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Primacy of Peter, The

by Bishop Fabian W. Bruskewitz

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  • Description:
    Bishop Bruskewitz pays tribute to the Pope in this address that was delivered at the Milwaukee Regional Wanderer Forum in November of 1999. He quotes the historian Thomas McCauley, the Catechism, and Pope John Paul II to explain the role of the Pope and the idea of Papal succession.
  • Larger Work:
    Forum Focus
  • Pages: 4-11
  • Publisher & Date:
    The Wanderer Forum Foundation, Inc., Summer, 2001

Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen:

We all remember, I am sure, the famous words of Saint Ambrose of Milan, "Where Peter is there is the Church, and where the Church is there is not death, but everlasting life." Saint Ambrose's words were not only relevant in his era, but are relevant through the centuries including in today's culture, with its skewed values and its cacophonous religious and anti-religious messages being shouted into the ears of contemporary humanity. At some times with more urgency than at other times, it is more than useful to reflect on the precious and great gift that God has bestowed on the Catholic Church and on the human race, and the Petrine ministry and the splendid, long, historic tradition of apostolic succession represented in the Supreme Pontiff, the Bishop of Rome.

As we draw near to a century and a millennium, and prepare to welcome a new century and the third millennium of Christianity, it becomes not only appropriate and useful, but even necessary, I believe, to consider with some prayerful contemplation, the gift of Saint Peter and Saint Peter's successors through the ages that God has bestowed upon us all. This is especially relevant in our time, when the present Roman Pontiff is, in the eyes of all of thinking humanity, the village priest of our global village.

In the middle of the last century, Thomas Babbington McCauley, a poet, historian, and well-known figure in English political and literary circles, was asked to write an introduction to the English translation of Ranke's Lives of the Popes. He did so in terms that are striking, even today, especially in view of the fact that Lord McCauley was not a Catholic and not, necessarily, sympathetic with the teachings of the Catholic Church. He said,

There is not, and there never was on earth, a work of human policy so well-deserving of examination as the Roman Catholic Church. The history of that Church joins together the two great ages of human civilization. No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon, the camelopards and tigers bounded in Flavian amphitheater. The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. That line we trace back in an unbroken series from the Pope who crowned Napoleon in the 19th century to the Pope who crowned Pepin in the 8th, and far beyond the time of Pepin, the august dynasty extends... The Republic of Venice came next in antiquity, but the Republic of Venice was modern when compared to the papacy, and the Republic of Venice is gone, but the papacy remains. The papacy remains, not in decay, not a mere antique, but full of life and youthful vigor. The Catholic Church is still sending forth to the farthest ends of the world missionaries, as zealous as those who landed in Kent with Augustine, and still confronting hostile kings with the same spirit with which he confronted Attila... She saw the commencement of all the governments and all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world, and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, and when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca, and she may still exist in undiminished vigor when some traveler from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London bridge to sketch the ruins of Saint Paul's.

It is worthwhile, although we Americans tend to be a-historical and sometimes even anti-historical, to carry our minds back a thousand years when we were entering the second millennium of Christianity. There was, at that time, of course, no Protestantism. There was, at that time, not even any Eastern Orthodox. All of the various governments and religions that currently exist on earth were either in their infancy or were non-existent, and one, at that time, would not be able to make oneself understood in the English language which was still in its most primitive and formative stage. And yet, that was at that time already, a thousand years of Popes and of the papacy--Pope Sylvester II, being the Pontiff in the year 1000.

There have been 264 Bishops of Rome since Saint Peter, the Galilean Fisherman commissioned to have the primacy in the Catholic Church by Jesus, the Founder of our religion, first entered Rome, and there remained with Saint Paul until both were martyred in the horrible persecutions of the Emperor Nero. Pope John Paul II is the 263rd Successor of Saint Peter, the 264th Pope. Of his predecessors, the first 35, like Saint Peter are canonized Saints. And then, after one interlude, 13 more were canonized Saints. In addition, there have been, after this initial burst of God's grace and human cooperation with that grace, 30 other Popes who have been elevated to the honors of the altar, and who are canonized Saints. Additionally, there are 8 Popes who have been beatified. Of the Popes who are canonized Saints, the first 32 were all martyred, following in that sense, the example of Saint Peter. It might be interesting to note that over many centuries, the custom has grown of the Popes, upon their accession to the bishopric of Rome and becoming the Chief Bishop of the Catholic Church, to change their name in honor of the action of Christ Who changed the name of the first Pope from Simon, Son of John or Bar-Jonah, to Peter.

