As the Universal Church glories in the election of a new Supreme Pontiff, the awesome reverence with which St. Peter, the first head of the Apostolic College, was regarded is worth recalling.
In the first reading from Acts this coming Sunday, St. Luke writes of the near fanatical appreciation the believers in ancient Jerusalem displayed toward St. Peter: “Thus they even carried the sick out into the streets and laid them on cots and mats so that when Peter came by, at least his shadow might fall on one or another of them.” Actually St. Luke makes almost the same observation in a later chapter about St. Paul: “So extraordinary were the mighty deeds God accomplished at the hands of Paul that when face cloths or aprons that touched his skin were applied to the sick, their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.”
Surely both these inclusions were included in St. Luke’s history of the early Church to illustrate the continuity between the ministry of Christ and the ministry of the apostles. The same St. Luke had written in his Gospel account about Christ: “And a woman afflicted with hemorrhages for twelve years, who had spent her whole livelihood on doctors and was unable to be cured by anyone, came up behind him and touched the tassel on his cloak. Immediately her bleeding stopped.” The almost magical touch attributed to Jesus is now attributed to his most celebrated deputies.
And such twin reports were not alone. Recall that St. Peter resurrected the generous Church worker Tabitha at Joppa and that St. Paul resurrected the hapless young fellow Eutychus who fell out of the window at Troas. Remember also that while at Lystra St. Paul cured a man who had been crippled from birth much to the amazements of the crowds. This miracle had been anticipated of course by St. Peter who similarly strengthened the feet and ankles of a cripple while on the way to three o’clock prayer at the Temple.
So St. Luke’s reminiscences almost read like a balancing act between St. Peter and St. Paul. The two might come across as co-pontiffs, co-vicars for Christ, co-chief shepherds. But no, Jesus did not bequeath the primacy to a committee. The early Church, and certainly St. Luke, knew that St. Peter had been entrusted with the keys of the kingdom and all which that expression implies. It was precisely because St. Peter was appreciated as first among the apostolic band that St. Luke wrote the Acts of Apostles to justify the radical ministry of St. Paul to the wider Gentile community in light of precedents already set by St. Peter.
The Apostles at large had already broadened the small world of Aramaic Christianity by welcoming their Jewish but Greek-speaking neighbors into the fold. St. Stephen, a Greek-speaking Jew, was privileged to be the first to die for the faith heralding the first step in the Church’s ministry of worldwide evangelization. St. Philip had likewise successfully preached to the mixed blood denizens of Samaria. But it was St. Peter who received the inestimable privilege of first welcoming a Gentile family, individuals with no trace of Semitic blood, into the Church of Jesus Christ. St. Peter’s memorable words changed the whole course of Christianity: “Then Peter proceeded to speak and said,* “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.” Thus the great work of world-wide evangelization commenced.
The extensive missionary efforts of St. Paul had ramifications all throughout the Roman Empire. His contribution to the universality of the Church within a single generation from Christ cannot be underrated. But reaching out to the Gentile world, so emblematic of Christianity nowadays, was a radically new notion in the middle of the first century. Possibly even Christ himself thought that the Jews would first be converted and then they in turn would reach out to the wider world. St. Paul’s early advances toward the Gentile world needed justification.
And what greater justification could there be than the obvious fact that St. Peter, the Divinely appointed head of the believing community, had already reached out to the Gentile world when he accepted and baptized the family of Cornelius, a centurion attached to a Roman regiment. If Gentile evangelization were acceptable to St. Peter than the same was certainly permissible to St. Paul.
St. Paul once boldly reminded St. Peter that it was St. Peter who set the precedent. Amid all the accolades awarded both Apostles in Acts, St. Peter is clearly acknowledged as chief shepherd and guardian of the faith.