Peter’s decision to baptize Cornelius was a critical step in the Church’s realization that the Gentiles were called to share in God’s saving plan
At the General Audience of Wednesday, 13 January, the Holy Father returned to his catechesis on the mystery of the Church. In the 49th talk of the series he discussed the role of Peter's authority in opening the Church to pagans. The Pope spoke in Italian.
1. The premier authority of Peter among the Apostles was particularly apparent in resolving the basic problem which the early Church had to face: the relationship with the Jewish religion and, thus, the constitutive basis of the new Israel. It was necessary, that is, to decide to draw the consequences of the fact that the Church was neither an offshoot of the Mosaic regime, nor some religious current or sect of ancient Israel.
Concretely, when the problem was posed to the Apostles and the first Christian community with the case of the centurion Cornelius requesting Baptism, Peter's intervention was decisive. The Acts of the Apostles describe how the event unfolded. In a vision the pagan centurion received from an "angel of the Lord" the order to call on Peter: "Summon one Simon who is called Peter" (Acts 10:5). This order of the angel's includes and confirms the authority possessed by Peter: his decision will be needed for allowing pagans to be baptized.
2. Peter's decision, moreover, was clarified by a light given him in an exceptional way from on High: in a vision, Peter is invited to eat foods forbidden by the Jewish law; he hears a voice saying to him: "What God has made clean, you are not to call profane" (Acts 10: 15). This enlightenment, given to him three times, as previously three times he had received the power to shepherd Christ's flock, showed Peter that he had to move beyond the demands of dietary laws and, in general, beyond Jewish ritual observances. It was an important religious achievement for the acceptance and treatment reserved for pagans, of whose arrival he had a presentiment.
The Lord guided and supported Peter
3. The decisive step was taken immediately after the vision, when the men sent by the centurion Cornelius presented themselves to Peter. Peter could have hesitated to follow them, since Jewish law forbade contact with pagan foreigners, considered to be impure. But the new awareness he had as a result of the vision compelled him to overcome this discriminatory law. In addition, the impulse of the Holy Spirit made him understand that he should accompany these men without delay, for they had been sent to him by the Lord. He abandoned himself completely to fulfilling God's plan for his life. It is easy to suppose that, without the light of the Spirit, Peter would have continued to observe the prescriptions of Jewish law. It was that light, given to him personally so that he would make a decision in conformity with the Lord's views, which guided and supported him in his decision.
4. And now for the first time, in front of a group of pagans gathered around the centurion Cornelius, Peter gives his testimony about Jesus Christ and his resurrection: "In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him" (Acts 10:34-35). It is a decision which, because of its relationship to the Jewish mentality regarding the current interpretation of Mosaic law, seemed revolutionary. God's plan, kept hidden from preceding generations, foresaw that the pagans would be "coheirs in the promise of Jesus Christ" (Eph 3:5-6), without first having to be incorporated into the religious and ritual structure of the old covenant. This was the newness brought by Jesus, which by his gesture, Peter made his own and applied concretely.
5. It should be pointed out that the opening begun by Peter bore the seal of the Holy Spirit, who came down upon the group of pagan converts. There is a connection between Peter's word and the action of the Holy Spirit. We read that "While Peter was still speaking these things, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the word" (Acts 10:44). A witness to this gift of the Holy Spirit, Peter saw the consequences and said to his "brethren": " 'Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit even as we have?' He ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 10:47).
This formal resolution of Peter's, obviously illumined by the Spirit, took on decisive importance for the Church's development by eliminating the obstacles stemming from the observance of the Jewish law.
6. Not everyone was prepared to accept this great innovation and make it his own. In fact, Peter's decision was criticized by the so-called "Judaizers", who formed an important nucleus in the Christian community. It was a prelude to the reservations and opposition which would exist in the future against those who would have the task of exercising supreme authority in the Church (cf. Acts 11:1-2). Peter, however, responded to those criticisms by relating what had occurred when Cornelius and the other pagans had been converted and by explaining the descent of the Holy Spirit upon that group of converts with these words of the Lord: "John baptized with water but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 11:16). Since the proof came from God—from Christ's words and the signs of the Holy Spirit—it was judged to be convincing, and the criticisms died down. Peter thus appeared as the first Apostle of the pagans.
7. We know that later the Apostle Paul, the Doctor Gentium, would be particularly called to proclaim the Gospel among the pagans. However, he himself recognized the authority of Peter as a guarantor of the rightness of his own mission of evangelization: having begun to preach the Gospel to pagans, he relates, "... after three years I went up to Jerusalem to confer with Kephas" (Gal 1:18). Paul was acquainted with Peter's role in the Church and recognized its importance.
Fourteen years later he again went to Jerusalem for verification: "... so that I might not be running, or have run, in vain" (Gal 2:2). This time he spoke not only to Peter but "to those of repute" (ibid.). He shows, however, that he regarded Peter as the supreme head. In fact, although in the geo-religious distribution of work Peter was entrusted with the Gospel to the circumcised (Gal 2:7), he still was the first to preach the Gospel to the pagans, as seen in Cornelius' conversion. On that occasion Peter opened the door to all the Gentiles who could be reached at the time.
Despite reprimand, Paul recognized Peter's authority
8. The incident that occurred in Antioch does not imply that Paul denied Peter's authority. Paul reproved his way of acting, but did not question his authority as head of the Apostolic College and the Church. Paul wrote in the Letter to the Galatians: "And when Kephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he clearly was wrong. For, until some people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to draw back and separated himself, because he was afraid of the uncircumcised. And the rest of the Jews also acted hypocritically along with him, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not on the right road in line with the truth of the Gospel, I said to Kephas in front of all, 'If you, though a Jew, are living like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?' " (Gal 2:11-14).
Paul did not exclude in an absolute way every concession to certain demands of the Jewish law (cf. Acts 16:3; 21:26; 1 Cor 8:13; Rom 14:21; cf. also 1 Cor 9:20). In Antioch, however, Peter's behaviour had the disadvantage of compelling Christians of pagan origin to submit to Jewish law. Precisely because he acknowledged Peter's authority, Paul protested and reprimanded him for not acting in accordance with the Gospel.
9. Later on, the problem of freedom regarding the Jewish law was finally resolved at a meeting of the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem, during which Peter played a decisive role. A long discussion set Paul and Barnabas against a certain number of converted Pharisees, who asserted that all Christians had to be circumcised, even those coming from paganism.
After the discussion Peter stood up to explain that God did not want any discrimination and that he had given the Holy Spirit to pagan converts to the faith. "We believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they" (Acts 15:11). Peter's intervention was decisive. Then, according to Acts: "The whole assembly fell silent, and they listened while Paul and Barnabas described the signs and wonders God had worked among the Gentiles through them" (Acts 15: 12). This showed that Peter's position was confirmed by the facts. James too adopted it (Acts 15:14), adding the confirmation of inspired Scripture to the testimonies of Barnabas and Paul: "The words of the prophets agree with this" (Acts 15:15), and citing an oracle of Amos. The assembly's decision was thus in conformity with the position enunciated by Peter. His authority thus played a decisive role in resolving an essential question for the Church's development and for the unity of the Christian community.
In this light is situated the person and mission of Peter in the early Church.
L'Osservatore Romano January 20, 1993