On June 29th, we celebrated the feast of Saints Peter and Paul in which we honor and recognize these two great apostles as the pillars of the Church and great defenders of the truth of Christ. This feast gives us an opportune time to now reflect upon the role and mission of St. Peter as the head of Christ’s Church, and the profound authority that was given to him by Christ himself that is also handed on to his successors, the Pope, until the end of time. In a world and culture marred by the great errors of moral relativism and the denial of objective truth, the Papacy, in the role of the successor of St. Peter, stands as the one and true defender of all truth as revealed by Jesus Christ.
While all the apostles were given the authority and the mission by Christ to teach, govern, and minister in his name, Peter was set apart and given a unique role by Christ that emphasized his teaching and governing authority over all the apostles and other disciples. This is seen most profoundly in Matthew 16:
When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mt 16:13-19)
In this very powerful scene, Jesus is asking the apostles who others think he is, but in reality, he is asking them who they think he is. While the other apostles give many different answers, Peter is the one who sees the real identity of Christ as the Messiah and responds, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus responds, “Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.” Jesus is revealing a profound truth. Peter has been given a unique gift, or charism, by the Father to know and teach the truth, and his knowledge of Jesus’ identity is a result of this special gift. Jesus recognizes this gift and special role of Peter and bestows on him a unique teaching and governing authority over all the apostles and the entire Church.
Therefore, Jesus changes Peter’s name from Simon to Peter, which means “Rock” (Greek petros). This is packed with meaning as the changing of one’s name in the Scriptures means a new identity, mission, and calling. For example, God changed Abram’s name to Abraham when he responded to God’s invitation of faith, and he became the father of all of God’s people. In the same way here, Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter to show his new identity and mission as the “rock” and head of the Church.
Jesus calls Peter “rock,” and it is upon “this rock” that Jesus will build his Church. Why does Jesus build his Church upon Peter? It is fundamentally in response to Peter already exercising his teaching authority given to him by the Father. He has received a gift of wisdom to know the truth about Christ, and also a teaching charism to proclaim it with clarity and without error.
No mere human revealed to Peter that Jesus was the Messiah. He had not yet told Peter that he was the Messiah, and many were still seriously grappling with exactly who Jesus was. But Peter was given the gift to know the truth, and he faithfully proclaimed it to the apostles. He will be the one who will lead, teach, and strengthen the apostles and the other followers after the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus.
Recognizing Peter’s gift of teaching the truth, Jesus then grants him a unique and profound authority: “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Jesus entrusts to Peter the keys to the Church! What does this mean? In Jesus’ time, when the master was going to leave his estate for a time, he would entrust to his head servant the keys to the estate. This servant, who possessed the keys, was entrusted with the full authority of his master while he was away. Thus, the servant does not replace the master, but possesses his authority in his absence. Peter becomes the “Vicar” of Christ, that is, he has been given the full authority of the Master over his Church until he comes again. However, with this authority comes great responsibility. The servant who is given the keys of the master is expected to take care of and run the estate in the way the master desires. In the same way, Peter’s authority is one of service and obedience to the will and teachings of Christ. It is the sole responsibility of Peter and his successors to authoritatively and faithfully teach and hand on what Christ has taught and willed.
This same teaching charism given by the Father and profound authority bestowed upon Peter by Christ himself is also handed on to each and every successor of Peter in the person of the Pope. By virtue of his office, the Pope is guided by the Holy Spirit to teach and proclaim the truth as it pertains to faith and morals without error. Thus, it is through the Pope as the visible head of the Church that the sacred Deposit of Faith entrusted by Christ to the Church has remained preserved, intact, and handed on without error for over 2,000 years.
The gift of the Papacy has been especially evident in recent history through the great Popes of the 20th century, especially as exemplified in our late Holy Father Blessed Pope John Paul II and continued today through the great leadership of Pope Benedict XVI. In these times of great moral confusion, and when the basic foundations of the truths of Christianity are being challenged by an increasingly secular culture, it is the Pope as the successor of St. Peter that continues to steer and guide the Church towards the truth of Christ so that the promise of Christ will be fulfilled: “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld will never prevail against it.”