“From the Church’s beginning Peter exercised decisive authority at the highest level. This exercise, accepted and recognized by the community, is historical confirmation of the words Christ spoke regarding the mission and power of Peter.”
— Pope Saint John Paul II
December 16, 1992
[Note: Pope St. John Paul II gave a lengthy catechesis on the Church during his Wednesday General Audiences from 1991 and 1995. From November 1992 through March 1993 (numbers 45-54 in the series), these lessons focused specifically on the pope and the office of the papacy. This is part 4 of our discussion. Click on the links for our reflections on part 1, part 2, and part 3 in this catechetical series.]
In the fourth part of his catechesis on the papacy, delivered at the General Audience of December 16, 1992, Pope St. John Paul II shifts his attention away from the subject of the three previous installments, which focused on “Peter’s mission of strengthening his brothers in the faith and of shepherding the flock of Christ’s followers.” In this installment, his focus is the Church’s theological and scriptural justification for the office held by St. Peter, and how he was clearly chosen by Christ among the apostles to be their leader and authoritative decision-maker.
John Paul describes how this is demonstrated clearly in the Acts of the Apostles, when Peter clearly manifests his distinct and authoritative role:
“On the day of Pentecost Peter acted as the leader of the witnesses to the resurrection. He speaks on a spontaneous impulse: ‘Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice, and proclaimed…’ (Acts 2:14). Remarking about what happened, he declared: ‘God raised this Jesus; of this we are all witnesses’ (Acts 2:32). All the Twelve were witnesses of this; Peter proclaimed it in the name of them all. He was the official spokesman, we could say, of the first community and the group of apostles.”
Delving deeper into Acts, John Paul goes on to recount a series of events to show that the early Christian community regarded Peter alone as the clear leader of the Church. He summarizes:
“One thing is clearly evident in this first stage of the Church’s beginning: under the power of the Spirit and in conformity with Jesus’ command, Peter acted in communion with the other apostles, but took the initiative and decided personally as the head.”
With the lesson taught during this Audience, Pope St. John Paul II summarizes the scriptural foundations for the primacy of Peter among the apostles. His case is based, primarily, on the role of leadership and authority that he immediately assumes, the way the early Christians looked to him as the leader, and the fact that he alone spoke on behalf of all the disciples. John Paul concludes:
“We can conclude by recognizing that truly at the Church’s beginning Peter acted as one who possessed the primary authority within the college of the apostles, and for this reason spoke in the name of the Twelve as a witness to the resurrection.
Therefore, he worked miracles which resembled Christ’s and performed them in his name. He assumed responsibility for the moral behavior of the members of the first community and for its future development. He was the focus of concern for the new People of God and of the prayer they made to heaven to obtain his protection and deliverance.”
In these first four catecheses on the papacy, Pope St. John Paul II focuses on Peter’s unique role and mandate, which he received directly from Christ. In future installments, he explains how that role and mandate are passed on to his successors.
Image: By Masolino da Panicale – book: John T. Spike, Masaccio, Rizzoli libri illustrati, Milano 2002, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7214559
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.