Among the apostles, Peter is given a privilege: “… you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Mt. 16:18).
Such a privilege is given as a response to Peter’s response to our Lord’s question: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Mt 16:13).
Peter professes that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed son of the Father, the one who has come to enact God’s definitive judgment upon history. Christ promises that Peter will be given the keys of the kingdom of heaven, binding and loosing just like Eliakim (later King Josiah) in the Old Testament.
This moment in the Gospel of Matthew often serves as the basis for a Catholic apologetics for the papacy.
Peter is the rock upon which the Church will be built. And early Christians understood the privileged role played by Peter (and thus Rome) in the spreading of the Gospel.
But, for a moment, let’s remember Peter’s later role in the Gospel of Matthew. Faced with an accusation that he was a disciple of our now-condemned Lord, he responds three times: “‘I do not know the man’” (Mt 26:72).
The one who boldly proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah now denies him. Is the rock of the Church nothing but shifting sands?
Peter’s role as the rock of the Church is not dependent upon the strength of his own will. It is dependent upon the Lord’s promise alone. Peter doesn’t earn (or un-earn) his privileged status among the apostles.
He is chosen just as Abraham was chosen among all the nations.
He is chosen just as Jacob was chosen, even though his brother Esau was more powerful.
He is chosen just as David, who was ruddy in appearance (1 Sam 16:12), seemingly too weak, prone to sin, was chosen.
Our Lord chose Peter.
This is the great mystery that we dare to profess as those who belong to the Church. We did not earn our salvation through our own illustrious merits. Each of us, like Peter, belongs to a Church which is built upon the one unshakable cornerstone — Jesus Christ: “Come to him, a living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen in the sight of God” (1 Pt. 2:4).
Peter becomes the “rock” that he is intended to be when he gives his will entirely over to the risen Lord rather than relying upon his own power.
In this sense, the papacy isn’t a matter of power and prestige. It isn’t an office in which one gets to be in charge of the Catholic Church, binding and loosing whatever one feels like.
The papacy is an office that requires that the will of the office holder is given entirely over to the cornerstone, Jesus Christ.
In the end, the privilege of Peter is thus not earned by the intensity of his passion. It is given as a gift. After all, our Lord declares, “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father” (Mt 16:17).
Few of us will be the pope.
Few of us will occupy the chair of Peter.
But many of us have to learn what the Petrine privilege means.
We belong to a Church that we did not earn membership in.
Our existence in the Church comes as pure gift.
We have been sealed by the gift of the Spirit.
We, no matter whether or not we are the pope, are more like Peter than we realize.
Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.