It is interesting to note that the primacy of Saint Peter is very clearly enunciated in all of the four Gospels in the New Testament. One of the texts that we are most familiar with comes from the 16th chapter of Saint Matthew, Jesus telling Peter, "Blessed are you Simon, son of John, because flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven has done so. And I say to you that you are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell (the jaws of death) shall not prevail against it. And whatever you bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."

In connection with this text, the great priest-scientist, Father Jaki, has done extensive research on the specific location where Saint Matthew indicates this event occurred, namely, Caesaria Philippi, and Father Jaki explains very clearly in his monograph what the "gates of hell" or "jaws of death" meant in relationship to certain geological and natural formations of rock in that area. In all three of the synoptic gospels there is a listing of the apostles given, after the evangelists explain how Jesus, after a night of prayer called some of his disciples to be apostles. In these listings, Saint Peter is always listed first, and Judas Iscariot always the last, while the order of names inside is quite variable.

In Saint Mark's account, he mentions the word Simon to whom He gave the name Peter, in the call as Protos, which means first, and it is not mentioned simply to announce the obvious that Peter's name is mentioned first, but rather that Peter ranks first among all of the apostles. The nickname Peter, which Jesus gave to Simon, son of John, is a Greek translation of the Hebrew word Cephas. Saint Luke recounts how Peter had been assigned by Jesus the task of strengthening his brethren. In the 22nd chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke, it is very clear that Jesus has singled out Peter for a very particular mission. And then, in the Gospel according to Saint John, in a most clear allusion to the three-fold denial of Peter at the time of Christ's passion, there is a threefold bestowing on Peter of the great commission to feed and tend the flock of the Good Shepherd. There on the shores of the Lake of Tiberias Jesus, after the miraculous catch of fish, called Peter aside and gave him the duty, out of his greater love for the Lord than the others, to take care of the sheep for which Jesus died.

In any consideration of the historic continuity of the Petrine succession, invariably there comes to mind what were called--sometimes correctly and sometimes inaccurately-- "bad popes." It is true that in the course of these 2000 years there have been some successors of Saint Peter who lived lives that were unworthy of the high office that they held. In this regard, however, there are several extraordinarily important considerations that have to be taken into account.

First of all, the number of such Bishops of Rome, is extremely small, particularly in the face of the total number of those who lived lives of sanctity and, indeed, heroic witness to Christ. Secondly, it is important to keep in mind that in almost every one of these cases, a sinful or dissolute life-style was not carried over into the years the man was actually the Bishop of Rome, but oftentimes, was an incorrect kind of Christian life lived only before election as the Pope. Thirdly, it is necessary to remember that many so-called historic accounts of "bad popes" are actually distortions and sometimes even, total untruths. In the course of centuries, particularly after the polemics following upon the Protestant revolution in the 16th century, sins and reported sins, as well as alleged misdoings of popes, have been for polemical reasons, highly exaggerated and presented without sufficient attention to historic truth.

Probably the best, most accurate, and historically verifiable account of the lives of all of the popes is in the collection written by Ludwig von Pastor, a German historian, to whom Pope Leo XIII gave permission to examine in every detail the entirety of the Vatican archives. In speaking about probably the most notorious of the "bad popes", Pope Alexander VI, von Pastor says quite clearly, "Alexander never did anything that justly deserves blame in matters concerning the Church. Even his bitterest enemies are unable to formulate any accusations against him in this respect. Her doctrines, the Church's doctrines, were maintained in all their purity. (The gates of hell, even when the papacy is held by an unworthy incumbent do not prevail against the Church in correspondence to Christ's precious promise.) It seemed as though Alexander's reign was meant by Providence to demonstrate the truth that although men may hurt the Church, they cannot harm her. In the Church there have always been unworthy priests as well as bad Christians, and that no one might be scandalized by this, our Lord Himself foretold it. He likeness the Church to a field in which the weeds grow up with the wheat, or to a net in which both good and bad fish are caught. Even among His own disciples, He endured a Judas Iscariot. Just as the intrinsic worth of a jewel is not lessened by an inferior setting, so the sins of a priest cannot essentially affect his power of offering the Holy Sacrifice, or administering the Sacraments, or transmitting pure, orthodox, correct Catholic doctrine. The personal holiness of the priest is of the highest importance for the lives of the faithful. In as much as he constitutes a living example of them to follow and compels the respect and esteem of those who are outside the Church. Still, the goodness or the badness of the minister can exercise no substantial influence on the being, the divine character or the holiness of the Church, on the word of revelation, on the graces and spiritual powers with which she is endowed. Thus, even the Supreme High Priest can in no way diminish the value of that heavenly treasure which he controls and dispenses, but only as a steward. The gold remains gold in impure as well as in pure hands. The papal office belongs to higher sphere than the personality of its occupant for the time being, and can neither gain nor lose in its essential dignity by his saintliness on the one side or his unworthiness on the other. Even the first Pope, Saint Peter, had sinned before he was given this commission in denying his Lord and Master, and yet the office of the Supreme Pastor was given to him."

