One of the key doctrines that separates Catholicism from all other Christian expressions is the firm belief that Jesus established his Church on the rock that is St. Peter. “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19 NRSV). One of the things I didn’t realize until I began my journey to Catholicism is that in the Greek all the uses of “you” underlined above are in the second person singular. Jesus was speaking specifically to Peter.
On another occasion Jesus also gives all the apostles the power to bind and loose, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:21-23 NRSV). In both cases it is obvious that Jesus is investing apostolic authority to these men and as Catholics we understand that because of apostolic succession, through the bishop of Rome, the successor of Peter, and through him all bishops, and through them all priests who represent them, minister the sacraments of the Church.
One of the beautiful passages that show the primacy of Peter reveals words that Jesus spoke to him before his arrest on Holy Thursday. “Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” And he said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!” Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you have denied three times that you know me.” (Luke 22:31-34 NRSV). It will be Peter’s mission to strengthen his fellow apostles after the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.
And while we know Peter certainly denied his Lord three times, by all standards disqualifying him from the important role of leadership, we see our Lord draw Peter to himself in a very significant and tender moment. In John 21:15-19 NRSV, we read of an important encounter between the two of them after Jesus’s resurrection.
“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”
Jesus reiterates the commission he gave Peter in Matthew 16. He says to him, “Feed my lambs,” “Tend my sheep,” and “Feed my sheep.” It is Peter a few days later in the book of Acts who takes charge and leads the search and installation of the successor of Judas. And then on the day of Pentecost, it is Peter who stands and preaches the first sermon that brought 3000 converts to the Church.
Pope Francis is now the 266th Bishop of Rome and 265th successor of St. Peter. No pope is perfect, not Peter, not Francis, not anyone of these men. Many times we are concerned with what a pope says or does. There have been many concerns expressed about our current holy Father. We must pray and pray always that Christ will guide his Church by the Holy Spirit operating through the Vicar of His Church.
St. Peter pray for us! Pope St. John Paul II pray for us!