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Christ Makes Peter Visible Head of the Church

Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius

Conference by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The Papal Primacy has become a scandal to those who refuse to believe that Christ has chosen Peter and his successors to be the rock on which the Savior has built His Church. It is the rock of faith by which the mysteries we believe are the foundation of our unity as followers of Christ. How much more will we appreciate our gift of faith after hearing this stirring defense of the primacy. Father Hardon:

Good evening, suppose again, we start with a prayer.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed are thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Mary, Mother of the Church, pray for us.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our conference this evening is on Christ makes Peter visible head of the Church. We can distinguish two great blessings that Our Lord gave us after His resurrection from the dead. The first blessing was His institution of the Sacrament of Confession on Easter Sunday night. As we know, the Sacrament of Confession continues Christ’s work of mercy until the end of time. It is not only that Christ is teaching us that God is merciful, no. Christ continues doing now on earth what He had been doing in Palestine, actually forgiving sins. The second marvelous blessing that the Risen Christ gave us was the institution of the Papal Primacy. We don’t often use the expression, papal primacy. Just a word of preliminary explanation, by this we mean that, the Bishops of Rome, as successors of St. Peter possess the fullness and supremacy of authority in teaching, in law-giving and in sanctification, in the Church founded by Christ.

In the New Testament scriptures this mystery comes in two stages. The first stage described by St. Matthew in his sixteenth chapter provides us with a promise that Jesus made to Peter, after Peter under divine inspiration professed that Jesus is indeed Christ the Son of the living God. Christ in turn told him, “and you, you are Peter the rock, and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against her”. Notice in this first stage of giving us the papal primacy, Christ promises to make Peter the rock, I will build my Church on you the rock. But the actual building came in the second stage and is the subject of our present meditation. My plan for this conference is to cover the following areas in sequence:

     First:   Why talk about the papal primacy at all? Why get into the subject?
Secondly:  I’d like to read the narrative as provided by St. John, of Christ conferring the primacy on Peter.
Thirdly:  See how the Church explains this difficult narrative in St. John’s gospel.
Fourth:  How do we know that the papacy actually continued beyond St. Peter and will continue into the end of time, in what we call the Primacy of the Bishop of Rome.
And finally:  Draw some practical, spiritual implications.

First then, we ask ourselves, ‘why go into the subject of the Papal Primacy?’ Another way of putting it, as I’ve done over the years, is by lecturing on the subject, ‘What is unique about the Catholic Church?’, and my answer was, the Papacy. Why then do we go into the papacy and even more specifically, the primacy of the papacy? Because, since Christ first instituted the Church, what is given the Church is her stability and it is the papacy, and now for two thousand years has provided the Church with her stability. Again, why go into the papacy? Because, except for the Bishops of Rome, what a statement, there would be no Christianity in the world today. Remove the papacy and you’ve erased Christianity. Again, thanks to the papacy, the Catholic Church as unbroken continuity for now almost 20 centuries, stability is one thing, but living continuity is something else. A stone can remain, well, stable, ah, but continuity in a living institution is something else. This continuity would have been impossible except for the papacy. Again, why go into the papacy, and more specifically, the primacy of the papacy? Because, as we’re learning more than ever before I would say in the history of Christianity, we are learning, there is still one authority left on earth, that speaks, speaks authoritatively, speaks persuasively, speaks convincingly, on the sanctity of unborn human life, on the indissolubility of marriage, on the purpose of marriage to procreate and educate children, on the sinfulness of adultery, fornication, homosexuality. Except for the papacy, neither the sanctity of human life nor of marriage, nor the criminal sinfulness of what is being legislated by one civil government after another. Except for the papacy, who would still believe that the murder of an unborn child is a crime.

