Peter among the Apostles

papal-conclaveWith the imminent election of a new pope, the role of the Bishop of Rome has come into focus in popular and religious media. It struck me that the many formalities and traditions that accompany a papal election, as interesting as they might be, have had the effect of putting into the shade the bases of the papacy in Catholic faith. This seems a lost opportunity to provide ‘reasons for our hope’ (1 Pet. 3:15)

In short, little attention has been given to the ‘why’ of the papacy, a ‘why’ which is significant not only for Catholic believers in their own understanding of the Church but also for non-Catholic Christians who are often, and it must be said not always unreasonably, ‘put off’ by an apparent obsession with ceremonial fanfare over and above the simplicity of biblical discipleship.

Indeed, Paul VI lamented in 1967 that ‘the Pope . . . is undoubtedly the most serious obstacle on the path to ecumenism’. His eventual successor, John Paul II, was to take a more positive view in regards to the ecumenical significance of the papacy, asking how the Petrine Office could accomplish a service of love and unity recognised by all. As the Oxford theologian Fergus Kerr notes, the Polish pontiff even appealed to Christians who are not now, and perhaps never likely to be in full communion with Rome, to help in reshaping the papal ministry (see Ut Unum Sint 4). This recognised not only the possibility of papal reform but situated the task of the papacy within an ecumenical context, within a communion of faith that was ‘already but not yet’.

peter-iconFor Catholics, of course, the pope is understood to be the successor of the apostle Peter and so has ‘full, immediate, ordinary and general jurisdiction’ or primacy over the college of bishops and indeed over the whole Church. What does this rather foreboding statement mean? It means he has a distinct, ecclesial responsibility to proclaim and preserve the faith in its purity and plenitude as well as uphold the unity of the communion of faith, with personal, and not merely delegated, authority to intervene in the workings of another bishop and local churches in service of that ecclesial communion.

Contrary to ‘ultramontanists’ who confuse the papacy with the Church, it should be kept in view that the pope is not the only principle of the Church’s unity (lest we forget the Holy Spirit, for one, and the worldwide episcopate to name another). The Petrine Office is firmly embedded within the Church, in service of the Church’s unity and not above it.

Put in terms of an ecclesiology of communion, the pope is for Catholic faith the visible point of communion of the local churches and cannot, and should not, act as an absolute monarch. Why? This is because it is the college of bishops as a whole that is understood to be of divine law (ius divinum), a college that the pope could never abolish or do away with and of which he remains a member. So the Pope is a head of a college of bishops, belonging wholly to this college while never being simply its delegate. ‘Peter’ remains an ‘apostle’ while the ‘apostles’ do have Peter as their head. Indeed, ‘papal infallibility’, that ability of the pope to proclaim what the faith is, cannot be understood apart from the faith of the college of bishops and so is intrinsically linked to the faith of the whole Church (and anything but an autonomous or private opinion).

greekorthWhat do other denominations make of all of this? Many non-Catholic Christians reject the entire notion of the papacy and its theological or biblical foundations. Closer to home, the Orthodox – whose bishops the Catholic Church does recognise as legitimate, sacramental bishops, of genuine apostolic succession – while not strictly or necessarily objecting to a place of honour for the Bishop of Rome among the world’s bishops, do not believe that the Bishop of Rome should have any juridical claim over a local bishop. In other words, they reject the idea that the Bishop of Rome can actually interfere with another bishop in the governance of his own diocese.

johnsgospelSo, to return to what I think has been a missed opportunity in recent weeks, what are the bases of the papacy in Catholic faith? The most basic approach is to reflect on the biblical warrant for the Petrine Office and to offer this in conversation to other Christians of goodwill. Specifically, how might we understand Peter’s role among the apostles, a role in the primitive Church that underpins, at least in part, Catholic faith on this subject?

The biblical and theological literature concerning Peter’s role in the early Christian community is vast and includes important contributions by Rudolf Pesch, Martin Hengel, Christian Grappe, Raymond Brown and the Australian theologian Gerald O’Collins.

The classic Scriptural texts which have been understood to establish Peter’s primacy among the apostles are well-known and have been well covered in apologetic debates. They are:

  • Matthew 16:18-19 (‘And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven) Note to conclave enthusiasts: This passage is traditionally read to the newly-elected Pope and cardinal-electors prior to the pontiff’s first appearance at the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica;
  • Luke 22:31-32 (‘Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers’)
  • John 21:15-18 (detailing Jesus’ repeated command to Peter, ‘feed my sheep’).

