|Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam|
Though our title to this article specifies the primacy of St. Peter as the Prince of the Apostles, we shall consider not only the God-given role entrusted to the Head of the Apostolic College, but also the establishment of the hierarchical structure of the Church in general.
We offer this little article as a work of apologetics: An attempt to demonstrate, from the scriptural witness alone, that the Papacy and the College of Bishops is not man-made but is of God. Rather than multiplying citations of the Sacred Text (indeed, there are many hundreds of references to the hierarchical structure of the Church in both the Old and New Testaments), we will consider only a few particularly important passages.
I offer this meager piece in honor of our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, on this the 60th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood of Jesus Christ.
The teaching of the Second Vatican Council – rooted in Sacred Scripture
“The Lord Jesus, after praying to the Father, calling to Himself those whom He desired, appointed twelve to be with Him, and whom He would send to preach the Kingdom of God (Mark 3:13-19; Matthew 10:1-42); and these apostles (cf. Luke 6:13) He formed after the manner of a college or a stable group, over which He placed Peter chosen from among them (Cf. John 21:15-17). He sent them first to the children of Israel and then to all nations (Romans 1:16), so that as sharers in His power they might make all peoples His disciples, and sanctify and govern them (cf. Matthew 28:16-20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:45-48; John 20:21-23), and thus spread His Church, and by ministering to it under the guidance of the Lord, direct it all days even to the consummation of the world (cf. Matthew 28:20). And in this mission they were fully confirmed on the day of Pentecost (cf. Acts 2:1-26) in accordance with the Lord's promise: You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you shall be witnesses for me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and in Samaria, and even to the very ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). And the apostles, by preaching the Gospel everywhere (cf. Mark 16:20), and it being accepted by their hearers under the influence of the Holy Spirit, gather together the universal Church, which the Lord established on the apostles and built upon blessed Peter, their chief, Christ Jesus Himself being the supreme cornerstone (Revelations 21:14; Matthew 16:18; Ephesians 2:20).
“That divine mission, entrusted by Christ to the apostles, will last until the end of the world (cf. Matthew 20:28), since the Gospel they are to teach is for all time the source of all life for the Church. And for this reason the apostles, appointed as rulers in this society, took care to appoint successors.” (Lumen Gentium 19-20)
We must first recognize that this explanation of the doctrine that Christ himself founded the Church upon Peter and the other apostles as a hierarchical society (and that this visible structure was confirmed by the Holy Spirit) is based entirely upon Sacred Scripture. If any desire to debate with the Second Vatican Council over the definition of the divine origin of the hierarchy of the Church, the debate must focus on the Scriptures rather than on later history.
In particular, we notice that three particular passages are of the highest importance for the Catholic belief in the hierarchical structure of the Church: Mark 3:13-19 (in which the twelve apostles are chosen from among the disciples), Matthew 16:18 (in which the primacy of Peter is defined), and Acts 2:1-26 (in which the Holy Spirit confirms what our Savior had already established).
Christ established the hierarchy of the Church
While Christ called both men and women to follow him, others began to follow without having been explicitly so called. Thus we see, from the very beginning of our Savior’s ministry on earth, that the followers of Jesus were organized in multiple spheres. There was the crowd and there were the disciples. And, from among these disciples, our Lord called forth twelve men as his apostles – these he would ordain as his priests at the Last Supper.
It was not the choice of these twelve men to become Christ’s apostles, but he chose them of his own volition. The twelve did not establish themselves as the leaders of the flock, but our Savior called them and set them over the faithful as caregivers and shepherds. The shepherding role given to the apostles is particularly evident in the distribution of the multiplied loaves and fish: Our Savior does not distribute the food immediately to the crowd, but rather gives his gifts through the mediation of the apostles; thereby indicating their ministry in the Church.
Our Savior established Peter as the Prince of the apostles
And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven. (Matthew 16:18-19)
As our Savior chose the twelve from among his disciples, so too he chose St. Peter from among the twelve, establishing him as the supreme shepherd and lord over the Church. The Douay-Rheims Bible Commentary reflects on the significance of the name given to Simon bar-Jona – Peter, Cephas, Rock – “The words of Christ to Peter, spoken in the vulgar language of the Jews which our Lord made use of, were the same as if he had said in English, Thou art a Rock, and upon this rock I will build my church. So that, by the plain course of the words, Peter is here declared to be the rock, upon which the church was to be built: Christ himself being both the principal foundation and founder of the same. Where also note, that Christ, by building his house, that is, his church, upon a rock, has thereby secured it against all storms and floods, like the wise builder, St. Matt. 7. 24, 25.”
Certainly, the whole apostolic band is the foundation of the Church, and the one foundation is always Christ – yet, there is a particular sense in which Christ our God has established St. Peter as ruler over the household of believers. Without entering into the theological discussion of in what this primacy consists, we simply must admit that (based on the witness of Sacred Scripture) Jesus established a hierarchy among his followers: The twelve as heads and shepherds of the people, with Peter as the supreme ruler and shepherd over all.
The Holy Spirit confirmed the hierarchical structure of the Church at Pentecost
And when the days of the Pentecost were accomplished, they were all together in one place: And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a mighty wind coming, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them parted tongues as it were of fire, and it sat upon every one of them: And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they began to speak with divers tongues, according as the Holy Ghost gave them to speak. […] But Peter standing up with the eleven, lifted up his voice, and spoke to them. (Acts 2:1-4, 14)
At the feast of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit confirmed the visible hierarchical structure which Christ Jesus had established during his earthly life. For the Holy Spirit did not descend immediately upon all those present in Jerusalem, but rather came down first upon the twelve (Matthias having already replaced Judas) and then through their ministry filling the hearts of three thousand who came to believe that day.
The feast of Pentecost bears some resemblance to the multiplications of the loaves and fish – as Christ did not immediately feed the whole crowd himself, but rather feed them through the hierarchical ministry of his apostles; so too the Holy Spirit did not descend immediately upon all those in Jerusalem, but came to the crowds through the ministry of the apostles and the administration of the sacrament of baptism. Pentecost, which is surely the most charismatic and spirit-filled moment in the Church’s history, is likewise an overtly hierarchical event. The twelve are confirmed by God the Holy Spirit in their ministry as shepherds over the flock of Christ.
Finally, we point out that St. Peter is likewise confirmed as the Prince of the Apostles for, from here on out, St. Peter will regularly speak on behalf of the apostolic college and even on behalf of the whole Church.
The hierarchy of the Church
This article has been a work of apologetics and, therefore, the scope has been quite limited. We have not discussed the many interesting questions of the relation between Peter and the other apostles (or between the Pope and the bishops) nor the relation between the faithful and the apostolic college. However, setting aside these further questions of dogmatic theology, we have established (based entirely upon Sacred Scripture) the apologetic point that Christ established his Church as a visible hierarchy and that this hierarchical structure has been confirmed by the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, we must conclude that the visible, hierarchical structure of the Church (at least in its essence and outline) is not man-made but is divine in its origin.