The Pope: Peter, the Rock

Dear Brothers and Sisters:

We resume the weekly catecheses that we began this spring. In the last one, two weeks ago, I spoke of Peter as the first apostle. Today we want to return once again to this great and important figure of the Church. The Evangelist John, when recounting the first meeting of Jesus with Simon, Andrew’s brothers, mentions a singular detail: “Jesus looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon the son of John; you will be called Cephas’ — which is translated Peter” (John 1:42). Jesus did not usually change his disciples’ names.

With the exception of the nickname “sons of thunder,” addressed in a specific circumstance to the sons of Zebedee (cf. Mark 3:17), and that afterward he would not use, he never attributed a new name to one of his disciples. He did so, however, with Simon, calling him Cephas, a name that was later translated into Greek as “Petros,” in Latin “Petrus.” And it was translated precisely because it was not just a name; it was a “mandate” that Petrus thus received from the Lord. The new name “Petrus” will return on several occasions in the Gospels and will end by replacing his original name, Simon.

This detail is of particular importance if one keeps in mind that, in the Old Testament, a change of name announced in general the conferring of a mission (cf. Genesis 17:5; 32:28ff, etc.). In fact, Christ’s will to attribute to Peter a special prominence within the apostolic college is manifested with many clues: In Capernaum, the Master stays in Peter’s house (Mark 1:29); when the crowds pressed upon him on the shores of the Lake of Gennesaret, between the two moored boats, Jesus chose Simon’s (Luke 5:3); when in particular circumstances Jesus remains only in the company of three disciples, Peter is always recalled as the first of the group. Thus it occurred in the resurrection of Jairus’ daughter (cf. Mark 5:37; Luke 8:51), in the Transfiguration (cf. Mark 9:2; Matthew 17:1; Luke 9:28), and finally during the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (cf. Mark 14:33; Matthew 16:37).

The tax collectors for the Temple went up to Peter, and the Master paid for himself and for Peter, and only for him (cf. Matthew 17:24-27); he was the first one whose feet he washed in the Last Supper (cf. John 13:6) and he prays only for him so that his faith would not fail and so that later he will be able to confirm the other disciples in it (cf. Luke 22:30-31).

On the other hand, Peter himself is aware of this particular position he has. He is the one who speaks often on behalf of the others, asking for explanations of a difficult parable (Matthew 15:15), or to ask about the exact meaning of a precept (cf. Matthew 18:21), or the formal promise of a recompense (Matthew 19:27). In particular, he is the one who surmounts the awkwardness of certain situations intervening in the name of all.

In this way, when Jesus, grieved by the incomprehension of the crowd after his discourse on the “bread of life,” asks: “Do you also want to leave?”, Peter’s answer was peremptory: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:67-69). Jesus then pronounces the solemn declaration that defines, once and for all, Peter’s role in the Church: “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” (Matthew 16:18-19).

The three metaphors to which Jesus takes recourse are very clear in themselves: Peter will be the rock foundation upon which the building of the Church will be based; he will have the keys of the Kingdom of heaven to open and close to whom he thinks it is just; finally, he will be able to bind or loose, that is, will be able to establish or prohibit what he considers necessary for the life of the Church, which is and will continue to be Christ’s. It is always Christ’s Church and not Peter’s. He describes with plastic images what subsequent reflection will describe with the term “primacy of jurisdiction.”

This pre-eminent position that Jesus willed to give Peter is also seen after the resurrection: Jesus tells the women to take the announcement to Peter, singling him out among the other apostles (cf. Mark 16:7); Magdalene runs to him and to John to tell them the stone has been removed from the entrance of the sepulcher (cf. John 20:2) and John will let him go first when they arrive before the empty tomb (cf. John 20:4-6); later, Peter will be, among the apostles, the first witness of the apparition of the Risen One (cf. Luke 24:34; 1 Corinthians 15:5).

This role, underlined with determination (cf. John 20:3-10), marks the continuity between his pre-eminence in the group of the apostles and the pre-eminence that he will continue to have in the community born with the paschal events, as the book of the Acts of the Apostles attests (cf. 1:15-26; 2:14-40; 3:12-26; 4:8-12; 5:1-11,29; 8:14-17; 10; etc.]. His conduct is considered so decisive that it is the object of observations and also of criticisms (cf. Acts 11:1-18; Galatians 2:11-14).

In the so-called Council of Jerusalem, Peter carries out an executive function (cf. Acts 15 and Galatians 2:1-10), and precisely by the fact of being witness of the authentic faith, Paul himself will recognize in him a “first” role (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:5; Galatians 1:18; 2:7ff, etc.). Moreover, the fact that several of the key texts referring to Peter can be framed in the context of the Last Supper, in which Christ entrusts to Peter the ministry of confirming his brothers (cf. Luke 22:31ff], shows how the Church, which is born from the paschal memorial celebrated in the Eucharist, has in the ministry entrusted to Peter one of its constitutive elements.

This context of the primacy of Peter in the Last Supper, at the moment of the institution of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Pasch, also indicates the ultimate meaning of this primacy: For all times, Peter must be the custodian of the communion with Christ; he must guide in the communion with Christ so that the net will not tear but sustain the great universal communion. Only together can we be with Christ, who is Lord of all. Peter’s responsibility thus consists of guaranteeing the communion with Christ with the charity of Christ, guiding the realization of this charity in everyday life. Let us pray so that the primacy of Peter, entrusted to poor human beings, may always be exercised in this original sense desired by the Lord, so that it will be increasingly recognized in its true meaning by brothers who are still not in communion with us.

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~ by Rob on June 8, 2006.

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