By the power of the Holy Spirit and in accordance with Christ’s will, Peter exercised a particular authority recognized by the early Church
At the General Audience of Wednesday, 16 December, the Holy Father continued his catechesis on the Petrine ministry. This week's talk is the 48th in the series on the mystery of the Church. Here is a translation of the Pope's address, which he gave in Italian.
1. The texts which I have presented and explained in the previous catecheses directly concern Peter's mission of strengthening his brothers in the faith and of shepherding the flock of Christ's followers. They are the basic texts on the Petrine ministry. However, they must be seen in the larger context of the entire New Testament discussion of Peter, beginning with the place of his mission in the whole of the New Testament. In the Pauline Letters, he is mentioned as the first witness of the resurrection (cf. 1 Cor 15:3ff.), and Paul says that he went to Jerusalem "to confer with Kephas" (cf. Gal 1:18). The Johannine tradition records a strong presence of Peter, and there are numerous references to him in the Synoptics as well.
The New Testament discussion also concerns Peter's position among the Twelve. The trio of Peter, James and John emerges: think, for example, of the transfiguration, the raising of Jairus' daughter and of Gethsemane. Peter is always first on all the lists of the Apostles (in Mt 10:2 he is even called "first"). Jesus gave him a new name, Kephas, which is translated into Greek (so it was considered significant), to designate the office and position that Simon would have in Christ's Church.
These are facts which enable us better to grasp the historical and ecclesiological meaning of Jesus' promise contained in Matthew's text (16:18-19), and the conferral of the pastoral mission described by John (21: 15- 19): the primacy of authority in the apostolic College and the Church.
2. At issue is a matter of fact, recounted by the evangelists as those who recorded Christ's life and teaching, but also as witnesses of the belief and practice of the first Christian community. It is clear from these writings that 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 spoken by Christ regarding the mission and power of Peter.
Early Church recognized Peter's authority
It is easy to admit that Peter's personal qualities in themselves were not sufficient to obtain the recognition of a supreme authority in the Church. Although he had a leader's temperament, already apparent in the little fishing concern he had at the lake with his "partners" John and Andrew (cf. Lk 5:10), he could not assert his authority over the others on his own, given his well-known limitations and defects. On the other hand, we know that during Jesus' earthly life the Apostles discussed who among them would be first in the kingdom. The fact then, that Peter's authority was calmly recognized in the Church is due exclusively to Christ's will and shows that the words with which Jesus assigned to the Apostle his unique pastoral authority were understood and accepted without difficulty in the Christian community.
3. Let us briefly review the facts. Immediately after the ascension, according to Acts, the Apostles came together: in their list Peter is mentioned first (cf. Acts 1:13), as in the lists of the Twelve provided for us in the Gospels and in the references to the three privileged ones (cf. Mk 5:37, 9:2, 13:3, 14:33 and par.).
It is Peter who speaks with authority: "During those days Peter stood up in the midst of the brothers" (Acts 1:15). It is not the assembly witch designates him. He acts as one possessing authority. t that meeting Peter presents the problem created by Judas' betrayal and death, which reduced the number of Apostles to 11. In fidelity to Jesus' will, filled with symbolism about passing from the old to the new Israel (12 constitutive tribes— 12 Apostles), Peter indicates the necessary solution: appoint a replacement who, with the Eleven, would become "a witness to his [Christ's] resurrection" (cf. Acts 1:21-22). The assembly accepts and implements this solution, casting lots so that the choice would come from on high: thus "the lot fell upon Matthias, and he was counted with the 11 Apostles" (Acts I :26).
It should be pointed out that among the witnesses to the resurrection by virtue of Christ's will, Peter was first. The angel who announced Jesus' resurrection to the women said to them: "But go and tell his disciples and Peter ..." (Mk 16:7). John let Peter enter the tomb first (cf. Jn 20.1-10). To the disciples returning from Emmaus the others said: "The Lord has truly been raised and has appeared to Simon!" (Lk 24:34). That the risen Christ appeared to Peter first was an early tradition received by the Church and recorded by St Paul: "He appeared to Kephas, then to the Twelve" (1 Cor 15:5).
