Sense of Life. Articles in English. The Primacy of Saint Peter and His Successors.
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The Primacy of Saint Peter and His Successors


Jesus Christ desires to redeem everyone and to unite all sinners to Him, to free them from sin, and to make them righteous. That is why with the power of the Holy Spirit he creates the union of the church in which and through which he unceasingly carries on his work of salvation.

The church is a union of a special kind. The Lord Jesus compares it to a grape vine: “I am the vine and you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me” (Jn. 15:5). In another reference that union of sinners with Christ is called a Mystical Body, whose head is Christ (Col. 1:18; 1 Cor. 12:27). “You know that your bodies are parts of the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 6:15). “We have many parts in the one body, and all these parts have different functions. In the same way, though we are many, we are one body in union with Christ, and we are all joined to each other as different parts of one body” (Rom. 12:4-5).

Jesus Christ is the only Creator and Head of the Church’s union, which is His Mystical Body. It is thanks to Christ that “the whole body is nourished and held together by its joints and ligaments, and it grows as God wants it to grow” (Col 2:19). All members of the church are united to each other through the Holy Spirit. It is Christ’s only Church, After His Resurrection our Savior handed her over to Peter to be shepherded (Jn. 21:17), commissioning him and the other apostles to propagate and govern her (cf. Mt. 28:18 ff.). Here He erected for all ages as “the pillar and mainstay of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). This Church, constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in union with that successor (Council of Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 8).

In this living body of the church each person has one unique role to fulfill. And so our Lord Jesus chose twelve Apostles, passed on to them the gift of his ministry and instructed that they govern the entire church under Peter’s leadership, dispensing sacraments and proclaiming the revealed truth. In this manner Christ established a hierarchical structure. Jesus invested the apostle Peter with the greatest pastoral authority: “And so I tell you: you are Peter the rock, and on this rock I will build my church, and not even the gates of hell will prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of heaven; what you prohibit on earth will be prohibited in heaven, and what you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven” (Mt. 16: 18-19).

In giving Simon a new name, Jesus grants him the necessary special charismatic power and authority to fulfill the new and extraordinarily important role within the union of the church. The Lord Jesus turns Simon into Peter, that is a rock (in Hebrew Kefas, in Greek Petros), upon which the foundation of the church shall be laid (cf. Lk. 6:48). To be sure, only Jesus is the true foundation (Mt. 21:42; Eph 2:20), but Peter will partake by being accorded special privilege.

Our Lord Jesus explains how Peter will be the foundation of the church. Above all, he entrusts him with the highest authority, stating that he is giving him “the keys of the Kingdom of heaven”. Giving the keys to a city means the transfer of all authority over it (cf. Is. 22:22). With his comment on the definitive power to permit and prohibit, Our Lord Jesus emphasizes that this power is complete. Having all authority in heaven and on earth (Mt. 28:18), the Lord Jesus entrusts Simon with the fullness of his power so that he can wield it within the unity of the church.

“...I have prayed for you that your faith will not fail. And you for your part strengthen your brothers” (Lk. 22:32). In this way, the Lord Jesus explains what Peter’s exercise of the highest authority in the Church involves. Peter is above all to strengthen his brothers in faith. He will do this with the power conferred by the special charisma of infallibility in matters of faith and morality. This task was given to Peter in a specific context – that of the truth about the Eucharist, which was entrusted to the Apostles and their successors in order that they repeat what Jesus did at the Last Supper. Jesus bound the faith and the Eucharist very closely together (Jn. 6:26-71). Peter, who must strengthen the faith of his brothers, is simultaneously the one who must lead the apostles in dispensing the Eucharist and in proclaiming the truths of the faith.

After his resurrection the Lord Jesus asks Peter three times whether he loves him more than do the others. It is an allusion to St. Peter’s denial, three times repeated, and is at the same time a summons to the greatest love, which one must accept as a gift.

Jesus hands Peter pastoral authority over the entire church saying: “take care of my lambs”, “take care of my sheep” (Jn. 21:5 17). From then on Jesus’ mission becomes the mission of St Peter. The prognostication of martyrdom reconfirms this (Jn. 21:18). Jesus will fulfil his mission of “a good Shepherd” (Jn. 10) through the service of Peter. The manner in which the martyrdom of St. Peter is foretold demonstrates that from that moment on Jesus takes responsibility for Peter’s entire life.

All the Fathers of the Church, as well as the earliest Christian documents, point to the universally accepted truth of faith amongst the first Christians that Christ the Lord gave St. Peter the Apostle the highest authority and power over the whole church, and whoever is Peter’s successor in the bishop’s capital in Rome acquires Peter’s primacy over the whole church.

And so the Church, which is Christ’s union with sinners, possesses a visible structure. Jesus Christ himself established it: pope, bishops, priests, deacons, and lay people. Some maintain that faith alone and direct contact with Jesus are enough, and for that reason they have absolutely no need of any hierarchy nor the Church. Such a statement is a contradiction in itself, because every authentic contact with Jesus is a contact with his Mystical Body, which is the Church. So a real meeting with Jesus and the experience of his Love is only achieved through and in communion with the Church, which is led by the Pope, the successor to St. Peter and Jesus Christ’s representative. That is why the words uttered by Sister Lucia in Fatima are of unusual topical interest: “Where Peter is, there is the Church... he who is not with the Pope is not with God, and who desires to be with God must be with the Pope.”

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The article was published with the permission from "Love One Another!"

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