Listers, “Prince of the Apostles” means that St. Peter held a certain primacy over the other eleven. Understanding St. Peter’s unique position among the twelve and the unique ministries he exercised lays an excellent groundwork for a discussion of Christ’s founding of the Papacy. While resources on this subject are abundant, SPL recommends Cardinal Ratzinger’s Called to Communion.
St. Peter’s Place of Primacy Among the Twelve
1. St. Peter & the Sons of Zebedee:
Sts. Peter, James, and John are a special group of disciples that are allowed to witness the Transfiguration1 and accompany Christ to the Mount of Olives.2 In each event, St. Peter, the Rock, is singled out. At the Mount of Olives, Christ finds all three asleep, but it is St. Peter he addresses. During the Transfiguration, it is St. Peter who speaks for the disciples.
2. Christ Calls Simon Peter First:
In St. Luke 5:1-11, Christ calls his first disciples, and the first is Simon Peter. According to Cardinal Ratzinger, the “call of Peter appears as the original pattern of apostolic vocation par excellence.”3
3. The List of Disciples According to Scripture:
Every time the disciples are listed, St. Peter is listed first.4 Furthermore, when referring to the disciples, sometimes only St. Peter is mentioned by name, e.g., “And Simon and those who were with him,” and “Now Peter and those who were with him”.5
4. Unique Acts:
St. Peter is the only one to try to walk on the water (Mt 14:28ff) and he is the one that brings up the famous question of how many times we must forgive.6 Even St. Peter’s shadow was an instrument of healing.7
The Name Change: The Rock
5. The Changing of St. Peter’s Name:
While it was common for Rabbis to give nicknames or new surnames to their disciples, e.g., the Sons of Zebedee as the “Sons of Thunder,” it was uncommon to change a disciple’s first name. Christ gives Simon the new name “Peter” or Kephas (or Cephas) meaning rock.8
6. New Name = New Vocation:
In the Old Testament, God changing someone’s name denoted a special calling, a new vocation, e.g., Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Jacob to Israel, etc. St. Peter’s name change denotes that he will have a special vocation among the twelve.
7. Special Meaning of Rock:
Obviously Christ was also referred to as the Rock, because he is the foundation of all things. However, in the rabbinical tradition, Abraham was also referred to as a rock: “Look to the rock from which you were hewn… look to Abraham your father” .9 Cardinal Ratzinger comments:10
Abraham, the father of faith, is by his faith the rock that holds back chaos, the onrushing primordial flood of destruction, and thus sustains creation. Simon, the first to confess Jesus as the Christ and the first witness of the Resurrection, now becomes by virtue of his Abrahamic faith, which is renewed in Christ, the rock that stands against the impure tide of unbelief and its destruction of man.
8. The Risen Christ Commissions St. Peter:
After the Resurrection, Christ appears to the Twelve and has a unique conversation with St. Peter. Christ, the Shepherd, asks St. Peter three times if he loves him. St. Peter responds yes all three times – presumably this passage should reflect his three denials. Christ also tell St. Peter and Peter alone: feed my lambs, tend my sheep, and feed my sheep. As the Vicar of Christ, St. Peter must care for the flock.11
9. Christ Prays for St. Peter:
In Lk 22:31-34, two major Petrine themes are evident. First, Satan has taken a special interest in St. Peter. He will fail, but will repent. Second, after St. Peter has “turned again” to Christ, Jesus commissions him to “strengthen the brethren.” Another mission given only to St. Peter.
10. The Keys:
In Matthew 16:13-20, the most famous unique call is given to St. Peter: to be the foundation of the Church and to exercise the authority of keys of the kingdom. The office given to St. Peter is that of the Vicar within the Davidic Kingdom. The Vicar governs in the King’s stead, according to the King’s rules, while the King is gone.12 St. Peter is the Vicar of Christ, the Pope.
St. Peter & St. Paul
11. St. Paul Refers to Peter as Cephas:
St. Paul introduces St. Peter as the first witness of the Resurrection: “that [Christ] was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve” (I Cor 15:3-5; cf. 1:12, 3:22, 9:5). St. Paul refers to Peter as Cephas, emphasizing his name change and vocation.
12. St. Paul Presents Himself to Cephas:
The epistle of Galatians is paramount in understanding the Pauline/Petrine relationship. In the beginning of Galatians, St. Paul is attempting to validate his claim to be an apostle, though he was not one of the twelve. It’s important to note that St. Paul invokes Cephas twice to show that his vocation and apostolic claim are both valid. After receiving his call from Christ, St. Paul goes out and “does not confer with flesh and blood,” but rather three years later goes “to Jerusalem to visit Cephas.” Then after fourteen years, he returns to Jerusalem and privately tells the “pillars” of the Church his gospel, “lest somehow I should be running or had run in vain.” Again, he uses St. Peter as vindication, saying as Peter went to the circumcised, so he, Paul, goes to the uncircumcised. Then the “pillars” (Cephas, James, and John) “perceive the grace” in St. Paul and send him to the Gentiles with Barnabas. (Gal 1) It is important to note the role of hierarchy within St. Paul’s ministry, not only in validating his own role, but later in establishing his own hierarchal churches (cf. Timothy and Titus).
13. St. Paul Rebukes St. Peter:
A lot of ink has been spilled over this passage. First let us see that St. Paul had to show he had been validated by St. Peter in Gal 1 in order for people to accept his authority to then correct St. Peter in Gal 2. Furthermore, St. Peter’s primacy in the Church does not mean he is incapable of personal error or sin. St. Peter is also the apostle who denied Christ three times. The Popes confess their sins like every other Catholic, it is the office they hold that sets them apart.
- Mark 9:2-8 [↩]
- Mark 14:33 [↩]
- 54 [↩]
- Matt 10:2-4; Mk 3:16-19; Lk 6:14-16; Acts 1:13 [↩]
- Mk 1:36; Lk 9:32 [↩]
- Mt 18:21 [↩]
- Acts 5 [↩]
- John 1:42; Mt 16 [↩]
- Is 51:1-3 [↩]
- 56 [↩]
- John 21 [↩]
- Is. 22 [↩]