Next. The narrative. Verses 15-19 of the closing chapter of St. John’s gospel, chapter 21. I think it’s worth reading the whole text, remember the context. After His resurrection, our Lord appears to the disciples who are fishing, how providential, all night, and they caught nothing. Then they caught sight of Jesus on the shore. He tells them to drop their nets and they catch, we know, every catholic should know, how many fish they caught, 153. Again Christ makes sure the disciples got over their frustration in being such poor fishermen, had a good meal, over the years how many people I’ve told, Jesus Christ is a cook. We may be sure that was a luscious breakfast and fresh fish. After the meal, Jesus takes Peter aside, here’s what St. John says, ‘When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” He said to him, “yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time He said to him, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” He said to Him, “yes, Lord, You know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him a third time, do you love me, and he said to Him, “Lord, You know everything, You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep”, unquote Jesus. Then Christ continued, “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young you girded yourself and walked where you would. But when you’re old you will stretch out your hands and another will gird you and carry you where you do not want to go.” Now the evangelist concludes. ‘This He said to show by what death he was to glorify God. And after this He said to him, “Follow me”. Christ asked Peter three times, ‘do you love me?’ And His first question was, do you love me more, more than these do? In all my years in the priesthood I cannot tell you how many hundreds of times I’ve chosen this text to bring out to the people, the more we have sinned in the past, the more we must love Jesus in the future. Peter had denied the Master, he had sinned. There was no way that Peter could have known how much the others had sinned, he knew how much he had sinned. He knew how much he should love God. And what was the first command that Christ gave to Peter? Feed my lambs. The first responsibility therefore, of the first Bishop of Rome and of all bishops of Rome ever since, and until the end of time, was and is, to feed the youngest of Christ’s flock with the truth. This is the Good Shepherd describing to the first pope what is his primary responsibility. To feed with the truth that He as God revealed to the human race. And this nourishment with the truth cannot begin to begin too early. Then Christ, after asking Peter, ‘do you love me?’ and Peter protests, ‘yes, I love you’, then Jesus gives Peter and his successors until the end of time, the second directive, ‘tend my sheep’. Where feeding has to do with nourishing the mind with the truth, tending has to do with watching over it, guarding, protecting, directing. In other words, Peter and his successors have responsibility over the two faculties of every human being. Over the mind of believers, they are to be taught the truth. And over the will of believers, they are to be directed in the good. Finally, after asking Peter twice, do you love me, Jesus once more, this time Peter is crushed and recognizing his own sinfulness, ‘Lord, You know everything, You know that I love You’ but notice ‘You know that I love You’ You know that I love You even though my actions, my conduct have been so obviously, so pathetically, to the contrary, yet I do love You. And then Jesus told Peter to ‘Feed my sheep’. Thus we have the full gamut of Christ’s commission to the first pope. To feed the minds of the youngest of Christ’s flock with the truth. To watch over, to guide and direct the wills of all of Christ’s flock. And then, with no exception, to feed, feed with the truth, and hear it, the whole human race, ah how this should be said, underlined, etched in bronze. The Bishop of Rome is the teacher of the whole human race, and not only, dear Lord, not only of believers, all of mankind needs to be fed the truth. All of this is locked up in the narrative where Christ spells out the responsibility of not just Peter, but as you shall see, of Peter’s successors until the end of time.

Now we ask ourselves, in the light of the biblical quotation which we have given, from the closing chapter of John’s gospel, how does the Church understand Christ’s words to Peter as conferring on both him, that is Peter, and Peter’s successors the supreme authority in the Church? And get that adjective the supreme authority in the Church. To do what? To teach Christ’s revealed truth without error. To do what? Supreme authority to legislate Christ’s laws with a duty of obedience on the part of the faithful. Supreme authority to do what? Supreme authority to govern the Church according to the will of God as necessary for the salvation and sanctification of the faithful. At the heart of this authority is it’s supremacy, I sure hope with God’s grace, I will be clear. When then we speak of papal primacy, we mean papal supremacy. What do we mean? What we mean is that St. Paul like the other apostles, all the apostles were subordinate to Peter as supreme head of the whole Church on earth. How this needs to be said, how it needs to be said, how desperately this needs to be said. The apostles were subject to the authority of Peter and the successors of the apostles, the bishops of the Catholic Church are subject to the authority of the successor of Peter. I can only repeat and reemphasize the crucial importance of recognizing that the Catholic Church is not Episcopalianism. It is, if you wish to coin a word, papalism. The bishops themselves, no less than the apostles in Christ’s own day, the apostles then and the bishops now, are themselves subject to the authority of the Bishop of Rome. By the will of Christ, Peter has perpetual successors in his primacy over the Universal Church. These successors of St. Peter are the Bishops of Rome. This fact, how the Bishops of Rome, being successors in the primacy is part of Christ’s will, it is part of Divine Revelation. And that is why we now enter another area of reflection. We ask ourselves, how do we know that the papacy is traceable to St. Peter? I can assure you, this is not an academic question.

