St. Peter and the Keys

by Rev. Fr. John Rickert, FSSP

This  Tuesday, the 29th of June, is the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. The more the Church faces attack, the more we need to be grateful that we are established on the rock established by Christ, against Whom the powers of hell will not prevail.

“Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build My Church.” +

These days it is very sad but clear that our society is drifting away from Christianity, and I would argue that that is what inevitably happens, at least in the long run, when one departs from the only authentic, original Christianity given by Christ Himself directly to His Apostles with St. Peter as head. It is not uncommon these days to run into people who claim to be Christian or at least to be “spiritual” in some sense who say things like, “I’m religious and I believe in God, but I don’t believe in organized religion.”

But then we have to ask: What if God Himself is the one Who organized it? If a religion is organized by God Himself, then we would not be sincere in saying that we truly believe in Him if we refused to follow the religion He Himself has given us. And in fact we do believe and profess that Our Lord did organize a religion, that this is reflected in what we see in the Bible and Sacred Tradition, that this Church still exists, and it is the Catholic Church.

“Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church,” Our Lord says, in Matthew ch. 16. His Church, He says, not Peter’s or anyone else’s. God has organized, constructed, and established His own Church, to the point that He calls it His own mystical body. If we sincerely believe in God, we must accept what He has established for us.

The primacy of St. Peter is especially clear in the verse I just mentioned, which also talks about the conferral of the keys of the kingdom to St. Peter. His primacy is also clear from several other passages in Scripture. For example, the list of the Apostles given in St. Matthew calls Peter “the first,” even though the narrative shows that he was not the first one to be called.  (Matthew 10:4) Another example is on Easter morning: St.Peter and St. John run to the empty tomb, and St. John gets there first, but he waits for St. Peter to enter

before him. ( John 20:4-8 ) “St. Peter appears first in all things,” Bishop Bossuet says,( Sermon on the Unity of the Church.) “the first to confess the faith ( Matthew 16:18 )…the first of the Apostles to see Christ risen from the dead ( 1 Cor. 15:5 )… the first to confirm the Faith by a miracle, ( Acts 3:6-7 ) the first to convert Jews, ( Acts 2:41 ) and the first to receive Gentiles. ( Acts 10:45-48 ) The first in everything.”

Another example is more indirect, but it is significant, because the symbolism is so clear. You recall the time when Our Lord and the Apostles were in a boat and a terrible storm arose. Our Lord was asleep in the hull of the ship and the rest were all afraid that they were going to die. St. Peter goes over to Our Lord and says, “Wake up! Don’t you realize we are about to drown?” And Christ then calms the waters.

Now, this event sounds almost exactly like one we know from the Old Testament, from the first chapter of Jonah. Jonah is asleep in the hull of the ship, a terrible storm arises, and the captain of the ship comes to Jonah and says, “Wake up! How can you be you sleeping? We’re about to drown!” So, in both cases we have a ship, a storm, and the savior asleep in the hull of the ship. Jonah clearly corresponds to Christ. Who is the captain?

It is no surprise, then, that the Church has been called “the barque of Peter,” – b a r q u e, a ship. And it is true that on a ship, one captain is just the right number. If there were no captain at all, the situation would differ little, really, from a mutiny. If there were more than one captain, there would be an uncertainty on which way to turn the rudder. The same is true for the Church. One Pope is enough and not too many. The office and character of the papacy are unique in the Church and they can’t be anythingother than unique.

Relatively recently, Our Holy Father Pope Benedict expressed this with refreshing vigor and clarity. He gave a long and excellent series of Wednesday audiences on the Fathers of the Church. These are available from the Vatican’s website (for free) and collected in book form (but not for free). In his general audience of June 7, 2007, the Holy Father said this in regard to St. Cyprian:

The Church was easily his favorite subject. Cyprian distinguished between the visible, hierarchical Church and the invisible mystical Church but forcefully affirmed that the Church is one, founded on Peter. He never wearied of repeating that “if a man deserts the Chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, does he think that he is in the Church?” Cyprian knew well that “outside the Church there is no salvation,” and said so in strong words (Epistles 4, 4 and 73, 21); and he knew that “no one can have God as Father who does not have the Church as mother.” (De Unitate, 6.)  An indispensable characteristic of the Church is unity, symbolized by Christ’s seamless garment (ibid. 7): Cyprian said, this unity is founded on Peter, (ibid. 4) and its perfect fulfilment in the Eucharist. (Ep 63, 13.)

Thank you, Holy Father. And on March 5, 2008, the Holy Father said this in regard to the outstanding pontiff and Doctor of the Church, Pope St. Leo the Great:

This faith in Jesus Christ, true God and true man, was affirmed by the Pope in an important doctrinal text sent to the Bishop of Constantinople, the so-called “Tome to Flavianus,” which, when read at Chalcedon, was received by the bishops present with an eloquent acclamation, as recorded in the acts of the Council: “Peter has spoken through the mouth of Leo!” the Council Fathers exclaimed with one voice. From this intervention, and from the others made during the Christological controversy of those years, it is evident how the Pope noted with particular urgency the responsibility of the Successor of Peter; which role is unique in the Church. For, “to a sole Apostle is entrusted what is communicated to all the Apostles,” as Leo affirms in one of his sermons on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul [Sermon 83.2] And the Pontiff knew how to exercize this responsibility, in the West and in the East, by intervening in different circumstances with prudence, firmness, and clarity through his writings and legates. He demonstrated in this way how the exercize of Roman primacy was necessary then, as it is today, for the efficacious serving of communion, a characteristic of the unique Church of Christ.

Ubi Petrus, ibi Ecclesia. Where Peter is, there is the Church. Please pray every day for the Holy Father, for our bishop, and for all bishops and priests.