The evidence in Scripture for the primacy of the Office of Peter within the Universal Church frankly is overwhelming. All four Gospel accounts record the celebrated confession of St. Peter as he speaks for the other eleven apostles and acknowledges Christ to the Messiah. “You are the Christ!” St. Peter professes tersely in St. Mark’s Gospel. “The Messiah of God,” are the few words St. Luke places on St. Peter’s lips in his narrative. Much more solemn are the phrases found in St. Matthew’s account, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And St. John, for his part, closes his profound teachings on the Eucharist with these intense words: “Simon Peter answered him, ‘Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.’”
In the Gospel account according to St. Mark, the confession of St. Peter is not only theologically central, it is also textually central. St. Mark’s Gospel account contains sixteen chapters. The confession by St. Peter is in the middle of chapter eight – the very center of St. Mark’s narrative. The previous eight chapters celebrate Christ the wonder worker, Christ the great preacher, Christ the sympathetic healer. The next eight chapters will hail Christ the suffering Servant, Christ who gave “his back to those who beat him, his cheeks to those who plucked his beard; whose face he did not shield from buffets and spitting,” just as Isaiah had predicted in this Sunday’s first reading. Peter’s confession was indeed a turning point. In St. Mark’s Gospel and in salvation history.
St. Matthew, like St. John and like St. Mark, gives ample evidence that the confession of St. Peter was a critical point in salvation history. St. Matthew’s Gospel narrative is perhaps the most celebrated of the four versions of St. Peter’s profession of faith: “Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. 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.” Many a Catholic sanctuary is emblazoned with these triumphal words!
But the primacy of the office of Peter does not rest on a single incident no matter how central to the Gospel text. Consider that St. Peter was among the very first apostles to be selected by Christ at the beginning of his ministry. St. Peter is equally prominent at the conclusion of Jesus’ ministry as he peers into the empty tomb. The women are advised to “go and tell Peter and the other disciples” that Jesus is risen. St. Peter uniquely has his named altered from Simon to Peter. Peter is included among the intimate three who witness the Transfiguration, the raising of Jairus’ daughter and the agony in the garden. It is Peter who attempts to walk on the angry sea. Peter is sent to fetch the coin from the fish’s mouth. It is Peter’s denials that are solely recounted in the Passion accounts. It is St. Peter who is given the commission to “feed my lambs….feed my sheep.” It is Peter who breaks the disciples’ isolation on Pentecost and speaks to the festive crowds. It is Peter (not Paul) who baptizes the first pagan.
The Office of our current Holy Father, Pope Francis, and the ministries of the previous Roman Pontiffs are rooted in Sacred Tradition and confirmed by Sacred Scriptures. The Papacy (St. Peter would not recognize the word) has clearly evolved over the centuries – as the Church itself has. Yet the unique position of the Bishop of Rome wisely reflects the unique position in salvation history of Jesus Christ himself. Unity is just as much a mark of the Church as universality. As the Church eagerly and persistently evangelizes human society, the office of our Holy Father provides an unfailing link with revealed truth as found in the original Gospel message and in the believing community’s sacred traditions as well as with the Divine truths implanted in the natural world. Pope Francis’ imminent visit to the United States will provide a visible, audible and paternal link to that Petrine ministry instituted by Christ himself two millennia ago. The Office of Peter continues the work of Christ.