Technology has made astonishing progress in the field of armaments over the past decades. Innovations of this kind are frequently reported, even more so in the context of the threatening conflict in Ukraine. Nevertheless, a nation’s military power cannot be reduced to the mere production and stockpiling of weapons. In war, each side typically seeks to appropriate the enemy force’s arsenal, study it and use it against the former owner.
Similarly, from its origins, the Papacy has been an institution fiercely fought by men and demons. Of course, the victor in this combat is already established, for the gates of hell shall never prevail against the Church (cf. Mt 16:18). However, there are times when the core of the struggle extends to Peter’s heart, and his enemies seek to make it beat against the very institution that he is meant to protect. Under such conditions, what can the faithful who fight on earth do for him?
Let us return to the origins of the mission of the Supreme Pontiff in order to better answer this question.
Who is Peter?
Throughout the centuries, very singular expressions have been devised to refer to the first Pope. Among other appellations dating back to ancient times, we find these: “Prince of the holy Apostles,” “leader of that choir,” “mouthpiece of all the Apostles,” and “safeguard of the Church”.1 As Pope Leo XIII has pointed out, these titles brilliantly proclaim that Peter was placed in the highest degree of dignity and power.
In fact, Our Lord has made him – and in him all of his legitimate successors also – the visible head of the Church Militant, granting him direct and immediate primacy of a true and proper jurisdiction, and not merely an honorary one.2 In virtue of his office as representative of Christ and shepherd of the Church, the Supreme Pontiff has supreme and universal power over the whole institution.3
But the primacy of Peter, to which acknowledgment and submission are necessary for salvation,4 is exercised in harmony with the collegial constitution of the Church, that is, with the bishops of the whole world who are united to him. It is, therefore, a primacy of communion.5 Our Lord Jesus Christ, after all, is the One who governs His Mystical Spouse through the Pope and the legitimate shepherds.6 Thus, a tyrannical and totalitarian regime does not befit the exercise of this authority.
The Holy Father also presides in charity,7 that is, he has the primacy of love for Our Lord. Precedence in charity! A glance back to the dawn of the Papacy can help us to better understand the grandeur of this divine institution. Above all, it will encourage us to have more fervent devotion to it, since the selfless devotion of the sheep can help Peter in his arduous mission down through the centuries.
Jesus’ first gaze at Simon
The Gospel of John recounts, in singular detail, the event that transformed the life of a fisherman from Galilee.
Andrew was one of the two disciples of John the Baptist when the latter saw Jesus and said: “Behold, the Lamb of God!” (1:36). Having stayed with the Master that day, Andrew immediately went to find his brother and told him: “We have found the Messiah” (1:41). What light must have shone in Simon’s soul on hearing the announcement of the Saviour’s arrival!
We must consider that from all eternity Jesus knew whom He would choose as the foundation stone of His Church. But the moment had come to meet him in time. The Evangelist tells us that Andrew brought his brother to the Divine Master: “Jesus looked at him, and said, ‘So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas (which means Peter)’” (1:42).
That gaze of eternal predilection will never leave Peter. It is the initial revelation that Jesus makes to His future Vicar, and on this fundamental truth stands the mission of the “safeguard of the Church.”
Looking at Peter, the Master contemplated all those who would succeed him on the papal throne. For it is by the institution of Christ himself, and therefore by divine right, that Blessed Peter has perennial successors who have primacy over the universal Church.8 Every legitimate Supreme Pontiff perpetuates that same primacy of Cephas. In a certain sense, they also receive from Our Lord the gaze which, in addition to summoning them to the office, invites them to become firmly anchored in His love.
In Jesus’ first gaze at Peter, the Papacy finds its true horizon. The strength of that look has continued to sustain Cephas down the centuries, ensuring the stability of the rock on which the Church is built.
A confession, a reward and a charge
With unsurpassed divine pedagogy further favoured by grace, Our Lord moulded and gradually predisposed Simon’s heart so that at a certain moment he would receive a most important revelation from God the Father (cf. Mt 16:17).
St. Peter possessed the virtue of faith to such a high degree that he was the man chosen to confess the divinity of Jesus. This proclamation “was based on an insightful, illuminated, and comprehensive discernment of the divine nature of the Son of God,”9 as Msgr. João Scognamiglio Clá Dias explains.