However, beyond these familiar texts, there are others which I think disclose Peter’s distinctive role and authority within the first community of disciples. We know, for one, that the Gospel of Mark was written not long after Peter’s martyrdom in Rome (c.60-70) and that it transmits the witness of Peter himself to Jesus’ life and ministry. This testifies to the importance of Peter’s witness for the early Church community.

Peter_the_apostleAs Gerald O’Collins avers, Peter stands out as well among the apostles as the first witness to the resurrection, and therefore one whose Easter faith and proclamation of that event is central to the Church’s life. This witness to the Risen Jesus is, as O’Collins points out, a much neglected dimension of the figure of Peter.

I suspect many Catholics would be surprised by this claim and would more likely name ‘Mary Magdalene’ as the first witness to the Risen Jesus and for good reason. After all, in all four Gospels she is present at the empty tomb. However, an empty tomb is not Jesus himself and Mary Magdalene is named as first witness to the Risen Jesus only in Matthew 28:1-10 and John 20:11-18.

The alternate, and likely earlier, tradition names Peter as the first witness to the Resurrection and can be found in St Paul’s writings which, of course, pre-date the four Gospels. In one of Paul’s letters to the community at Corinth we find an ancient formula (perhaps creed) which names Peter as first witness to Jesus risen from the dead. Paul writes,

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accord with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Cor. 15:3-8)   [My emphases]

Paul is clearly transmitting an already-existing tradition. This same Petrine tradition can be detected in Luke’s Gospel, on the road to Emmaus, where the evangelist emphasises that this ‘Emmaus’ encounter with the Risen Jesus is not the primary one. Luke writes of the disciples on the road,

That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon (Peter)!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he has been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.   [My emphases]

It becomes apparent from such New Testament texts, in addition to reference to the ‘keys to the Kingdom’, Peter as shepherd of the flock and as the ‘rock’ on which the Church’s life will be supported, that ‘the fisherman from Bethsaida’ assumes a special leadership role among the apostles that was actual, grounded in his primary role as witness and messenger of Easter faith, and subsequently recognised in the writings of the early community of faith, that is, in its Scriptures as such.

sanpietropenitenteIt is interesting to note, as a final remark, that Peter’s leadership of the apostolic community is as a repentant sinner (cf. Luke 5:8, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord’). Peter, of course, would go on to deny Jesus three times, a betrayal foretold. However, this ‘shadow side’ of Peter does not rule out his leadership but grounds his task of leadership in his own conversion and in service and proclamation of God’s love and compassion to others. Again, we hear Jesus’ words in Luke’s Gospel, expressing this exemplary role that Peter is to play in service of the Church’s faith as a whole, ‘I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers’ (Lk 22:32). St Peter emerges, as ever, an unworthy servant, entrusted to proclaim the plenitude and unity of faith in Him who first showed him mercy.

While the papacy has been subject to reform throughout the centuries, shaped not only by internal factors but also by the dramatic circumstances of the world, the continuity between the role of Peter among the apostles and the Pope among the college of bishops and the universal Church is a most positive and biblically-shaped principle of Catholic faith. While the reports on the conclave continue to roll in and as the announcement of a new ‘Peter’ looms, we remember the first Peter as leader, teacher, witness of Easter faith, repentant sinner, evangeliser and, above all, disciple to Christ who alone can ‘make all things’, including his Church, anew (Rev. 21:5).

praying in faith

”Pray without ceasing’ (1 Thessalonians 5:17)

The season of Lent brings renewed focus to the significance of prayer for growth, a practice supported by fasting and that leads us to almsgiving.

It is not novel to suggest that prayer belongs to the essence of Christian life and is essential to the integrity of Christian leaders. Curiously, however, we find few opportunities in our parishes, schools and beyond where prayer is taught and can be learned.

prayerAlthough a life of prayer grows principally through its practice, that is by praying, it is also nourished by an understanding of what prayer involves and awakens us to as we do it. When we understand what we are doing when we are doing it, a new intentionality and fresh desire is brought to our prayer, not only in the setting of the Church’s liturgy but throughout the breadth of our Christian life.

Indeed, in the Gospels we find the disciples eager to learn the way of prayer after being drawn into its circle by Jesus’ example. ‘Lord, teach us to pray’ they ask (Lk 11:1). In the Catechism we find recognition as well of prayer as a practice that is learned, with a call for formation and education in ongoing ‘schools of prayer’ (CCC#2689). While always a gift of the Spirit, prayer presupposes effort by the disciple (CCC#2725) for ‘we do not know how to prayer as we ought’ (Rom. 8:26).