First of all, de facto, Peter did the most extraordinary thing, a simple, and not too skilled fisherman at that, traveled across the Mediterranean, of all places, went to the capital of the Roman Empire, to Rome, and even as Christ had predicted, Peter was martyred, martyred in Rome. From the very beginning of the Church’s history, the Bishops of Rome have been recognized as successors of Peter. Thus we have records, I can spend the next three hours going over the successors of Peter, but I just thought I’d limit myself to the first five in the first century. Peter, from Bethsaida, second Linus, dates 67 to 76 A.D, a native of Tuscany, third, St. Cletus, dates 76 to 88, a native of Rome, fourth Pope Clement the I, dates 88 to 97, again a native of Rome, fifth St. Evaristus dates 97 to 105, a native of Greece, is raw, traceable, historically verifiable facts. This sequence was recognized by all the early writers of the Church who gave us, not coincidentally, the very sequence of the successors of Peter as I have just read to you and under the second, third, fourth centuries and beyond. However, from the very beginning it’s not just they were claimants to supreme authority, the Bishops of Rome exercised supreme authority and from the first century. Peter, as we know, wrote two letters, which we call the 1 and 2 letter of Peter found in the New Testament. But, and how precious this is, unquestionably historical word for word, date, early 3rdcentury, author the Bishop of Carthage, St. Cyprian. I think it is worth reading, over the years in teaching ecclesiology to my Jesuit students, this is part of the understanding of the papacy, goes back, back, to the beginnings, this is St. Cyprian writing, I repeat in the early 3rd century, he was martyred for the faith, I’m quoting from his book of the Church, “The Lord says to Peter, ‘I say to you, you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church and the gates of hell will not overcome it. And to you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven and whatever you bind on earth, shall be bound also in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth, shall be loosed also in heaven.’ And again He says to him after His resurrection, ‘Feed my sheep’. On him, He builds the Church and to him, He gives the command to feed the sheep. And although He assigns a similar power to all the other apostles, yet He founded a single Chair and He established by His own authority a source and an ( ? inaudible) reason for that unity. Indeed, the others were also, that which Peter was, but the primacy is given to Peter, whereby it is made clear how there is but one Church and one Chair. So too, all our shepherds and the flock, is shown to be one, that by all the apostles in single-minded accord. If someone does not build fast on this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he deserts the Chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?” Unquote Cyprian, date about 210 A.D.

How we need to hear this today. Here of course, not three hours, not three days, but for thirty years I could quote from sources going back to the earliest days of Christianity. Where the greatest minds in the Church recognized there is only one basis of unity in Christianity, and that is Peter. I thought I would quote to you, among so many that I could quote from, from Pope Gregory the 7th, writing about 1075. In one of his documents there are over a score of qualities belonging to the primacy of Peter. By primacy, means firstness, literally, primacy means basis, primacy means foundation, primacy means fundamental authority and the power to exercise his authority on earth. Just quote a few passages from Pope Gregory the 7th writing in the 11th century. “The Roman Church”, notice Roman Church, “has been founded by Christ alone.” Again, “the Roman Pontiff may alone be called universal.” Again, “the Pope alone may depose or absolve bishops.” Again “no counsel may be called general without the Pope’s consent.” Again, “the Pope’s judgment may not be revised by anyone and he alone may revise the judgment of others.” Once again, “he who does not agree with the Roman Church, he might not be considered a Catholic.” Let me repeat that, “he who does not agree with the Roman Church may not consider himself a Catholic.” “Anyone who does not obey the Pope is not a Catholic.” That should be carved in marble. Again, “the Pope may release subjects from their oath of fidelity to wicked rulers”. Let me read it again, “the Pope may release subjects from their oath of fidelity or obedience to wicked rulers.” And over the centuries the Popes have done that many times. And the Second Vatican Council, oh what a wealth of treasure is found in the real Second Vatican Council, not the one interpreted by the mavericks who are using what they call the ‘spirit of council’ to peddle their own strange ideas. But out of the marvelous truths taught by Vatican II is the fact that no authority is binding unless it concurs with, is in agreement with, is consistent with, the teaching of the Bishop of Rome. And thus, I didn’t plan this, it’s not in my notes, but it’s logical, when the president of the United States says certain things that are obviously contrary to the teachings of the Vicar of Christ, not just the civil ruler has lost his authority in all those areas, but listen, even ecclesiastical authorities have only as much right to command the people as what they teach and order is in concurrence with the teaching of the Bishop of Rome, how we need that today. We go on.

