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John W. MartensFebruary 26, 2013

In case you have not heard, Pope Benedict XVI resigned. Nowadays, to choose a successor they gather all of the Cardinals under 80 from around the world and fly them to Rome to choose a new Pope. But how did Peter become the first Bishop of Rome, the man we call "Pope"? Practice, practice, practice? No, that’s how you get to Carnegie Hall not Rome. So, what are the lessons that the New Testament offers for those who are about to choose a successor to Peter as the Bishop of Rome? First of all, each Gospel tells us that Jesus called Simon bar Jonah early in his ministry to follow him and Peter answered that call . This is a call all the papabile have already answered, so they are in good position in that respect, though Simon bar Jonah was a Jewish fisherman when he was called, which none of the Cardinals can claim to be. Second, Jesus gave Simon a nickname, and this fact in itself is very cool, but the content of the nickname, Cephas or Petros, “the Rock,” is even better (Mk. 3:16; Matt. 16:18; Jn. 1:42). Once Simon received his nickname, he generally was called Peter, except by his mother and Paul; she doubtless kept calling him Simon and Paul kept calling him Cephas, probably to show that he still knew Aramaic. We do not know if any of the possibilities for Pope have nicknames, such as Marc “Frenchy” Ouellet or Peter “The Young” Turkson, but even if they did, their names were not given to them directly by Jesus, so this might not be a deciding factor. Upon becoming Pope they do get to choose a new name, which is itself cool, but not as excellent as having Jesus choose one for you.

Peter was prominent amongst the disciples, often saying things like, “Look, we have left everything and followed you” (Mark 10: 28) and “Explain this parable to us” (Matt. 15:15). On the other hand, he identified Jesus as the Messiah (“But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “The Messiah of God”: Lk. 9:20) and went ahead and walked on the water when Jesus told him to ("Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water”: Matt.14:28), though he had a bit of a slip-up out there on the waves. Peter was also with Jesus during the Transfiguration, speaking on behalf of all the terrified apostles who were present saying, “Master, it is good for us to be here” (Lk. 9:33).  Jesus also said things to Peter, like “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matt. 16:23), although he also said, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). I suspect that like Peter all of the papabile have their strengths and weaknesses, and all of them, like Peter, are prominent amongst the disciples, but there is something that I bet none of them have that Peter had: a mother-in-law (“When Jesus entered Peter's house, he saw his mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever”: Matt. 8:14). So, if you are looking for a married Jewish fisherman as Pope, that’s most likely not going to happen, and Peter offers no help in this regard.

Jesus also appeared to Peter after his resurrection (Lk. 24:34; Mk. 16:7; 1 Cor. 15:3), the first of the Twelve, though Jesus had already appeared to a number of female disciples beforehand (discuss among yourselves why this might have been the case). Peter was very important in the Church after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, often giving speeches in Jerusalem and acting as the spokesman for the Church (see Acts 2-5; Gal. 1:18).  He also consults with the Apostles on occasion in Acts and is sent by them to Samaria with John (Acts 8:14). In fact, in Acts Peter is often with John (3:1f; 4:1f). Peter has a broad missionary career, baptizing the first Gentile, Cornelius, and his family (Acts 10) and arguing with the other Christians who told Peter he should not have baptized them or even have eaten with them (Acts 11). Paul says Peter was a missionary to the Jews (Gal. 2:7), which is true of course, but he also went to Gentiles (1 Cor. 1:12; 1 Peter 1:1), including in Antioch (Gal. 2:7), and ultimately to Rome, where he was martyred, though we do not have exact dates for his arrival or for his death in the 60s under Nero. None of the possible Popes are among the first witnesses like Peter, but a major task is still being a witness to Jesus’ resurrection and being faithful to the end. Another task that can be replicated today is Peter's consultations with the other apostles and disciples.

It’s not clear in practical terms how much the Cardinals’ lives are like Peter’s life – in many respects they are quite different: Peter was in business with his brother as a fisherman (Mk. 1:16), was married, and was not formally educated (“Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus”: Acts 4:13). Popes today run the equivalent of a large corporation, in fact a small state, and do not have a lot of time for fishing. They are not married and they have a lot of formal education.

Peter did travel a lot, as any Pope is expected to do now, but he traveled on foot or boat, not in planes, trains and Popemobiles. Peter did not have to deal with the media tracking his every move or keeping up to date with Facebook and Twitter (though a Twitter account @Cephas1 would have been terrific: “Mixed day: identified Jesus as Messiah; became “Rock”; rebuked for rebuking him for saying he had to die. Still trying to figure him out.”), though he did have to worry about Nero tracking his every move. He did not write books, but he did apparently write letters (using a ghostwriter Silvanus, 1 Peter 5:17).

There is a lot that present Popes have to do that Peter did not have to do, including wearing fine clothes and living in a sumptuous apartment, but only one thing really matters: even when he stumbled and fell– denying Jesus three times qualifies (Mark 14:66-72) – he got back up and continued to follow Jesus. That is the lesson that the first Pope offers to every subsequent Pope and leads to his most important tasks:  to love Jesus and to feed his sheep (Jn 21:17).

This entry is cross-posted at Bible Junkies

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @Biblejunkies

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Joseph Keffer
11 years 3 months ago
Nice writing but you did not address how Peter became Pope per your article's title. Note the challenges in today's publications such as Garry Will's: "Why Priests?" what is the evidence that Peter was ever a bishop of Rome, let alone, Pope?
Jim McCrea
11 years 3 months ago
Thank you, Joseph. Mythology is not the same as fact.
John Martens
11 years 3 months ago

I do not think that anyone ever called Peter "Pope," except perhaps for his chilldren, as the name simply means "father" and I do not think the title was in usage in the way we use the term during Peter's life.  The tradition of the papacy is traced back to Peter, because he did settle in Rome at some point and was martyred in Rome sometime during Nero's reign. These facts are not much disputed. Was he the Bishop of Rome? Again, the Bishops are successors to the Apostles, so it might be considered a bit of a downgrade for the preeminent Apostle to be considered merely a Bishop; but if Peter did not have the title of Bishop, is it not fair to assume he had authority as an Apostle equivalent  to that of his successors? (By the way, the works I consulted for this piece, not in terms of serious research, but just checking basic facts, were: Antioch and Rome: New Testament Cradles of Catholic Christianity (John Meier and Raymond Brown);Peter in the New Testament: A Collaborative Assessment by Protestant and Roman Catholic Scholars
(Raymond Brown; Karl Paul Donfried; John Reumann); Peter, Stephen, James and John (F.F. Bruce).

I think your point is a good one in general: that the history of the development of the orders of the Church is complicated and obscure on many points, but I was just trying to have a little fun.


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