Pope Benedict XVI met with 50,000 people in St. Peter’s Square during his general audience on June 7. He resumed his teachings on the mystery of the Church’s apostolic ministry, once again focusing on the apostle Peter.
The Holy Father recalled that Jesus himself gave Simon the name “Cephas” (which is translated Peter), the only instance where Jesus gave a new name to one of his apostles. “This fact takes on particular significance when you consider how, in the Old Testament, a change of name often served as a prelude to a new mission,” he pointed out. “In fact, there are numerous indications that it was Christ’s desire to give Peter a special place of prominence within the college of apostles.”
From the beginning, Pope Benedict XVI noted, Peter often appeared as the leader and spokesman for the apostles. After Peter proclaimed the apostles’ faith in Christ as the Son of God, Jesus made Peter the rock on which he would build his Church. At the Last Supper, Jesus prayed that Peter’s faith would not waver and that he would confirm his brethren in the faith. Peter was the first of the apostles to see the risen Lord and the Acts of the Apostles confirms that Peter exercised a preeminent role in the early Church.
The ministry which Christ entrusted to Peter is a constitutive element of the Church and is closely linked to the very source of her life: the Lord’s paschal mystery and its memorial in the Eucharist. “Throughout the ages, Peter must be the custodian of communion with Christ; he must guide toward communion with Christ; he must ensure that the net does not break but sustains the universal communion,” Pope Benedict XVI pointed out. “Only together can we be with Christ, who is Lord of all. Thus, Peter’s responsibility is to guarantee communion with Christ with Christ’s love, to see that this love is carried out in everyday life.”
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
We are resuming the weekly catecheses that we began this spring. Two weeks ago during the last catechesis, I spoke of Peter as the first of the apostles. Today we will once again return to this great and important figure in the Church.
When recounting Jesus’ first meeting with Simon, Andrew’s brother, John the Evangelist reports a curious event: “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 the names of his disciples. With the exception of the nickname “sons of thunder” that he used to address the sons of Zebedee in one specific instance (see Mark 3:17) and did not use afterwards, Jesus never gave any of his disciples a new name. He did so with Simon, however, calling him Cephas, a name that was later translated into Greek as Petros and in Latin as Petrus. And it was translated precisely because it was not simply a name; it was a “mandate” that Petrus had thus received from the Lord. His new name Petrus surfaces again and again in the Gospels, and ends up replacing his original name, Simon.
A New Mission
This fact takes on particular significance when you consider how, in the Old Testament, a change of name often served as a prelude to a new mission (see Genesis 17:5; 32:28-29, etc.). In fact, there are numerous indications that it was Christ’s desire to give Peter a special place of prominence within the college of apostles.
In Capernaum, the Master stays in Peter’s house (Mark 1:29). When the crowds swarm around him on the shores of Lake Gennesaret, from among the two boats that are moored there, Jesus chooses Simon’s (Luke 5:3).
When, in certain instances, only three of Jesus’ disciples accompany him, reference is always made to Peter as the first in the group, as is the case with the resurrection of Jairus’ daughter (see Mark 5:37; Luke 8:51), at the transfiguration (see Mark 9:2; Matthew 17:1; Luke 9:28), and, finally, during the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (see Mark 14:33; Matthew 16:37). Moreover, Peter is the one the collectors of the Temple tax approach, and the Master pays only for himself and for Peter (see Matthew 17:24-27). Peter is the first one whose feet Jesus washes during the Last Supper (see John 13:6) and Jesus prays for him alone so that his faith will not fail and so that later he will be able to confirm the other disciples in the faith (see Luke 22:30-31).
On the other hand, Peter himself is aware of his special position. He is the one who often speaks on behalf of the others, asking for the explanation of a difficult parable (see Matthew 15:15), the exact meaning of a precept (see Matthew 18:21), or the formal promise of a reward (Matthew 19:27). In particular, he is the one who resolves certain awkward situations by intervening on behalf of all.
For example, when Jesus, saddened by the crowd’s failure to comprehend his words regarding the “bread of life,” asks, “Do you also want to leave?” Peter’s reply is peremptory: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:67-69). Peter’s declaration of faith when they are in the region of Caesarea Philippi, once again on behalf of the Twelve Apostles, is equally decisive. To Jesus’ question “But who do you say that I am?” Peter replies “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (see Matthew 16:15-16).
Jesus, in reply, then makes a 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 refers are themselves very clear: Peter will be the rock foundation upon which the building of the Church rests; he will hold the keys of the Kingdom of heaven to open or close to whom he deems fit; finally, he will be able to bind or loose, meaning that he will be able to establish or prohibit whatever he considers necessary for the life of the Church, which belongs to and will always belong to Christ.
It is always Christ’s Church and not Peter’s. He describes in concrete images what subsequent reflection will label the “primacy of jurisdiction.”
The Primacy of Peter
The position of prominence that Jesus wished to confer upon Peter is seen once again after the resurrection. Jesus entrusts the women with the task of telling Peter about it, singling him out among the other apostles (see Mark 16:7).
It is to Peter and John that Mary Magdalene runs to tell them that the stone has been removed from the entrance to the tomb (see John 20:2); and John lets Peter go first when they both arrive at the empty tomb (see John 20:4-6). Later, Peter will be the first witness among the apostles of the risen Lord’s appearance (see Luke 24:34; 1 Corinthians 15:5).
His role, which is highlighted in a very definite way (see John 20:3-10), marks the continuity between the preeminence he had within the group of apostles and the preeminence that he will continue to have in the community to which the events of Easter gave birth as recorded in the book of the Acts of the Apostles (see Acts 1:15-26; 2:14-40; 3:12-26; 4:8-12; 5:1-11,29; 8:14-17; 10; etc.).
The way in which he conducts himself is considered so decisive that it becomes the object of attention and of criticism (see Acts 11:1-18; Galatians 2:11-14). At the so-called Council of Jerusalem, Peter carries out an executive role (see Acts 15 and Galatians 2:1-10), and precisely because he is a witness of the authentic faith, Paul himself recognizes that he has a certain quality of being “first” (see 1 Corinthians 15:5; Galatians 1:18; Galatians 2:7-14, etc.). Moreover, the fact that several of the key texts referring to Peter can be associated with the Last Supper, during which Christ conferred upon Peter with the ministry of confirming his brothers (see Luke 22:31-71), shows how the Church, which is born from the paschal memorial celebrated in the Eucharist, has one of her constitutive elements in the ministry entrusted to Peter.
Custodian of Communion
Placing the primacy of Peter within the context of the Last Supper at the moment that the Eucharist, the Lord’s Pasch, was instituted is also an indication of the ultimate meaning of this primacy. Throughout the ages, Peter must be the custodian of communion with Christ; he must guide toward communion with Christ; he must ensure that the net does not break but sustains the universal communion. Only together can we be with Christ, who is Lord of all. Thus, Peter’s responsibility is to guarantee communion with Christ with Christ’s love, to see that this love is carried out in everyday life.
Let us pray that the primacy of Peter, which has been entrusted to weak human beings, will always be exercised in this original sense that the Lord desired and that brothers who are not yet in full communion with us will increasingly recognize its true meaning.