THE PRIMACY OF ST. PETER

The Position of St. Peter in the Church

Nowhere in the Bible did it explicitly say that St. Peter was the first Pope, nor that he was chosen by Christ to be the leader of the Apostles. Yet, it is the belief of the Catholic Church that before His ascension into Heaven, Christ singled out St. Peter to be the Head of the Church. Indeed, there are texts from the gospels indicating that St. Peter was chosen for this task, but the meaning and interpretation of the texts had been disputed for centuries by Protestants and Orthodox Christians alike. However, Sacred Tradition confirmed that the primacy and supreme authority of St. Peter over the other Apostles and the Church at large was, in fact, the faith and belief of the early Church. See The Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 881-883

 

 

The Primacy of St. Peter in Holy Scripture

There are several indications from Holy Scripture that St. Peter was, indeed, the chief of the Apostles. For example, his name was mentioned 195 times in the New Testament, followed only by St. John whose name was mentioned 29 times. The other Apostles were mentioned only once or twice and that's it. Thus, if the frequency with which a person's name is cited in a narrative is an indication of the person's importance, then one can see that, compared to the other Apostles, St. Peter was first in importance. But that was not all. It can be seen that every time a list of Apostles is given, St. Peter's name always comes first (See Matt 10:2-5; Mark 3:16-19; Luke 6:14-16; Acts 1:13). When referring to the Apostles as a group the Bible would sometimes simply say "his disciples and Peter" (Mark 16:7), or "Peter and they that were with him" (Luke 9:32), or "to Peter, and to the rest of the apostles" (Acts 2:37).

 

Also, St. Peter alone was prayed for by Christ, that his faith may not fail (Luke 22:32). At the news of Christ's resurrection, John outran St. Peter, but allowed him to enter the tomb first (John 20:3-8), indicating his recognition of St. Peter's leadership. Even our risen Savior appeared to St. Peter first before He appeared to the other Apostles (Luke 24:33-36). In selecting a replacement for Judas, the traitor, it was St. Peter who stood up and led the Apostles (Acts 1:15-26). After the descent of the Holy Spirit, it was St. Peter who spoke to the crowd on behalf of the Apostles (Acts 2). When confronted by the Jews, St. Peter acted as the spokesman for the Christians (Acts 4:1-13). He was also the one to expose the heresy of Simon the magician (Acts 8:14-24). Then, although St. Paul is now called "The Apostle of the Gentiles," it was actually St. Peter who received the revelation from an angel to extend Christianity to the Gentiles (Acts 10). It was St. Peter who presided at the Council of Jerusalem, which decided on what policy to apply to the Gentile converts regarding circumcision and other Jewish customs (Acts 15). In all these instances we see St. Peter playing a leadership role in directing the growth of the infant Church.

But the strongest reason that St. Peter had primacy over the Apostles and the Church was that he was singled out by Christ to be the Head of the Church. Here are the pertinent texts from Holy Scripture:

  • "And Jesus came into the quarters of Caesarea Philippi: and he asked his disciples, saying: Whom do men say that the Son of man is? But they said: Some John the Baptist, and other some Elias, and others Jeremias, or one of the prophets. Jesus saith to them: But whom do you say that I am? Simon Peter answered and said: Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answering, said to him: Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven. And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven." (Matt 16:13-19) (Italics added.) - This episode took place before His passion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • "When therefore they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter: Simon son of John, lovest thou me more than these? He saith to him: Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee. He saith to him: Feed my lambs. He saith to him again: Simon, son of John, lovest thou me? He saith to him: Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee. He saith to him: Feed my lambs. He said to him the third time: Simon, son of John, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved, because he had said to him the third time: Lovest thou me? And he said to him: Lord, thou knowest all things: thou knowest that I love thee. He said to him: Feed my sheep." (John 21:15-17) (Italics added.) - This episode took place after His resurrection.

There are a few points that should be noted about the above cited texts:

First, whenever God changes the name of a person, it is usually to indicate a change in the person's role, position, function or identity.  For example, when God changed the name of Abram to Abraham (Gen 17:5), it was on account of God's promise to make him a father of many nations (Abraham means "father of the multitude"). Likewise, when God changed Jacob's name to Israel (Gen 32:28) it was because he was strong enough to wrestle with God's angel till morning (Israel means "Wrestle with God"). Now, Peter's original name was Simon. Christ changed it to "Peter," which in Greek means "rock," because St. Peter was to be the rock upon which the Church will be founded (Matt 16:18). In Greek the word used for Peter was petros, “little rock," whereas the "rock" upon which Christ founded the Church was petra, which means "large rock." On this basis some Protestants argue that the rock upon which Christ founded His Church was not Peter but his faith, the revelation that God the Father made to him: “Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).  There is just one problem with this interpretation: Christ actually spoke in Aramaic, not Greek. In Aramaic there are not two words, but only one word, for rock: kepha. Whoever made the Greek translation of Matthew's gospel, which was originally written in Aramaic, hesitated to use the feminine noun petra for Peter. So, for stylistic reasons the translator used the noun petros, although it was "rock" that was meant, as in the original Aramaic. Therefore, what our Lord actually said to Peter was: “And I say to thee: that thou art rock, and upon this rock I will build my church.” St. Peter was the rock, the cornerstone of the new Church.