This priority corresponds to the mission assigned to Peter of strengthening his brothers in the faith as the first witness to the resurrection.
4. On the day of Pentecost Peter acts as the leader of the witnesses to the resurrection. He is the one to speak on a spontaneous impulse: "Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice, and proclaimed ..." (Acts 2:14). Remarking about what happened, he declares: "God raised this Jesus; of this we are all witnesses" (Acts 2:32). All the Twelve were witnesses of this: Peter proclaims it in the name of them all. He is the official spokesman, we could say, of the first community and the group of Apostles. He will be the one to tell his listeners what they are to do: "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ ..." (Acts 2:38).
It is also Peter who works the first miracle, astonishing the crowd. According to the account in Acts he was accompanied by John when he looked at the cripple begging for alms. He was the one to speak. "But Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, 'Look at us'. He paid attention to them, expecting to receive something from them. Peter said, 'I have neither silver nor gold, but what I do have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, rise and walk'. Then Peter took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles grew strong. He leaped up, stood and walked around ..." (Acts 3: 3-8). Peter, then, in his words and deeds was the instrument for this miracle, convinced that he had power given him by Christ in this area as well.
Peter shows authority as leader of the community
This is precisely the way he explains the miracle to the people, showing that the healing manifests the power of the risen Christ: "God raised him from the dead of this we are witnesses" (Acts 3:15). Consequently, he urges his listeners: "Repent, therefore, and be converted" (Acts 3:19).
During the questioning by the Sanhedrin, it is Peter, "filled with the Holy Spirit", who speaks to proclaim the salvation won by Jesus Christ (cf. Acts 4:8f.), crucified and risen (cf. Acts 7:10).
Later on Peter is the one who "with the Apostles", says in reply to the prohibition against teaching in the name of Jesus: "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).
5. In the painful case of Ananias and Sapphira too, Peter shows his authority as the one responsible for the community. Rebuking that Christian couple for their lie about the purchase price of some property, he accuses the two guilty parties of having lied to the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 5: 1-11).
Peter responds in the same way to Simon the magician, who had offered money to the Apostles in order to receive the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands: "May your money perish with you, because you thought that you could buy the gift of God with money.... Repent of this wickedness of yours and pray to the Lord that your intention may be forgiven" (Acts 8:20, 22).
Moreover, Acts tell us that the crowd thought of Peter as the one who, even more that the other Apostles, worked marvels. Certainly he was not the only one to perform miracles: "Many signs and wonders were done among the people at the hands of the Apostles" (Acts 5:12). Cures, however, were expected above all from him: "They even carried the sick out into the streets and laid them on cots and mats so that when Peter came by, at least his shadow might fall on one or another of them" (Acts 5: 15).
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 acts in communion with the other Apostles, but takes the initiative and decides personally as the head.
Church prays continually for Peter's Successors
6. This explains the fact that when Peter is imprisoned by Herod ardent prayer was offered by the Church for him: "Peter was being kept in prison, but prayer was fervently being made to God on his behalf" (Acts 12:5). This prayer arose from the common conviction of Peter's unique importance: it was the beginning of the uninterrupted sequence of prayers which the Church would offer in every age for Peter's Successors.
The angel's intervention and the miraculous release from prison (cf. Acts 12:6-17), moreover, show the special protection which Peter enjoyed: a protection which allowed him to fulfil the pastoral mission assigned to him. The faithful will always ask for this protection and assistance for the Successors of Peter in the sufferings and persecutions they will inevitably encounter in their ministry as "servants of the servants of God".
7. 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. Therefore, he assumed responsibility for the moral behaviour of the members of the first community and for its future development. Therefore, 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.
L'Osservatore Romano December 23, 1992