peter truly is the rock on which the continuing church of Christ remains and endures.
(This column originally appeared in The Providence Visitor)
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