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The primacy of Peter: When and how did Christ entrust it to him?

On what basis is the primacy of Peter, and consequently that of the Pope, founded?

It is founded on the will of Christ himself.

Where does this will of Christ appear?

There are "numerous references" present throughout the Gospel and in various parts of the Acts of the Apostles showing that it was Christ's will to entrust a special role to Peter within the College of the Apostles.
For example:
  • He is the only apostle to whom Jesus gives a new name, Cephas, which means "rock". John the Evangelist tells us about the event in the following way: Jesus looked at him and said, "You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas" (which, when translated, is Peter)" (John 1, 42).
  • It was not usual for Jesus to give his disciples a new name. If we take as an exception the fact that on one particular occasion Jesus called the sons of Zebedee "sons of thunder" (cfr. Mark 3, 17) - but without ever referring to them as such again - we can see that Jesus did not as a rule attribute new names to his disciples. He did do this, however, with Peter and called him Cephas, a name which can be translated in Greek as Petros, and in Latin as Petrus. It was translated not simply because it was just a name; it was also a "mandate" that Peter received in this way from the Lord. We must also bear in mind that a change of name in Old Testament times was also associated with an anticipation of a mission (cfr. Genesis 17,5; 32,28 ff. etc.). The new name Petrus is found many times in the Gospel and will eventually replace the original name Simon.
  • There are other references too:
    • After Jesus, Peter is the most outstanding and most quoted person in all of the New Testament writings: he is mentioned 154 times under his new name Peter, "rock";
    • The Gospels tell us that Peter was among the first four disciples of Jesus the Nazarene (cfr Luke 5, 1-11);
    • The Master stayed with Peter at his house in Capernaum (cfr. Mark 1,29); When the crowds were crowding around him beside the Lake of Gennesaret, Jesus chose to get into one of the boats that was moored at the water's edge. That particular boat belonged to Simon (cfr. Luke 5,3). Thus Peter's boat became a seat for Jesus;
    • When on various occasions Jesus took just three of the disciples with him, it was always the case that Peter was the leader of this group: in was also the same when Jesus raised the daughter of Jairus (cfr. Mark 5,37; Luke 8,51), at the Transfiguration (cfr. Mark 9,2; Matthew 17,1; Luke 9,28), and finally during his last agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (cfr. Mark 14,33; Matthew 16,37);
    • It was to Peter and Jesus that the tax collectors turned looking expectantly for them to pay the Temple tax (cfr. Matthew 17, 24-27);
    • Jesus washed the feet of Peter first at the Last Supper (cfr. John 13,6); ;
    • It was for Peter alone that Jesus prayed that his faith may not fail. And when Peter had turned back, Jesus gave him the task of "strengthening his brothers" (cfr. Luke 22,30-32);

Was Peter aware of his specific role?

  • Yes. In fact:
    • it was often Peter who spoke on behalf of the others and asked Jesus to explain a difficult parable to them (cfr. Matthew 15,15). It was Peter who sought to know the exact meaning of a precept (cfr. Matthew 18,21) or to be given the formal promise of a reward (cft. Matthew 19,27);
    • it was he who brought an end to a sometimes embarrassing situation, speaking up on behalf of the disciples. In this way Jesus, when he was saddened by the peoples' lack of understanding following the discourse on the "bread of life", put the question: "Do you want to go away as well?" Peter's response was: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life" (cfr. John 6, 67-69);
    • he was equally decisive in his profession of faith which, again in the name of the twelve, was made at Caesarea Philippi. When Jesus asked: "Who do you say that I am?" it was Peter who replied: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16, 15-16).
  • Peter followed Jesus impetuously; he passed the test of faith, abandoning himself to Christ. There also came the time when he was weak and gave way out of fear: he disowned the Master (cft. Mark 14,66-72). Peter, who had promised absolute fidelity, knew the bitterness and the humiliation of denial. However, he repented and recognised his grave sin: he burst into uncontrollable tears for his wrongdoing.
  • It is precisely to Peter that Jesus entrusts a special mission, described for us by Saint John the Evangelist in that celebrated dialogue that took place between Jesus and Peter (cfr. John 21, 15-18). In this dialogue there is a very significant play on words. In Greek the word "philéo" means the love of a friendship which is tender but not total, while the word "agapào" (agapé) means a love without reserve, total and unconditional. Jesus asks Peter the first time: "Simon... do you love me (agapas-me) with this total and unconditional love (cfr. John 21, l5)? Before the experience of betrayal the Apostle would have certainly said: "I love you (agapo-se) unconditionally". Now that he has experienced the bitter sadness of infidelity, the drama of his own weakness, he says with humility, "Lord, I love you (philo-se)", that is "I love you with my poor human love." Christ insists: "Simon, do you love me with the total kind of love that I want?" And Peter repeats the reply about his humble human love: "Kyrie, philò-se", "Lord, I love you as only I know how to love." Jesus asks Simon a third time: "philies-me?", "Do you love me?" Simon understands that his poor kind of love is enough for Jesus, the only kind of love he is capable of, and yet he was saddened that he had to say it to Jesus in this way. He said to Jesus: "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you (philo-se)".

What is the solemn declaration that defined, once and for all time, Peter's role in the Church?

