• Acts 2:14a, 36-41
• Ps 23:1-2a, 3b-4, 5, 6
• 1 Pet 2:20b-25
• Jn 10:1-10
It would be difficult to find a more eloquent tribute to Saint Peter than that written by St. John Chrysostom: “Peter, the leader of the choir, the mouth of all the apostles, the head of that tribe, the ruler of the whole world, the foundation of the Church, the ardent lover of Christ.”
The Year A readings during the Easter season focus on Peter, first, in recounting his great sermons and deeds as recorded in the first half of the Acts of the Apostles and, secondly, in his own words from his first epistle. One of the reasons for this is so we might contemplate the essential role of Peter, the first pope and Vicarius Christi (Vicar of Christ), in the early Church. And in hearing about Peter’s role, we can also better appreciate the nature and purpose of the papacy—not only in the ancient Church but certainly today as well .
The Catholic Church teaches that Jesus Christ formed the New Israel, the Church, by first calling together the Twelve, of which Peter was the head. Simon Peter alone was given the keys to the Kingdom (Matt 16:16-20) and established as “shepherd of the whole flock” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 880-81). He, along with the other apostles, was given a unique and foundational authority by the Lord to teach, to govern, and to sanctify.
These three tasks are evident in today’s first reading, which is part of Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost and a description of the response to it.
Peter’s proclamation was an act of teaching, concentrated on the person of his Master: “Let the whole house of Israel know for certain that God has made both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Some scholars and critics have, especially in recent decades, sought to pit Peter against Paul, as if they were competitors or even bearers of conflicting messages. But the core of each of the two great apostles’ teaching was identical: “but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23; see 1 Cor. 2:2). As Peter wrote in his first epistle, Christ “himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross” (1 Pet 2:24).
Secondly, we see that Peter, as head of the other eleven apostles, guided and governed the administration of the sacraments: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you…” While some Fundamentalist Protestants argue that the papacy and holy orders obscure or even undermine the saving work of Christ, the opposite is the case. Even in its embryonic form, the hierarchy of the Church on the day of Pentecost made certain that the shared goal of bringing the supernatural gift of baptism to those present would take place in an orderly, understandable manner. It’s all well and good to rail against “organized religion”, but disorganized religions usually consist of a single adherent and a short life span.
Finally, the baptizing of three thousand on that day was a sanctifying action of the Holy Spirit, who worked in and through the saving sacraments of the Church. Peter knew that salvation comes by the Cross, as he wrote to the early Christians: “By his wounds you have been healed.” He also knew that Satan seeks to pit a false understanding of Jesus Christ against the truth of the Cross. It was Peter, after all, who upon hearing Jesus speaking prophetically of his approaching death, exclaimed, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” How could he forget the Lord’s quick rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Matt 16:22-23)?
Peter was indeed a shepherd, the first pope. But he knew, as a man who like a lost sheep had gone astray in the dark of night, that his authority to shepherd came from “the shepherd and guardian of your souls”.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the May 15, 2011, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)