It would be difficult to find a more eloquent tribute to St. Peter than that written by St. John Chrysostom: “Peter, the leader of the choir, the mouth of all the apostles, the head of that tribe, the ruler of the whole world, the foundation of the Church, the ardent lover of Christ.”
The Year A readings during the Easter season focus on Peter, first, in recounting his great sermons and deeds as recorded in the first half of the Acts of the Apostles and, second, in his own words from his first epistle. One of the reasons for this is so we might contemplate the essential role of Peter, the first pope and Vicarius Christi (Vicar of Christ), in the early Church. And in hearing about Peter’s role, we can also better appreciate the nature and purpose of the papacy — in the ancient Church and today.
The Church teaches that Jesus Christ formed the New Israel, the Church, by first calling together the Twelve, of which Peter was the head. Simon Peter was given the keys to the Kingdom (see Mt 16:16-20) and established as “shepherd of the whole flock” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 880-81). He, along with the other apostles, was given a unique and foundational authority by the Lord to teach, to govern and to sanctify.
These three tasks are evident in today’s first reading, which is part of Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost and a description of the response to it.
Peter’s proclamation was an act of teaching, concentrated on the person of his Master: “Let the whole house of Israel know for certain that God has made both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
Some scholars and critics have sought to pit Peter against Paul, as if they were competitors or even bearers of conflicting messages. But the core of each of their teaching was identical: “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23; see 1 Cor 2:2). As Peter wrote, Christ “himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross” (1 Pt 2:24).
Second, we see that Peter, as head of the apostles, guided and governed the administration of the sacraments: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you.” While some fundamentalist Protestants argue that the papacy and holy orders obscure or even undermine the saving work of Christ, the opposite is the case. The hierarchy of the Church on the day of Pentecost made certain that the shared goal of bringing the supernatural gift of baptism to those present would take place in an orderly, understandable manner. It’s all well and good to rail against “organized religion,” but disorganized religions usually consist of a single adherent and a short life span.
Finally, the baptizing of 3,000 on that day was a sanctifying action of the Holy Spirit, who worked in and through the saving sacraments of the Church. Peter knew that salvation comes by the Cross. He also knew that Satan seeks to pit a false understanding of Jesus Christ against the truth of the Cross. It was Peter who, upon hearing Jesus speaking prophetically of his death, exclaimed, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” How could he forget the Lord’s rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Mt 16:22-23)?
Peter was indeed a shepherd, the first pope. But he knew that his authority to shepherd came from “the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Ignatiusinsight.com.