St. Pope John Paul II: I come to you as the Successor of Saint Peter and therefore, as the Council reaffirms, as the Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, as shepherd of all Christ’s flock.-APOSTOLIC JOURNEY
TO THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA AND CANADA Detroit Friday, 18 September 1987
I read this quote from a book I own and found it very mesmerizing. As I read the chapter, I couldn’t help but let his words travel through my mind. I can take this saying as true now that I’m Catholic, but what about me 2 years ago? What would I have said to the claim St. Pope John Paul II asserted regarding his position in the Catholic Church.
First, I probably would’ve dismissed it. Next, I most likely would’ve offered a response such as this: There’s no way that a person today can claim a title that never was what we know today as the papacy. Moreover, Christ never intended to allow anyone other than himself to head his Church.
How many non-Catholics feel this way? Literally, it’s pervasive in anti-Catholic circles. However, without proper or at least decent enough understanding of apostolic succession, the papacy just seems like a whacky Catholic belief.
Regardless of the various misconceptions, we’re still left with a burning question: why does something called the “papacy” exist rather not exist? If it’s not supposed to be in existence, then where did this role originate? Some would argue the papacy is a product of Constantine or how the early Christian church imitated the government structure of the Roman Empire.
On the contrary, we Catholics go to the prime source that establishes the primacy of St. Peter, the Bible. On this topic, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
“Simon Peter holds the first place in the college of the Twelve; Jesus entrusted a unique mission to him. (552)
“Jesus entrusted a specific authority to Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (553)”
Both of these quotes reference Matthew 16, the biblical basis for the papacy.
With this special role specifically designated for Peter, the Bible provides further evidence that shows his primacy.
For starters, every time the inspired New Testament author lists names of the disciples, Peter is always listed first in position (Matt. 10:2; Mk. 3:16-19; Lk. 6:14-16; Acts 1:13). Coincidence maybe? I don’t think so. Judas Iscariot is always mentioned at the end. There’s no surprise why the writer would mention Judas last. We all know he betrayed Jesus and he stated it probably best if the betrayer was never born (Matt 26:24).
One of the finest illustrations of the papacy is in John 21 when Jesus notices Peter after he saw him fishing one evening. Immediately, Peter leaves the boat and meets Jesus on the shore. Jesus tells the disciples to provide some fish they’ve caught, and Peter drags the net full of large fish ashore without the net breaking. These actions by Peter demonstrate how he is the one in charge of the Church (net), has the authority over those in his power (fish), and has the authority to lead the Church through all ages without any compromise or rupture. Jesus promised he would be with the disciples until the end of the age (Matt. 28:20. In addition, he with us in the form of the Holy Spirit ensuring that no evil will overcome.
A similar story involving Peter and Jesus regarding a miraculous catch is found in Luke 5:1-11. Again, Peter is with a few disciples fishing. They have no success fishing but after taking Jesus’ command, they catch a boatload of fish. Peter falls to his knees out of fear, but Jesus singles out Peter as a would-be a fisher of men. After Jesus’ resurrection, he would confirm this role specifically to Peter and designate him as the leader, caretaker, and protector of his [Jesus] flock (Jn. 21:15-17).
What’s really fascinating about the papacy is no other church can claim to have the successor of Peter but the Catholic Church. As mentioned before, in Matthew 16, Jesus conferred upon Peter a unique rank because of his powerful confession of faith. Because of this, Peter would become the unshakable rock (Catechism of the Catholic Church 552). From Matthew 16, one could see that Jesus intended his Church to be present until the end of the age. Moreover, he didn’t intend on his Church being gone after the Apostolic age. Therefore Jesus appointed someone as the visible supreme representative of his flock in order that the position will always be carried out by the successor of Peter. This is where apostolic succession comes into play.
Jesus said “upon this rock, I will build MY church” and that church just happens to be both visible/ authoritative and invisible. The Church is a light of the world, a city set on a hill (Matt. 5:14). How could a strictly invisible entity ever be something that the world couldn’t point to? With this view, the Church isn’t a lighthouse but a mirage. When people say they want Jesus without the Church, this is impossible. Clearly, Jesus, his Church, and his vicar are inseparable.
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