Christ Founded the Church on the Papacy

June 29, 2014: Solemnity: Sts. Peter and Paul

Acts 12:1-11
Psalms 34:2-9
Second Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18
Matthew 16:13-19

Today’s Gospel passage can be a hard one for us modern Catholics. The germ of individualism has infected us all. It is an intellectual germ, an idea that gets into our head and tries to make us see the world as a collection of self-sufficient, independent, autonomous people. But that’s not how things are. God created human beings in His image, and He is not a solitary God; He is the Blessed Trinity — three persons in one divine nature. Therefore, we too are meant to live in community, to be interdependent individuals. Therefore, when Jesus announces His plans to build a Church, He doesn’t describe a bunch of independent Christians, each one acting like His own pope. Instead, He points to the one, divinely guaranteed foundation that will make His Church an organic and indestructible community of believers: the papacy.

Jesus announced this plan as He and His Apostles were passing by the city of Caesarea Philippi. This city was constructed on the top of a huge hill, one side of which was a bare rock cliff. It gave the town an appearance of solidity, unity, invincibility, and magnificence. In the shadow of that rock cliff, Jesus explains that His Church will be unified, victorious, and invincible, because it too will be founded on rock, the rock of Peter. Peter will receive authority to rule Christ’s Church in Christ’s name, symbolized by the “Keys of the kingdom of heaven.” This authority has remained intact through twenty centuries of popes (the successors of St Peter as Vicars of Christ on earth), giving the Catholic Church unity of faith, worship, and governance in spite of its members’ many failings.

This is why the great St Augustine could say: “Ubi Petrus, ibi Ecclesia” (Wherever Peter is, there the Church is).

This primacy of Peter among the other Apostles, and the continued primacy of the pope among the bishops, is one of the major doctrinal differences between Catholic Christians and non-Catholic Christians. There is much more that unites the different groups of Christians than divides us: we all believe in the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the inspiration of the Bible, and many other things. This gives us hope that we can reestablish full unity among all Christians.

Yet, the pope has continued to teach by word and example that real unity can only be achieved if we also honestly face our differences.

Today’s Gospel passage is especially helpful for understanding the key difference of the papacy. Some critics twist this passage into nonsensical knots by pointing out that the Greek word for rock (Peter) (seemingly forgetting or ignoring the fact that Jesus did not speak in Greek, nor did Matthew write in Greek, but rather Jesus spoke and Matthew wrote in Aramaic) is of the feminine gender (in Greek all nouns are gender-specific). They conclude, therefore, that Christ wasn’t really applying the term to Simon (even though he changed it into a masculine form when he made it into a name) but only to Simon’s faith. Other critics claim that Christ said these words while pointing to himself. Such objections unnecessarily complicate a simple, straight¬forward text. They also ignore the many other passages in the New Testament that illustrate Peter’s primacy among the Twelve. For example: Christ originally renamed him “Peter” in Chapter One of John’s Gospel, when he first met him. Moreover, renaming people in the Bible is much more than handing out nicknames; it signifies receiving a new role in salvation history. Then, during the Last Supper Christ prayed in a special way for Peter and gave him a special commission to “confirm your brethren in the faith” (Luke 22:32). Christ also gave him a unique commission after His resurrection, when He commanded him three times to “feed my sheep” (John 21). As well, Peter’s name always appears first on the lists of the Twelve Apostles, and the only name that appears more often in the New Testament is Christ’s himself.

There is one Lord: Jesus Christ. Moreover, He founded one Church to wage His definitive war against sin and evil: that Church’s keys are in Peter’s hands.

This is why, as St José María Escrivá put it, “Love for the Roman Pontiff must be in us a delightful passion, for in him we see Christ.” St Catherine of Siena used to call the pope, “My sweet Christ on earth.” In fact, deep respect and love for the papacy and the popes is a universal quality among the saints. It isn’t based on the pope’s personality or good looks. It is based on the mission he has received from Christ, a mission benefiting the entire Church and even the entire world. Cultivating our love for the pope increases our love for Christ, the source of every Christian’s courage and wisdom.

We can express and grow in our love for the pope in many ways, but the most basic and heartfelt way is to pray for him.

This is an ancient tradition for all Catholics. The very texts of every Eucharistic Prayer in the missal insure that we pray for the pope, by name, every time Mass is celebrated. Praying for the pope is a requirement for obtaining indulgences. It is part of every pilgrimage. John Paul II even recommended that we add three extra Hail Marys to the Rosary, for the pope and his intentions. It is almost impossible to imagine a Catholic who sincerely loves Christ and the Church, and who does not pray for the pope. Praying for the pope reminds us that God is the one guiding the Church, and that the papacy is only His chosen instrument. At the same time, it exercises true Christian love for the man chosen by Providence for such a thankless and difficult role.

They are not supermen; they need prayers as much we do — they are counting on our prayers.

On this Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, let’s renew our commitment to join all Catholics throughout the world, praying every day for our Holy Father.

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