The primacy of Peter

On the shore of the Sea of Tiberias, also called the Sea of Galilee, there is a small church whose sanctuary is built around a large, flat rock. The church is called the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter, and the rock is the location where Jesus prepared and ate breakfast with the apostles after He rose from the dead, as we hear in this Sunday's Gospel. This little church, which can only seat a few dozen people in its pews, is a direct link to an historical event that took place 2,000 years ago. Not just any event, but an encounter between the apostles and Our Risen Lord, Jesus Christ. Yet not only is this site tied to the Resurrection of Our Lord, it is also the site where He commanded Peter to take charge of the church He was establishing on earth.

Of course, Peter was assigned his role by Jesus before the Resurrection. In the Gospel of Matthew, after Peter proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah and Son of the Living God, Jesus replies, "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 16:18-19). In this moment, Jesus renames Simon, son of Jonah, calling him Peter, taken from the Greek word for rock (petros). It is important to note that Jesus did not place Peter at the head of Peter's church, but His own church, that is, the church established by Jesus Christ on earth. Thus, Peter and his successors, the popes, would be given authority of the church established and maintained by the grace of Jesus Christ.

After being chosen as the "Rock," Peter shows his weakness several times before the Resurrection, most notably in his triple denial of Jesus Christ on the night of the Last Supper. Peter wept bitterly after turning his back on Jesus in His time of need, and must have considered himself unfit to lead the church as had been foretold. This Sunday, we hear the Risen Lord Jesus overturn that triple denial by asking Peter three times, "Do you love me more than these?" All three times, Peter responds, "Yes, Lord, You know that I love you." St. John Chrysostom, a doctor of the church, writes, "Three confessions (of love) are made to answer to the three denials (of Holy Thursday, when Peter denied knowing Jesus three times); that the tongue might show as much love as it had fear, and life gained draw out the voice as much as death threatened." Jesus knows that each of us, including Peter and all the saints, are human, and therefore are prone to sin, yet He offers all of us forgiveness and grace through His death and resurrection. While they bear the responsibility of leading the church of Jesus, Peter and his successors are imperfect, sinful and sometimes in error. Yet we confidently place our trust in Peter and his successors just as the Risen Lord does when He commands Peter to feed His sheep.

St. Catherine of Siena, a medieval saint and another doctor of the church, was known to speak very frankly to the pope during her time, a time in which the church and the papacy were soiled by confusion and corruption. However, she never failed to recognize the pope as "sweet Christ on earth," and she offers us the following regarding how we, too, are to esteem the successor to Peter that the Holy Spirit has chosen for us: "(T)hat which we do to him we do to Christ: we honor Christ if we honor the Pope; we dishonor Christ if we dishonor the Pope."

Jesus chose Peter to feed His sheep and be the rock on which He built His church. Our Catholic faith teaches us that the successors of Peter have been entrusted with the same mission, and thus we trust the grace to complete the same weighty responsibility. Let us always pray for our pope, our "Christ on Earth," that he may act in accord with the will of Jesus, and pray for ourselves, that we may grant him the honor and esteem worthy of his chosen role. We thank God for St. Peter and his successors, and we ask for His continued blessings upon Pope Francis as he leads Christ's church on earth.

Fr. Wagner is Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde's secretary.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016