Thus, being with the Master in the region of Caesarea Philippi, far from gripping events and the agitation of the crowds, only the voice of faith was heard: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16). Then Jesus announced to Cephas that He would build an indestructible work, the Church, and would hand over to him “the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 16:19).
Peter and John, an evocative relationship
Jesus flanked by St. Peter and St. John the Evangelist – Blessed Sacrament Church, New York
The faith of the first Pope, however great, would not suffice for his correspondence to his call. Peter assured the Master that he would never abandon Him; among the Apostles, however, only John stood by the Cross (cf. Lk 22:33; Jn 19:26). Peter was afraid when Jesus worked the miraculous catch of fish on Lake Gennesaret: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Lk 5:8); John rested his head on the Heart of the Redeemer (cf. Jn 13:25), for “there is no fear in love” (1 Jn 4:18). Finally, Peter proclaimed his faith in Jesus, and John expressed with singular clarity what the centre of our faith and the Christian image of the Creator consists in, when he said: “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 Jn 4:16), as Benedict XVI teaches.10
We do not imply equality between the Prince of the Apostles and St. John. In the mid-seventeenth century, during the pontificate of Innocent X, the doctrine held by the Jansenist Martin of Barcos, who advocated for a twofold head in the Church,11 was judged and declared heretical. The heretic equated the Apostle Paul with St. Peter in the supreme power and government of the universal Church.
Rather, we believe that the beautiful relationship between Cephas and John, the Apostle of love, so evident in the Gospels, seems to underline how the excellence of faith depends on the sovereignty of charity, even though both virtues are sisters, links in the same chain.
“Peter, do you love Me?”
St. Thomas says: “Faith works through charity”12; indeed, charity makes the act of faith perfect and complete.
Our Lord Jesus Christs entrusts the fold of the Church to St. Peter – London
Now, after years of life together with Our Lord, although Peter’s faith was great, his love was still imperfect. Before ascending into Heaven, the Divine Master wished to confirm His chosen one in the mission that He had reserved for him. This happened in one of the apparitions to the Apostles after the Resurrection, by the Lake of Tiberias, when Jesus asked him three times: “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Faced with the affirmative answer, Jesus commanded, “Feed my lambs,” “feed my sheep” (Jn 21:15-17).
Charity is the condition for shepherding Christ’s flock since, as we have seen, it is an essential attribute of the Petrine primacy. Thus, by increasing the love of Cephas, the Saviour guaranteed the perpetuity of the pontifical institution.
It follows, therefore, that the weaknesses in St. Peter’s life – and those of the Papacy over the centuries – are due notably to defections in the line of love. The infallible Magisterium has defended the Faith immaculately for two millennia; but without ever lacking orthodoxy in words, a lack of love can be preached by example.
Two thousand years old
Immediately after the threefold questioning, the Saviour prophesied: “when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go” (Jn 21:18).
The Papacy has existed for two millennia. Perhaps, in a certain historical context, this long-established institution will be subjected to what the Divine Master foretold to St. Peter: it will stretch out its hands to the executioners who wish to crucify it, it will be girded and led by strangers where it does not wish to go, where it should not go.
St. Faustina, the secretary of Jesus’ mercy, records in her diary these sorrowful words of Our Lord: “The great sins of the world are superficial wounds on My Heart, but the sins of a chosen soul pierce My Heart through and through…”13
“The Denial of Peter” – Fine Arts Museum, Cordoba (Spain)
During the Passion, being in the house of Caiaphas, Peter thrice denied the Truth, and thrice the Truth fell on the road to Calvary. Were not these unfortunate pronouncements of the first Pope like new stumbling-stones for the Saviour (cf. Mt 16:23)? Great is the power of Peter, who can bind everything on earth and in Heaven.
Nevertheless, predilection – that unfathomable mystery – marked Cephas’ soul for ever. Let us dare to affirm that, in the face of the omnipotence of divine pardon and of Mary’s prayers, even the power of the keys is impotent: “the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how He had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny Me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly” (Lk 22:61-62).
Undoubtedly, this extraordinary grace of contrition was purchased by Our Lady’s prayers: we can say that Mary sustained the Church at that moment, as She sustains the Papacy today.
