The Ministry of Peter

Today’s gospel should be one that every Catholic knows by heart.

Mt 16:18 “You are Peter (Tu est Petrus) and upon this rock I will build my Church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it!”

This is the biblical foundation of the papacy where Christ establishes His Church on the rock of Peter. For two millennia, the Church has been blessed with the gift of the “ministry of Peter”. Now of course, not every moment of the papacy has been “peaches and cream”. There were those infamous Renaissance popes renowned for their personal immorality and worldliness. Think of the Borgias! There have been weak men to sit in the Chair of St. Peter. There have been men who have made poor and bad decisions in regards to the shepherding of the Lord’s flock. There have been popes who were in essence dullards and others who were political climbers and operatives. Then there is the great scandal of the anti-popes when three men simultaneously claimed to be pope. Each one with their own group of supporters bringing the Church to the Great Schism (1378-1417)! And as tour guides in Rome love to point out, there is the macabre Cadaver Synod of the 9th Century, where the corpse of Pope Formosus was disinterred, attired in papal robes and placed on trial by a group or rivals and one of his successors, Pope Stephen VI! The corpse was found guilty and then tossed into the Tiber and the memory of Pope Formosus was condemned. Not exactly what Jesus had in mind at Caesarea Philippi to be sure.

Yet, despite the sins and moral failures of a few of the occupants of the “chair of Peter”, Jesus has kept His promise. The gates of Hell have not prevailed against His Church. It is good for us to remember that the first 30 popes all died as martyrs for the faith. Giving their lives to Christ and the Church to the point of shedding their blood. To become pope in the first three centuries of the Church was to embrace certain persecution, imprisonment and a death sentence. During each of the 266 pontificates from St. Peter to Pope Francis, Jesus has been with His Church and faithful to His promise. The gates of Hell and the forces of evil have attacked and assailed the Church, but have never prevailed and never will. Some of the attacks have been by violent political forces, governments and armies. Today, we see not just governments and political bodies lined up against the Church but cultural movements, philosophies and ideologies. Throughout history, the attacks against Christ’s Church have also come from within the Church itself, those clergy and laity corrupted by sin and false teachings. The scent and allure of heresy can seem sweet and compelling but it is never saving. The temptation to abandon God’s will and become disobedient is the story of the human race since the Garden of Eden! It is for this very reason that Jesus has given us Peter as his Vicar.

The pope is the Bishop of Rome, the successor of St. Peter and the Vicar of Christ on Earth. Popes are human beings like the rest of us. They are not impeccable (without sin). They have their strengths and weaknesses. Some have outgoing personalities while others are more serious. Some are great theologians, others are gifted administrators. Some have reigned during peaceful times, most during times of trial. The papacy is not of human origin but a gift to the Church from Jesus himself. The form and style of the papacy has been modified and developed through the centuries according to circumstances, but the essence remains the same. As Vatican II teaches and as is repeated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church the pope “is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of unity both of the bishops and the whole company of the faithful. (Lumen Gentium 23, CCC 882) Perhaps the most misunderstood of the charisms (gifts) of the papacy is the teaching of papal infallibility. Solemnly declared at Vatican I (1869-70) and repeated at Vatican II (1962-65) but held throughout the history of the Church, “The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful – who confirms his brethren in the faith – he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals.” This divine assistance is given by God to the holder of the office not for his individual benefit but for the good of the whole Church with the desire that “none be lost” to false teaching or error. It is not a comprehensive gift to all words or actions but one that is restricted.

Just as we do at every mass, remember to pray for the Holy Father. Pray that God will bless Pope Francis and through his efforts strengthen the Church in unity and holiness. In our charity we should also pray for Pope Emeritus Benedict. We should pray too for the intercession and prayers of Sts. John Paul II and John XXIII, Pius X, Gregory the Great, Leo the Great and all of the holy popes. And as always, we should remember to thank God each and every day for the beautiful gift of our Catholic Faith!

In Pace Christi,
Fr. Troy Gately