St. Peter’s keys to the kingdom

There is a whole theology in a stained-glass window, because the saints are windows into God. Keying off of this idea, the great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar once proposed that we see four models of the Church in Sts. Peter, Paul, John and Mary.

Over the next four months, I propose taking a look at these models and the way in which each of these saints shows us these different faces of the Church.

The point is not, of course, to rank these different models as “better” or “worse,” nor to set them in competition with one another. All the saints contribute something vital to the Church, and the Church, in her various modes and ministries, reveals the love of God in its amazing diversity and still more amazing simplicity and consistency.

As St. Paul writes to the Church in Corinth:

“If a foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,’ it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. Or if an ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,’ it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended. If they were all one part, where would the body be? But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I do not need you’” (1 Cor 12:15-21).

It is in this spirit that we should approach the four models of the Church.

Let us begin then with the Rock upon which the Church is built: St. Peter. Peter represents the Church of Office. This is the institutional Church, the Church of structure.

Meaning of ‘the Church’

When people say “The Catholic Church,” they typically mean the Church of Peter: the pope, bishops, priests and deacons. People will, of course, have all sorts of opinions, positive and negative, about whether the Catholic Church should have structure or have the structure it has, just as they have a million answers to Jesus’ question “Who do you say that I am?” But nobody questions that the Catholic Church has a structure. It’s difficult to miss over 300 bishops in the United States alone.

Indeed, it is so obvious that people often forget that those bishops themselves insist that the Church is also the whole People of God and not just the pope, bishops, priests and deacons.

Others are sure that the structure was something Jesus never intended — that Jesus just wanted to “flow with the Spirit,” and that a Church with structure is alien to his vision. But there is little evidence for that and plenty for the Church’s insistence that Jesus, not his disciples, created the Church of Office and structure, beginning with his own pledge to Peter: “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” (Mt 16:18-19).

There is even more evidence when we note that Jesus himself appointed 12 apostles and promised them the authority and power to govern the Church (Lk 22:28-30) and assured them that anybody who listened to them listened to him (Lk 10:16). And those apostles, using that apostolic authority, immediately began creating the structures and offices of the Church that still exist to this day, instituting the diaconate (Acts 6) and bishops to succeed them (Acts 14:23). And those bishops, by that same authority, appointed priests to celebrate the liturgy when the Church soon grew too big for them to be everywhere at once.

Choosing Peter

It is notable that the Church is founded on someone whom G.K. Chesterton described as a “shuffler, a snob, and a coward — in a word, a man,” whose task is to be the sign of unity and to weigh and sift the Tradition in search of the voice of Christ and the authentic tradition. Peter is chosen not because he is a genius or without flaw but because Christ loves him in all his averageness, dullness, failure and sin. Indeed, by the grace of God, Peter incarnates in his office the mercy of God to a flock whose very first qualification for baptism is that we are all, like Peter, a bunch of failures and screwups.

Among Peter’s first words to Jesus are “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Lk 5:8). The guy who promised that he would die for Jesus and then denied him three times is the guy to whom Jesus, having obtained three professions of love, said “Feed my sheep.”

In short, Jesus, in contrast, creates a Church of Office in which the one who is greatest must be the very least and then triple underscores that by choosing a knucklehead who distinguishes himself by asking dumb questions, chasing off little mothers and children who want to see Jesus, and chickening out on him three time in his darkest hour. This is not your typical Seven Steps to $ucce$$ story. He gives us a shepherd who knows in his marrow just how weak our best intentions can be, but who also knows that, by grace, we can still be forgiven, restored and go on to be saints.

Essential structure

Peter is a curious combination of slow on the uptake and impulsive.

He spends a lot of time in the Gospels not getting it. Peter is the guy who is told three times that the Son of Man will be crucified and rise on the third day and who still doesn’t know what that means. He’s the leader of the guys who think “Beware the leaven of the Pharisees” is a reminder to pack your lunch.

He’s the one Jesus singles out to call “Satan” when he tries to order Jesus not to go to Jerusalem and death. He’s the guy who chops off the ear of Malchus.

But he’s also the guy who genuinely learns from his mistakes and puts hard-won experience to memory for future use. He ruminates, and when he comes to a conclusion, it can be startling and even shocking when, for instance, he blurts out, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” while the other apostles are looking at their feet uncomfortably (Mt 16:16).

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Some time after that, it is Peter who will, at the Council of Jerusalem, arrive at the stunning and counterintuitive conclusion that Gentiles need only faith in Christ, not the ceremonial laws of Moses, in order to be saved (Acts 15). And after that, he will become the man who humbly receives correction from Paul for failure to heed his own teaching (Gal 2) and, finally, the martyr who drops his sword and accepts death for his Lord. He is a man who discovers his true face, not through navel-gazing, but by seeing it reflected in the eyes of Christ.

Peter and the Church of Office are, in the end, here to feed Christ’s sheep. And they must be fed with the Word of God and the bread and wine of the Eucharist, not with warm thoughts and noble aspirations. Peter’s Church of Office is the skeletal structure of the Church.

People often complain that the Official Church is too stiff.But the job of a skeleton is to be stiff so that the body can be flexible. Peter’s Church of Office makes certain Christ’s teaching does not melt into a blob. It is Peter and the bishops who take care that we receive not mush, but the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus in the Eucharist.

Mark Shea writes from Washington.