In this century which is now concluding, a century of unparalleled horrors and immorality beyond all exaggeration or comprehension, we have been extraordinarily blessed because of the Popes who have been given to us, and the sterling qualities, not only of their personal lives, but also of their apostolic ministries, one of whom Pope Saint Pius X, is a canonized Saint. Our present Holy Father has recently written in his encyclical letter That They All May Be One these words, "The Catholic Church is conscious that she has preserved the ministry of the successor of the apostle, Peter, the Bishop of Rome, whom God established as her perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity and whom the Spirit sustains in order that he may enable all the others to share in this essential good. The Bishop of Rome is the Bishop of the Church which preserves the mark of the martyrdom of Peter and Paul. By a mysterious design of Providence, it is at Rome that Peter concludes his journey in following Jesus, and it is at Rome that he gives his greatest proof of love and fidelity. Likewise, Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles, gives his supreme witness at Rome. In this way, the Church of Rome is and becomes the Church of Saints Peter and Paul."

The Pope goes on to say, "As the heir to the mission of Peter in the Church which has been made fruitful by the blood of the Princes of the Apostles, the Bishop of Rome exercises a ministry originating in the manifold mercy of God. This mercy converts hearts and pours forth the power of grace where the disciple experiences the bitter taste of personal weakness and helplessness. The authority proper to this ministry is completely at the service of God's merciful plan, and it must be seen in this perspective. Associating himself with Peter's three-fold profession of love, which corresponds to the earlier three-fold denial, his successor knows that he must be a sign of mercy. His is a ministry of mercy born of an act of Christ's own mercy. This whole lesson of the Gospel must be constantly read anew, so that the exercise of the Petrine ministry may lose nothing of its authenticity and transparency."

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "The Pope, the Bishop of Rome and Peter's successor, is the perpetual and invisible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful." (This is quote from the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church from the Second Vatican Council). The Catechism goes on to say, "For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ and as Pastor of the entire Church, has full supreme and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered." The Catechism also says, "The Lord made Simon alone, whom He named Peter, the rock of His Church. He gave him the keys of His Church, and instituted him as shepherd of the whole flock. The office of binding and loosing which was given to Peter was also a sign to the College of Apostles united to its head. This pastoral office of Peter and the other apostles belongs to the Church's very foundation, and is continued by the Bishops under the primacy of the Pope."

The Second Vatican Council said, "All the teaching about the institution, the perpetuity, the force and the reason for the sacred primacy of the Roman Pontiff and of his infallible teaching authority, this Sacred Council again proposes to be firmly believed by all the faithful." Saint Patrick told the heathen Irish whom he converted to Christianity, "As you become children of Christ, so you must become children of Rome. As you are Christians, so you must also be Romans." During the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in the 5th century, the Bishops there shouted out together, after a letter from Pope Leo was read to them, "Peter has spoken through the mouth of Leo." Saint Hippolytus wrote, "We are all bound by God to profess the faith which is guarded by the Chair of Peter."

Saint Catherine of Siena, of course, always addressed the Pope as "Sweet Jesus on earth." In the stern language of the First Vatican Council, the primacy of the Pope was clearly defined and clearly made explicit, once again setting forth in very clear dogmatic language, what the faith of the Catholic Church always held, "If anyone says that the Roman Pontiff has only the office of inspection or direction, but not the full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the whole Church, not only in matters that pertain to faith and morals, but also in matters that pertain to the discipline and government of the Church throughout the whole world, or if anyone says that he has only a more important part and not the complete fullness of his supreme power, or if anyone says that this power is not ordinary and immediate, either over each and every church or over each and every shepherd and faithful member, let such a person be anathema.