  • It was when Jesus affirmed: "And so I say to you: You are Peter and on this rock I shall build my Church... I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bound shall be considered bound in heaven and whoever you loose shall be considered loosed in heaven." (Matthew 16, 18-19).
  • The three metaphors used by Jesus in this affirmation are very clear:
    • Peter shall be the rock foundation on which the Church shall be built;
    • He shall have the keys of the Kingdom of heaven, and shall open or close the gate to whom he judges fit;
    • Finally, he shall bind and loose in the sense that he shall establish or prohibit that which will be necessary for the life of the Church which is and remains the Church of Christ. It always remains Christ's Church and never Peter's Church.
  • What we have described thus far will prepare us now to continue our reflection on the question of the "primacy of jurisdiction."

Did the position of primacy given by Jesus to Peter continue after the resurrection?

  • Certainly. In fact
    • Jesus told the women to bring the news to Peter, separately from the other Apostles (cfr. Mark 16,7);
    • Mary Magdalene ran and came to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, to tell them that the stone had been rolled back from the tomb (cfr. John 20,2), and John, who had arrived at the empty tomb before Peter, gave precedence to Peter and allowed him to enter first when he eventually came (cfr. Gv 20,4-6);
    • Peter is, therefore, the first among the Apostles to witness an apparition of the Risen Lord Jesus (cfr. Luke 24,34; l Cor 15,5).
  • This role, underlined by this decision, (cfr. John 20,3-10), signals the continuity between the position of primacy he held within the group of the disciples and the primacy that he would continue to have in the community that was born following the events of Easter. We see many references to this in the Acts of the Apostles (cfr. Acts 1,15-26; 2,14-40; 3,12-26; 4,8-12; 5,1-11.29; 8,14-17; 10; etc.).
  • His behaviour is considered to be so decisive that it continues to be the topic both of observation and of critique (cfr. Acts 11,1-18; Gal 2,11-14).
  • At the so-called Council of Jerusalem, Peter undertook a leading role (cfr. Acts 15 and Gal 2,1-10), and precisely because of this Paul recognised a certain quality in him as a witness to the true faith. It was the quality of being the "first" among the disciples that Paul noted (cfr. 1 Cor 15,5; Gal 1,18; 2,7s.; etc.).
  • The fact, moreover, that many of the key texts making mention of Peter within the context of the Last Supper, during which Christ confers on Peter the ministry of confirming his brothers (cfr. Luke 22,31 ff.), reveals how the Church whose birth took place at the time of the Passover commemoration, celebrated in the Eucharist, had one of its constituent elements entrusted to the ministry given to Peter.

What is the ultimate meaning of the primacy of Peter?

  • The contextualisation of the primacy of Peter at the Last Supper, at the moment when the institution of the Eucharist - the Lord's Passover - occurred is a clear indication of the ultimate meaning of this primacy:
    • Peter is to be the guardian of communion with Christ for all time; he must lead all to communion with Christ;
    • He must ensure that the net does not break and that it may allow universal communion to continue. We can only be with Christ if we are with Peter, since Christ is the Lord of all.
  • Peter has the responsibility of guaranteeing communion with Christ. He must ensure that we come to a full realisation of charity in our daily lives, the same charity with which Christ loves us.

How is the primacy of Peter linked with Rome?

  • Peter went to Rome, the centre of the empire, the symbol of the "Orbis" - the "Urbs" that expresses the "Orbis" - the earth. Here he endured martyrdom at the end of his service to the Gospel. For this reason the See of Rome, that had received this great honour, also took the honour given by Christ to Peter: to be at the service of all the particular Churches and for the edification and unity of the entire People of God.
  • The See of Rome was thus recognised as that which belonged to the successor of Peter, and the "cathera" or "chair" of its Bishop represented that of the Apostle whom Christ chose to look after his whole flock.
    The very early Fathers of the Church bear this out, for example
    • Saint Irenaeus (who came from Asia Minor and was later Bishop of Lyon), wrote a work entitled Against the Heresies in 180 A.D. In it he described the Church of Rome as being "the largest and the oldest, known by everyone; founded and constituted in Rome by the two glorious Apostles Peter and Paul "; and he adds: "On account of the Church's illustrious superiority, the universal Church must be in accord with it, in other words, the faithful who are everywhere" (III, 3, 2-3);
    • A little later in 200 A.D. Tertullian also affirmed: "How blessed is this Church of Rome! It was the Apostles themselves who poured out its entire teaching with their own blood " (The prescription of the heretics, 36);
    • And this is what Saint Jerome (who was born around the year 340 in Strido, on the borders of Pannonia) wrote: "I decided to consult the chair of Peter, where the faith exalted by the mouth of an Apostle is to be found; I go there now to seek nourishment for my soul, where once I received the garment of Christ. I do not follow any primate save that of Christ; in this way I place myself in communion with your blessedness, that is, with the chair of Peter. I know that the Church is built upon this rock." (Letters I, 15,1-2).
    • Furthermore there is also the important letter that Clement (the third successor of Peter) sent to the Church at Corinth in the year 96 A.D. This letter constitutes the first exercise of the Roman primacy after the death of Peter. Commenting upon this letter, Saint Irenaeus (Bishop of Lyon until 202) wrote: "Under Clement, following the outbreak of an argument among the brothers at Corinth, the Church in Rome sent a very important letter to Corinth to reconcile them in peace, to renew their faith and announce to them the tradition that they had only recently received from the Apostles" (Against the heresies 3,3,3).

What can the Pope do for us?

We can and ought to pray that the primacy of Peter, entrusted to mere human beings, may always be exercised according to how the Lord intended it, and that it may recognized according to its true meaning by those brothers and sisters who are not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church.

of the Basilica of Saints Ambrose and Charles, Rome
Monsignor Raffaello Martinelli

NB: For further information about the topics discussed, please see the following Pontifical document:

Benedict xvi, Wednesday Catechesis, 17-24 May and 7 June 2006.