Our last reflection is on some implications of the papal primacy about which we have spoken all too briefly. First, basic implication, the strength and vitality of the Catholic faith depends on our belief in and loyalty to the Bishop of Rome, our faith is only as Catholic as we are obedient, subject in mind, to the teachings of the Bishop of Rome. What a test in a nation like ours, when so many openly, blatantly, brazenly, challenging, questioning, doubting, opposing, even to coin a sweet word, dissenting from, my God, dissenting nothing, heresy has coined a new word, it is now dissent. No it isn’t, it’s still heresy. Second implication, this faith in the papal primacy, gives us an indispensable norm for judging what is true, what is morally good, what is sinful, what is pleasing to God, and in our day, it is especially the papacy that guarantees our knowledge and firm conviction in what is morally good. When one nominally Catholic writer after another, buys such theories as the fundamental option, ‘they don’t commit a mortal sin, unless you totally reject God, one adultery, even a series of adulteries is not a mortal sin, one abortion is not a mortal sin’. My friends, the essence, so these claimants claim, the essence of mortal guilt is not in what you do, but well, in the motive, in your intention. If you have a deep love for a woman, who happens not to be your wife, somebody else’s wife, well, it’s not a sin. And that is why when Charles Curran for eighteen years teaching theology, was finally, finally removed from his teaching post at Catholic university, the only reason why he was removed while teaching, hear it, the legitimacy of abortion, of adultery, of fornication, of masturbation, of homosexuality, right down the line, for years, dare I say it, and supported by members of the hierarchy. It took the Bishop of Rome to enter the picture and demand, thank God for Cardinal Hickey, who then in cooperation with the Pope, finally got Charles Curran out of the faculty of what is nominally a pontifical institution. I cannot tell you how crucial the authority of the pope is, especially in our day, to still be able to identify what is morally good and what is morally sinful when there is simply an ocean of permissibility covering the whole waterfront of sins which are approved by those who still, may God forgive them, call themselves Catholic. Third implication, loyalty to the Pope is one of the hallmarks of fidelity to Christ. So true is this, that we can measure our love for Christ by our love for the Vicar of Christ. If Christ tells us, as He does, if you love Me, keep my commandments. But then we ask, but Lord, what are Your commandments? Then we turn to the Bishop of Rome, and there Christ tells us what His commandments are. They are the hallmark of our loving the Son of God who became man so that as man He might then tell a repentant Peter, feed my lambs, tend and feed my sheep.

Fourth implication, we have a duty, this conference is not only reflective, it is also examining our consciences and is meant to be anticipating the future. We should grow in our understanding of the papacy. I really believe, honestly, that many people, even those who by now have even given up their Catholic faith, from among still nominal Catholics who are not loyal to the teachings of the Vicar of Christ, they are in plain English, stupid, they just don’t know even the very history of the Church. As I told my Protestant confreres, in the protestant seminaries where I taught, they argued with me about you Catholics, it’s the Church this and the Church that, the pope says this, so you obey him, we go to the bible. So I said, ‘Look, where’d you get the bible?’ ‘From the Holy Spirit.’

‘Just a minute, but there’s at least, at least ten times as much which claimed to be the bible as you now call the bible. How do you know we’ve got just four evangelists? How do you know which books belong to the bible? Except for the Popes, we wouldn’t know what the bible was’. Study about the papacy, historically down the ages. I’ve told people, one of my most satisfying experiences was going through a first time, the forty volumes of “The History of the Popes.” By the time I got to volume 23 the second time my theological studies were over so I thought, I’ve done my duty. The history of the papacy down the ages, grow in your understanding of the papacy theologically, by deepening your grasp of the meaning of who the pope is, who the Vicar of Christ is, what we mean by the primacy. Grow in your understanding of the papacy spiritually, by yours and my prayer and sacrifice for the Vicar of Christ.

When on some occasions I have the privilege of concelebrating Mass with the Holy Father, all I can tell you is, these are among the greatest experiences of my life on earth. But I can tell you, the Vicar of Christ is suffering deeply, deeply, over the ( ? ) in nominally Catholic circles and often in high places.

He needs our prayers and sacrifices and by our prayerful sacrifice we shall also grow by God’s grace, in our love for and appreciation of the primacy of the Vicar of Christ.

One last implication, defend, defend the Roman Pontiff in word and action, to safeguard the true faith in our world. Now enough about the Pope’s authority, now his teaching. Keep up with what he says, and don’t just wait for critics, to you might say, spark. You’re defending the papacy, no, spontaneously, in conversation. Have you read what the Holy Father just said about, and then bring up some subject which would interest your listener. Believe me, over the years, I’ve come to treasure my special vow of obedience to the Vicar of Christ. And every year increases my appreciation of how precious it is to be faithful to Christ’s vicar on earth, being sure that by our fidelity to the Bishop of Rome we are being faithful to Jesus Christ.

Lord Jesus, You gave us the papal primacy as a continuation of the exercise of Your own authority on earth until the end of time. But we know, dear Savior, how well we know, this papal authority has many enemies. Give us, we beg, the courage to defend the authority of the Bishop of Rome. But above all, give us the humility to obey the teachings of Your vicar on earth, being sure that by obeying him, we are obeying You and by obeying You, we are loving You here on earth as a prelude to our everlasting love of You and by You in heaven. Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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