Although southern Europe has had a number of theological rebels like Giodano Bruno and Giralomo Savonarola, the lion’s share of Reformation renegades thrived in northern Europe. Certainly, Luther and Melanchthon in Germany, Jan Hus in Bohemia, Zwingli in Switzerland, John Calvin in France, and Wycliffe, Cranmer and Tyndale in England and Knox in Scotland all top the list of historical heretics. Even in our own day, the voices of ecclesiastical dissent arise chiefly from Germany, again, and from the Low Countries. Historians have accordingly and conveniently designated the Alpine range as the median between heresy and orthodoxy. Those northern Europeans (and by extension faithful Catholics anywhere) who favor Rome in a religious controversy have been labelled “ultramontane,” that is, believers who look “beyond the Alps,” in other words, toward Rome, for creedal assurance and moral standards. Northern Europeans are likely to refer to these conservative Catholics (the few that are left) as “Ultramontanists.” On the other hand, southern Europeans might be heard labelling the beliefs of loyal Catholics from northern Europe as “Transalpine.” Word choice all depends on which side of the Alpine range one is speaking. But the meaning is the same: Roma locuta; causa finita. Rome has spoken; the case is closed.
Acknowledging the Pope as the supreme arbiter of good and evil, right and wrong, orthodoxy and heterodoxy, certainly reached its canonical summit during the 19th-century when Pius IX affirmed the teaching on papal infallibility. But the perception of a rock-solid foundation for Christ’s Church enduring through the centuries has a clear and manifold footing certainly in the Sacred Scriptures as well as in Christian tradition. St. Ignatius of Antioch in Syria acknowledged the primacy of the church at Rome in the second century: “…to the church also which holds the presidency, in the location of the country of the Romans, worthy of God, worthy of honor, worthy of blessing, worthy of praise, worthy of success, worthy of sanctification…because you hold the presidency in love…” But the Scriptures themselves, and especially the Gospel accounts, offer ample testimony to the importance of the Office of Peter in the first decades of Christianity.
St. Peter’s profession of Christ as Messiah, most famously reported in St. Matthew’s account (16:16) and forming this coming Sunday’s Gospel reading, is found as well in the Gospel versions of Saints Mark (8:27), Luke (9:18) and John (6:69). Such harmony is rare in the Gospel record. For example, only one miracle is recorded by all four Gospel writers: the multiplication of the loaves. So, for all four Gospel writers to accord prominence to St. Peter’s profession of faith in Christ as Messiah is certainly a foundation stone for the development of papal prominence.
The thoughtful reading of the synoptic Gospel accounts also reveals that, almost invariably, when Jesus asks a question of the Twelve or requests some action from the Twelve, St. Peter is the one who responds. From walking on water to the forgiveness of one’s brother to the hapless fig tree to the drawing of one’s sword, Peter’s role is leadership. Even St. John, the beloved disciple, bows to St. Peter’s authority at the empty tomb, allowing the senior disciple to enter first. And of course the unique “Feed my lambs…Feed my sheep…Follow me” dialogue with the Master blatantly affirms the primacy of St. Peter in Christ’s plans for his Church. St. Paul for his part believed it appropriate to make “Cephas” the first church leader to be consulted before he began his public preaching.
In today’s first reading, Isaiah notably writes of the master of the palace in Israel, “I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot.” Yes, the Office of Peter has amazingly endured over the centuries, certainly a tribute to Divine Providence. And the role of the papacy has opportunely but advantageously broadened over the millennia. Pope Gregory VII who sent out missionary saints like Denis, Patrick, Augustine and Boniface to reconvert Europe after the Huns had laid waste the continent would certainly be delighted to hear that Pope Francis intends, health permitting, to visit Mongolia in early September. Visiting a Buddhist nation that lists a mere 1,300 Roman Catholics might appear vain to some, but, as St. Paul again quotes Isaiah, “For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been his counselor?” Allegiance to the Petrine ministry should not be influenced by what side of the Alps one resides; it should rest firmly on the witness of Scripture and Tradition, both of which offer ample testimony to St. Peter’s vital role in church life.