Founded on the blood of the martyrs
It is difficult to imagine a more significant gaze for a Pope than that of the tormented Redeemer. In the suffering expression of Jesus, the triumph of the Resurrection can be contemplated in germinal form; moreover, the death of Our Lord on the Cross purchased the immortality of His Spouse, the Church, founded on the rock that is Peter.
Following an ancient tradition, the Supreme Pontiff wore beautiful red shoes, signifying that the Church is founded on the blood of the martyrs. The footsteps of Cephas were thus symbolically followed by the witness of those who, persevering in the Faith, were offered in sacrifice for Christ.
In fact, Our Lord’s holocaust is the reason for countless others. Even in our own day, the blood of the martyrs is continually renewed. Yes, because perhaps a greater and more unjust torture than that of dying for hatred of religion is that of being martyred for fidelity to love. Let us explain a little more clearly. A famous orator once said with great accuracy: to be loved and not to love is to be a tyrant; to love and not to be loved is to be a martyr.14
Job visited by his friends – “Grandes Heurs of Anne of Brittany”
In the same way, it is possible to find an example of this martyrdom of the soul in the just man Job, who persevered in his innocent righteousness, impassively enduring the harrowing sufferings that Providence allowed the devil to inflict upon him, without the refreshment of any spiritual consolation. This admirable Biblical personage also represents the men who today suffer for the Mystical Body, in union with its Head, Our Lord Jesus Christ, out of pure devotion to the unshakable rock of the Papacy.
A unique gem given to the Papacy
Perhaps, in a specific historical context, Peter has failed or will fail to reciprocate the love of his children who love him so much. This would not require any ostensive gesture; there are certain forms of silence that confuse; there are indifferences and omissions that are listed among the greatest failures to love. If such an incongruity were to occur, it would be an occasion to give an immense proof of fidelity, taken to the extreme, towards the election and authority of Cephas. And one reason alone would suffice to explain this inexplicable love: simply because he is Peter.
In union with the infinite merits of the Redeemer, it remains to ask what fruits would come from blood shed with such generosity. God does not fail to reward those who sacrifice themselves for Him without seeking rewards: the day will come when these Jobs will be exalted for their unfaltering love of Peter, and their blood will shine like a most precious and unique gem in the institution of the Papacy, as if to ask: “Peter, do you love Me?”
Nothing is in vain. The apparitions of the Cova da Iria and the unconditional promise of Our Lady of Fatima acquire a special brilliance when applied to the Papacy: “In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph.” This is the victory of Mary’s love, which opens a new era of faith for the world and for Holy Church. ◊
1 LEO XIII. Satis cognitum: DH 3308.
2 Cf. FIRST VATICAN COUNCIL. Pastor æternus: DH 3055.
3 Cf. LEO XIII, op. cit., 3309.
4 Cf. BONIFACE I. Carta “Institutio”, aos Bispos da Tessália: DH 233; Carta “Manet beatum”, a Rufo e aos outros Bispos da Macedônia: DH 234; BONIFÁCIO VIII. Unam sanctam: DH 875.
5 Cf. SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL. Lumen gentium, n.18: DH 4142.
6 Cf. Idem, n.14, 4137.
7 Cf. ST. IGNATIUS OF ANTIOCH. Lettre aux Romains: SC 10, 107.
8 Cf. FIRST VATICAN COUNCIL, op. cit., 3056-3058.
9 CLÁ DIAS, EP, João Scognamiglio. New Insights on the Gospels. Città del Vaticano-Nobleton: LEV; Heralds of the Gospel, 2013, v.VII, p.124.
10 Cf. BENEDICT XVI. Deus caritas est, n.1.
11 Cf. INNOCENT X. Decree of the Holy Office, 24/1/1647: DH 1999.
12 ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Summa Theologiae. II-II, q.4, a.3.
13 ST. FAUSTINA KOWALSKA. Diary. Divine Mercy in My Soul. Stockbridge: Marian Press, 2005, p.372.
14 Cf. VIEIRA, Antônio. Sermon for the first Friday in Lent. In: Obra Completa. São Paulo: Loyola, 2015, t.II, v.II, p.154.