The Gift of the Papacy
This Sunday’s Gospel gives us the famous account of Our Lord conferring the Keys of the Kingdom on Peter and changing his name from Simon to Peter, the rock upon which He would build His Church. Peter had professed his faith in the divinity of JESUS who then said to him, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build My Church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven; whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in Heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in Heaven” (Matthew 16: 18-19). Our Lord had marked Simon out for this special mission which is why he changed his name from Simon to Peter. Christ will always be the Head of the Church, but after the Ascension Peter was to be the visible Head of the Church on earth. Peter, or Cephas in Aramaic, means ‘rock’ and so Our Lord is making Peter the foundation or the rock of the Church. He will keep the Church together and make it endure. We should not assume that this power was given to Peter only because he was not called Simon then. It is passed on to all his successors. As Venerable Fulton Sheen once said, “Pius, Leo and Benedict all die, but Peter lives on until the consummation of the world.”
The First Vatican Council in 1870 infallibly defined that:
- St Peter was appointed by Christ to be the visible Head of the Church;
- He received from Christ supreme authority to teach and govern the whole Church;
- Peter has a perpetual line of successors in the Primacy;
- His successors are the Roman Pontiffs or the Popes.
The Primacy of the Pope means he has real power and authority to rule the Church and we believe that under very strict conditions he is infallible, when he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church. It does not mean the Pope can do no wrong or that he can never be mistaken, even in religious matters. It means that when he solemnly defines a doctrine of faith or morals binding on the whole Church, God protects him from error. Neither can the Pope invent a new doctrine because God does not change and Divine Revelation ended with the death of the last Apostle. The Pope is the servant of the truth and the guardian of the Deposit of Faith. He cannot contradict what has always been taught by the Church down the centuries.
The Papacy is a great gift to the Church. As Catholics we know that when the Church has given a solemn and definitive answer to a question the teaching can never change and the goal posts are not going to be moved in the future. This is what Our Lord intended and why He founded His Church on Peter the rock. The Pope is the test of the true Church. “Where Peter is, there is the Church” said St Ambrose in the Fourth Century.
Fr Paul Gillham, IC