The 27 books of the New Testament were written over a span of perhaps 60 years and they were written over an area of perhaps half the Mediterranean world. St. Paul’s earliest epistles were written possibly around 45 A.D.; the final works of St. John came into circulation maybe in 100 A.D. The various letters and books could have been written in Jerusalem, Syria, Turkey, Greece or Rome. Given this varied background, the centrality of St. Peter in the minds of all the New Testament authors is compelling.
St. Matthew’s famous presentation of St. Peter’s affirmation of Christ’s messiahship, which forms this Sunday’s Gospel, certainly reflects the great esteem in which St. Peter was held in St. Matthew’s church community. But highlighting St. Peter and his ministry is certainly not limited to this one Gospel passage. Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul all give pride of place to Simon Peter, and in many various ways.
All four Gospel accounts report St. Peter’s celebrated profession of faith ranging from St. Mark’s meagre “You are the Messiah” and St. Luke’s modest “The Messiah of God” to St. John’s heartfelt “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” and certainly St. Mathew’s “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” When a question is asked of the Twelve, St. Peter is the invariable spokesman. St. Peter is the one who attempts to walk on water, who finds the coin in the fish’s mouth, who draws his sword in defense of Christ. St. Peter’s denials are the only ones reported although the other 10 apostles were equally guilty. “Feed my lambs…feed my sheep” was a commission given uniquely by Christ to St. Peter. “Strengthen your brothers,” was similarly addressed only to St. Peter by Christ. After the resurrection the women are told to go and tell “Peter and the other disciples” of Jesus’ return. The prominence of St. Peter in the Gospel accounts is undeniable.
The Acts of Apostles also bears powerful witness to St. Peter’s eminent standing in the early Church. In fact, in the Acts of Apostles, St. Luke attempts to justify the ministry of St. Paul to the Gentiles in the light of St. Peter’s having already begun such a ministry. St. Peter was the first to preach to the masses on Pentecost Sunday, including many foreigners from the Mediterranean world. Remember also that St. Peter was the first to convert the Gentile family of Cornelius the centurion long before St. Paul came along. St. Peter was the first to declare all foods clean, a vast departure from Jewish custom. When St. Paul came along with a much more ambitious program toward the Gentile world what better justification for this novelty could be found than to assert that St. Peter had already set the precedent? Although St. Peter and St. Paul had their differences over the observances of the old Jewish dietary laws, St. Paul still felt obliged to seek St. Peter’s blessing for his ministry to the wider world.
St. Luke cleverly employs geography to assert the primary role of St. Peter in salvation history. St. Luke’s Gospel account is a steady topographical progress from Nazareth in the north of Israel to Jerusalem in the south of Israel. Jesus begins his life conceived in the womb of the Virgin at Nazareth, but consummates his life on the southern hills of Jerusalem, dying on one hill, ascending to heaven from another. Jerusalem meant destiny for Jesus. The Acts of Apostles employs a similar geographical motif for St. Peter. Acts begins in Jerusalem, the center of Judaism, where St. Peter first preaches the Good News, but Acts terminates in Rome, the soon-to-be center of Christianity, the church community of St. Peter’s final years. St. Peter’s advance toward Rome is just as divinely planned as Christ’s advance toward Jerusalem. St. Luke’s lesson is that the all other apostolic regions around the Mediterranean world must acknowledge the providential preeminence of St. Peter’s apostolic mission at Rome.
Roman Catholics should be justly and confidently proud that our faith tradition has rightly and honestly and courageously maintained this biblical belief in the primacy of St. Peter. Human excesses and deficiencies notwithstanding, the office of Peter, rooted in the Will of Christ and affirmed by the Scriptures, continues the shepherding mission of Jesus Christ himself. For Roman Catholics, the rock of Peter is still the enduring touchstone of doctrinal authenticity and moral authority.