Second, in Israel the keys represent authority. Thus, we see in the Book of Isaias that God gave great authority to Eliacim by laying upon his shoulder the keys to the kingdom of David (Isa 22:20-22). In like manner Christ laid the Keys of the Kingdom of heaven only to St. Peter, with the power to bind and to loose, indicating his supreme authority over the whole Church. A little later Christ gave the power to bind and to lose also to the other Apostles (Matt 18:18), but this is understood to be the power the Apostles shall have over their particular jurisdiction (because Christ gave them this power collectively), whereas St. Peter's power – as sole holder of the Keys, and as the only one to whom the power to bind and to lose was given individually – extends to the whole Church. Also, St. Peter had full power that extends to all questions about faith or morals, and to all matters of discipline and government.

Third, Christ's three statements Feed my Lamb, ... Feed my Lamb, ... Feed my sheep, show Him commissioning St. Peter to be the Chief Shepherd of the flock, although the other Apostles had the same, but subordinate role (Acts 20:28). St. Peter's duty was to feed the entire people of God with Truth and to administer the graces of the sacraments by which the flock shall be fed. His authority therefore has three characteristics:

  • His authority is universal, extending not only to all the faithful ("Feed my Lamb"), but also to all their pastors and bishops ("Feed my sheep").

  • His authority is also immediate and can be exercised on all the faithful, pastors and bishops, without having to get approval from any council or college of bishops.

  • His authority is an ordinary power in the sense that it is not something that he may exercise only in exceptional cases, like the extraordinary exercise of infallibility that belongs to him only when teaching ex cathedra. His authority to govern the church does not require an extraordinary act, but belongs to him ordinarily by virtue of his office as Head of the Church.

Therefore, contrary to the claims of the Orthodox Church, St. Peter was more than just the "first among equals." He was the divinely-appointed Head of the Church. 

The Primacy of St. Peter in Sacred Tradition

The above interpretations have been confirmed from Patristic writings to be the Church's understanding of the sacred texts. Here are a few examples:

Pope St. Damasus I (A.D. 304-384), Gelatian Decrees, Ch. III, par.1: "After all these [writings of] the prophets and the evangelical and apostolic scriptures which we discussed above, on which the catholic church is founded by the grace of God, we also have thought necessary to say what, although the universal catholic church diffused throughout the world is the single bride of Christ, however the holy Roman church is given first place by the rest of the churches without [the need for] a synodical decision, but from the voice of the Lord our savior in the gospel obtained primacy: 'You are Peter,' he said, 'and upon this rock I shall build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it; and to you I give the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you shall bind upon Earth shall be bound also in heaven and whatever you release upon Earth shall also be released in heaven'."

St. Cyril of Jerusalem (A.D. 315-386 ), Catechetical Lectures, Lecture 17, par. 27: "In the power of the same Holy Spirit Peter also, the chief of the Apostles and the bearer of the keys of the kingdom of heaven, healed Æneas the paralytic in the Name of Christ at Lydda, which is now Diospolis, and at Joppa raised from the dead Tabitha rich in good works."

St. Ambrose of Milan (A.D. 340-397), Exposition of the Christian Faith, Book IV, Ch. 5, par. 57: "To the same Apostle, again, when on a former occasion he said, You are the Christ, the Son of the living God, He made answer: You are Peter, and upon this Rock will I build My Church, and I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 16:18 Could He not, then, strengthen the faith of the man to whom, acting on His own authority, He gave the kingdom, whom He called the Rock, thereby declaring him to be the foundation of the Church?"

St. Jerome of Stridonium (A.D. 347-420), Against Jovinianus, Book I, Ch. 26: "But you (Jovinianus) say, Matthew 16:18 the Church was founded upon Peter: although elsewhere the same is attributed to all the Apostles, and they all receive the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and the strength of the Church depends upon them all alike, yet one among the twelve is chosen so that when a head has been appointed, there may be no occasion for schism."

The Primacy of the Pope of Rome

Christ knew that the Church would not last without a head. So, before His ascension into heaven, He singled out St. Peter to be the Head of His Church. Since Christ willed all men to be saved (1 Tim 2:4), He must have intended that the Papacy should continue even after the death of St. Peter. It is the belief of the Catholic Church that this is indeed the case, and that the successors of St. Peter as Bishop of Rome should continue the Papacy for future generations (CCC #882). 

 

Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter

A painting by Pietro Perugino (1446-1523)

Image source link: commons.wikipedia.org

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