The Second Vatican Council explains why this is taught, "In order that the episcopate itself might be one and undivided, Jesus placed blessed Peter over the other apostles, and instituted in him a permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and fellowship. And all this teaching from the First Vatican Council about the institution, primacy, perpetuity, and force of the Roman Pontiff, and his infallible teaching authority, this Sacred Council again proposes to be firmly believed by all the faithful."

Pope John Paul II goes on to explain, "With power and the authority without which his office would be illusory, the Bishop of Rome must insure the communion of all the churches. For this reason, he is the first servant of unity. This primacy is exercised on various levels including vigilance over the handing down of the word, the celebration of the liturgy and the sacraments, the Church's mission, discipline and Christian life. He has the duty to admonish, to caution, to declare a time that this or that opinion being circulated is irreconcilable with the unity of faith. When circumstances require it he speaks in the name of all the pastors in communion with him. He can also, under vary specific conditions laid down by the First Vatican Council, declare, ex cathedra, that a certain doctrine belongs to the Deposit of Faith, thus bearing witness to the truth he serves unity."

The First Vatican Council dogmatically proclaims, "We declare that the judgment of the Apostolic See whose authority is unsurpassed, is not subject to review by anyone, nor is anyone allowed to pass judgment on his decisions. Therefore, those who say that it is permitted to appeal to an Ecumenical Council from the decisions of the Roman Pontiff, as to an authority superior to the Roman Pontiff, are far from the path of truth."

In the Council of Florence, to which for a very brief time the Eastern Orthodox adhered, we read, "We believe the Roman Pontiff is the true Vicar of Christ, the Head of the whole Church, the Father and Teacher of all Christians, and that to him in the person of Peter was given by our Lord Jesus Christ, the full power of feeding, ruling, and governing the whole Church."

The Pope, as we all know, has many exalted titles. He is the Bishop of Rome, the Successor of Saint Peter--the Prince of the Apostles, the Supreme Pontiff over the Universal Church, the Patriarch of the West, the Primate of Italy, the Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Province of Rome, the Sovereign of the State of Vatican City. The Second Vatican Council says that in his Diocese, a bishop is the Vicar of Christ, but the only one who is the Vicar of Jesus Christ over the entire planet, is the Bishop of Rome. The word, pontiff, means bridge-builder, and it was the name, pontifex maximus, given to the highest of the pagan priests of ancient heathen Rome, because Rome was a city built astride the Tiber River, and because its original inhabitant, the Latins, the Etruscans, the Sabaens and others, met together for commerce and trading, the maintenance of the bridges over the Tiber was an extraordinarily high duty. Thus, the name pontifex or bridge-builder, was associated not only with a pagan religion, but with the civic well-being of the nascent city of Rome. The popes have been assigned this particular title because they are, obviously, in a supernatural and spiritual way, bridge-builders. It is the Pope who keeps the bridges between the various parts of the Church, that is those elements which are governed by Bishops in peace and communion with the See of Peter, connected with each other. And, of course, the Pope has the duty of maintaining in a very special way the bridge into history with the unmutilated, undiluted, and undistorted doctrine of Christ as well as the bridge which enables those who are joined to Christ in His mystical bride and body, the Catholic Church, to be linked with God Himself.

Of all the papal titles that which is dearest to the popes is the title that was taken on by Pope Saint Gregory the Great in the early 7th century. He called himself the Servus Servorum Dei, the Servant of the Servants of God. Ever since Jesus, our divine Lord, instructed His apostles that authority in His Church which is the beginning of His Kingdom on earth, is an authority that is exercised only in service, and not in any measure of self-aggrandizement. It is clear that to be in any way a leader in the Church means that one is by divine commission a servant-leader, and thus, the title Servant of the Servants of God, is extraordinarily appropriate to the Supreme Pontiff, the Bishop of Rome.