While it can be approached in so many ways, I have come to experience prayer most powerfully as an expression of our radical dependence on God as the source of our life. What is more, it is because of this dependence on God, and not despite of it, that prayer is at the same time the overwhelming (even confronting) experience of our own humanity at its depth, in its fundamental orientation towards God.

mosaicWe learn this much from ‘the master of prayer’, Jesus of Nazareth who is, as St Paul describes, ‘the revelation of the children of God’ (Rom. 8:19). It is Jesus who unveils in his own filial piety our destiny in God, revealing communion with ‘our Father’ not simply as a ‘religious’ venture, an extrinsic performance detached from ourselves, but a calling in accord with the imperatives of our own nature. In short, prayer is not only entry into the divine life but also the discovery of our authentic humanity by that encounter.

As Christians it is essential to note as well that we do much more than merely ‘follow’ or imitate Jesus in prayer. In the act of prayer we, in fact, enter into Jesus’ own prayer to the Father as the Gospel makes powerfully clear: ‘God has sent into our hearts the Spirit of his Son who cries ‘Abba, Father’ (Gal. 4:6, Rom. 8:15). It is the Spirit of Christ who prays within the heart of each disciple.

Hence, in the person of Jesus we come to see not only the extent to which prayer shapes the heart we bring before God but discover our prayer as an entry into His communion with the Father. Prayer is, as the Eucharistic doxology proclaims, ‘through Him, with Him and in Him’. To pray is to allow ourselves to be ‘caught up’ in the prayer of Jesus who is alive in us through the Spirit to the Father.

In coming to an appreciation of prayer’s meaning and possibility, the reflections below might further shape your own imagination and practice of prayer. They are generously provided by a friend, a monk, who has dedicated his life to this ceaseless communion with God.

gospel1.  Prayer rises in our hearts when we listen to the words of the Gospel, meditate upon them, and strive to live as faithful disciples of Christ. In the ‘Life of Antony’, we catch a glimpse of the way the early Christians prayed. Every day, they would go to their local church in order to listen to the Scriptures and pray together. On Sundays, they would celebrate the Eucharist. Then they would go back to their homes, carrying in their minds the words of Scripture they had heard read in the church.

Throughout the day, whether they were walking along the road, working in the fields, preparing a meal, or conducting business, they would recall the texts and meditate on them. This was for them a ‘school of prayer’: the continuation of the liturgy in their daily lives.

2.  When we attend to God’s Word in the context of our daily lives it has the power to speak to our hearts and lead us in the way of discipleship. It also has the power to keep the fire of prayer and love burning in our hearts. Abba Joseph, one of the early Egyptian Desert Fathers, used to say: ‘If you will you can become all flame’.

It is important that we see prayer as very much part of our daily living. We need to structure into our lives some time when we can be free for listening to God’s Word, prayerful reading of the Scriptures, and quiet contemplative prayer. However, perhaps the most vital element of our prayer life is the way that prayer overflows and becomes a part of the rest of our lives. Prayer will tend to become stilted and artificial if it is confined only to set times and places.

sb3. Our relations with other people are an intrinsic part of our prayer life. The gentle stirring of love that we feel in our hearts during times of prayer tends to dry up if it is not given scope to reach out concretely to others in our normal, daily contact with the people who share our lives. Love needs to be exercised if it is to grow strong. John in his letter says: ‘How can we love God, who we cannot see, if we do not love our brothers and sisters, who we do see?’ (1 Jn 4:20). We need to trust the love that God places in our hearts and learn to reach out from there to others.

4. Prayer gives us the opportunity to recognise our own limitations: weakness, failure, brokenness, temptation, and even sin. It demands real faith to stand before God and believe in his love. We need the courage to say the prayer of the Eastern monastic tradition which is ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.’  When we allow God to enter the messiness of our lives, then grace is able to act and, finally, growth can take place.

This is sage advice not simply for a life of ‘prayers’ but a more encompassing life of prayerfulness. In listening to the Word, allowing that Word to enter and shape our daily living and intentions, as suggested here, we begin to understand and experience the depth of communion that prayer enables.

As a final note, over the past few years it has struck me that ordained and lay leaders of communities can desire that their people change while they themselves remain the same. The primacy of prayer in the journey towards God and one another applies to all and admits of no exception.

Without prayerfulness there cannot be growth and without growth there cannot ultimately be fullness of life in Him. Our communities will thrive in the Gospel and its mission to the extent that we pray.