In his splendid Credo of the People of God, Pope Paul VI, writing about the Catholic Church says, "Heiress of the Divine Promises and Daughter of Abraham according to the Spirit, through that Israel whose Scriptures she lovingly guards, and whose patriarchs and prophets she venerates, founded upon the apostles and handing on from century to century their ever living word, and their power as pastors and the successor of Peter and Bishops in communion with him, perpetually assisted by the Holy Spirit, she has the charge of guarding, teaching, explaining, and spreading the truth which God revealed in the then veiled-manner by the prophets, and fully by the Lord Jesus. We believe all that is contained in the word of God, written or handed down, and that the Church proposes for belief as divinely revealed whether by a solemn judgment or by the ordinary and universal magisterium. We believe in the infallibility enjoyed by the successor of Peter, when he teaches ex cathedra as pastor and teacher of all the faithful, which is assured also to the episcopal body when it exercises with him the supreme magisterium."

The Fourth Council of Constantinople in 870 (at this Council all the bishops of the Catholic Church were gathered together) said the following, "The first condition of salvation is to keep the norm of the true faith, and in no way deviate from the established doctrine of the fathers, for it is impossible that the words of our Lord Jesus Christ Who said, `You are Peter and upon this rock I will build My Church', should not be verified, and their truth has been proved by the course of history. For in the Apostolic See, the Catholic religion has always been kept unsullied. Following, as we have said before, the Apostolic See in all things and proclaiming all its decisions, we endorse and approve all the letters which the Pope wrote concerning the Christian religion."

In the Second Council of Lyons, in the year 1274, another Ecumenical Council of the 21 Ecumenical Councils in the history of the Church, the Fathers gathered there wrote, "The holy Roman Church has supreme primacy and jurisdiction over the whole Catholic Church. This it truly and humbly recognizes as received from the Lord Himself in the person of Saint Peter, the prince and head of the apostles whose successor in the fullness of power is the Roman Pontiff. And just as the holy Roman Church is bound more than all the others to defend the truth of faith, so if there arise any questions concerning the faith, they must be decided by its judgment."

Let us conclude this very brief and cursory examination of the popes through the centuries by some quotations from the great Saints of our Church.

Saint Thomas More, before his martyrdom, said, "I have by the grace of God always been a Catholic, never out of communion with the Roman Pontiff. Then, when I observed that public affairs were so ordered, that the sources of the power of the Roman Pontiff would necessarily be examined, I gave myself to a most diligent examination of that question for the space of seven years, and found that the authority of the Roman Pontiff was not only lawful, to be respected and necessary, but also grounded on divine law. You may no more refuse obedience to the See of Rome, than a child might refuse obedience to his natural father. That is my opinion. That is the belief in which, by God's grace, I shall die."

Saint Augustine of Hippo said, "The old Catholic faith gets its strength and support from the words of the Apostolic See, and it is sinful to have any doubts about this. In the Catholic Church I adhere to the Chair of Peter. Whoever does not wish to stray from the true fold, must follow this voice of Peter."

Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, Mother Cabrini, said, "Who is the Holy Father? He is the representative of God of His authority and majesty among men. The Holy Father is the instrument of the Holy Ghost, the depository of the treasures and secrets of God. He is the key of knowledge for the Christian people. He has in his keeping the power to loose and to bind. The voice of the Holy Father is the voice of God. His word is the word of God. He is the living ark of the New Testament in which is found the divine law, the manna of heavenly doctrine, the precious vase of gold, in which is contained the purity of the Catholic faith. The Pope must be considered the guide of the people and the ark of salvation for everyone."

Saint Cyril of Jerusalem said, "As members of the Mystical Body of the Church, it behooves us to follow our head in the Roman Pontiff who holds in trust the Deposit of the Apostolic Faith. From him we are to learn what we are bound to believe, to think and to hold. By divine right everyone must bow down his head before him."

Saint Avitus said, "When any differences arise, it is our duty to abide by the decisions of the Sovereign Pontiff."

And finally, Saint Thomas Aquinas says, "According to the promise of the Lord, the apostolic Church of Saint Peter and its Pontiffs, and in the full faith and authority of Peter remains free from all taint of heresy and deceit. And while other churches are ashamed by errors, she reigns the solitary Church unshakably established, imposing silence and closing the mouths of heretics. And we, of necessity for our salvation, must proclaim and profess this pattern of holy, apostolic tradition."

Once again, as Saint Ambrose said, "Where Peter is, there is the Church, and where the Church is, there is not death, but eternal life."

© The Wanderer Forum Foundation, Inc., P.O. Box 542, Hudson, WI 54016-0542

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