Vol 42 No 2
Pope Benedict and Peter’s Proclamation
GERALD O’COLLINS SJ
ON EASTER SUNDAY millions of people see on television or hear on the radio Pope Benedict XVI’s broadcast and blessing. In many languages he announces to the city of Rome and to the world the glorious news that lies at the heart of Christianity: ‘Jesus is risen from the dead. Alleluia.’
We should recognize, of course, the great differences between our cultural and historical setting and that in which, nearly 2,000 years ago, Peter, the first of the apostles, carried out his ministry. Yet in what the pope does on Easter Sunday there are profound echoes of what happened at the first Pentecost, when Peter announced in Jerusalem the resurrection of Jesus to ‘Parthians, Medes, Elamites; inhabitants of Mesopotomia, Judaea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene; visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes; Cretans and Arabs’ (Acts 2:9-11).
On Easter Sunday the television cameras catch the faces of those who have come to Rome from all over the world to stand in St. Peter’s Square and hear from Peter’s successor the good news that has changed the world: ‘God has raised up Jesus and of that all of us are witnesses’ (Acts 2:32). St. Peter’s witness to the resurrection lives on in a striking way in the Easter proclamation of Pope Benedict XVI.
To be sure, the church was founded on all the apostles. Together they formed the primary witnesses to Jesus Christ. They proclaimed the resurrection of the crucified Savior, admitted members of all nations into the new community and guided the early church with apostolic authority. But within this college of original witnesses, Peter had a special role as witness and foundation. To Peter alone were addressed the words ‘On this rock I will build my church’ (Mt 16:18).
Peter would suffer martyrdom in Rome in fidelity to his crucified and risen master. The church of Rome in time came to be recognized as the seat of distinctive authority and responsibility among all the Christian churches. The bishop of Rome was acknowledged to be called in a special way to do two things: to proclaim the saving truth revealed by Christ, and to maintain the communion of all the local churches in their common faith.
The distinctive role of leadership assigned to Peter did not isolate him from the other apostles. Paul, James, John, Barnabas and the rest also witnessed authoritatively to the good news and maintained unity among the churches. In the centuries that followed, the special responsibility of the bishop of Rome to uphold the truth about Christ and lovingly preserve Christian unity has always been exercised in collaboration with the college of bishops.
We should also remember the contributions of all the ‘founding fathers’ and ‘founding mothers’ at the origins of Christianity. Mary Magdalene and her companions were key witnesses to the resurrection. The appearance of the risen Christ to Mary Magdalene (Jn 20:11-18) led early Christian writers to call her ‘the Apostle to the Apostles’ and ‘another Eve who announced not death but life to the men.’
All four Gospels report how on that first Easter Sunday faithful women followers of Jesus discovered the tomb of Jesus to be open and empty. In three of the Gospels, one angel (Matthew and Mark) or two (Luke) explain to them why the body of Jesus is missing: ‘He has been raised’ (Matthew and Mark); ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead?’ (Luke). We must never lose sight of the defining role played by all those individuals recalled by name in the Gospels. They were witnesses to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus (Mary Magdalene, Susanna, Joanna and other women) or at least to part of that story (Bartimaeus, Zacchaeus, Simon of Cyrene and other men).
Similarly, today all the baptized bear the responsibility of sharing with others the good news about their crucified and risen Lord and keeping Christians united in their common faith. Luke’s Gospel expresses this mission given to all the faithful by recounting not only the sending of the Twelve (Lk 9:1-6) but also the sending of a much larger group of 70 disciples (Lk 10:1-12). A wider mission for all disciples surrounds a core mission of Christian leaders.
Peter’s Position and Ministry
As for Peter and his role at the birth of Christianity, the Acts of the Apostles portrays his distinctive ministry as the official witness to Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Beyond question, he had other responsibilities. He played a decisive role in admitting Gentiles into the Christian community (Acts 10:1-11:18). Later Paul, Barnabas and James joined him at the Council of Jerusalem to decide authoritatively against imposing on Gentile converts the obligation to observe the whole of the Jewish law (Acts 15:1-29). Peter and John laid hands on believers to bring them the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-17). Peter worked miracles by healing the sick (Acts 3:1-11; 5:15-16) and even bringing a dead woman back to life (Acts 9:32-43). The first half of Acts presents various dimensions of the leadership role that Peter exercised in the life of the early church. Central was his pre-eminence among all the official witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus.
Of course, the position and ministry of Simon Peter in the emerging church did not rest only on the risen Lord’s appearance to him. As normally happens in God’s dealings with human beings, other factors were involved. We should not isolate the encounter with the risen Jesus from earlier aspects of Peter’s history and vocation. Even before Jesus’ death and resurrection, Peter was already being prepared for his mission.
Peter is always mentioned first among the Twelve (e.g., Mk 3:16) and among the smaller circle of three (Peter, James and John). Jesus takes those three with him on such special occasions as the transfiguration and the agony in the garden. The Gospels also tell us that Jesus gave Simon the new name Cephas or Peter (‘rock’). Matthew associates this naming with an episode at Caesarea Philippi, where Peter spoke for the others in confessing Jesus to be the long-awaited Messiah, or deliverer of his people. Jesus reacted by promising to make Simon Peter the foundation on which the new community of God would be built (Mt 16:13-19). The promise Jesus made in Caesarea Philippi was matched by the risen Christ’s commission to Peter: ‘Feed my lambs and sheep’ (Jn 21:15-17). That charge to shepherd the Lord’s flock fulfilled the promise of an authoritative leadership role made during his ministry.
Undoubtedly, there is much relevant data to recall about Peter, his training and his ministry. But the heart of the matter is the tradition about his having seen the Lord after the resurrection and his major role in announcing to the world the good news of Easter.
Among the various roles exercised by the bishop of Rome, the most fundamental is to proclaim the Lord’s resurrection. This proclamation shapes and flows into the pope’s whole commission to teach the church and the world. This mission involves applying the Easter message to issues of current life. Seen in these terms, the pope’s central vocation is to preach the risen Lord and to explain the implications of the resurrection not only for the church but for all human beings. That vocation is beautifully expressed, year by year, in the Easter broadcast from St. Peter’s Square.
The Faith of Christians
In recent years ecumenical contacts between Catholics and other Christians have underscored the realization that authentic unity can be realized only in confessing the truth of faith. How best can we express that unity and truth? The essential truth of Christian faith could be formulated by saying, ‘The crucified Son of God is risen from the dead to give us his Holy Spirit.’ The paschal mystery says it all. It is the basic truth to be maintained and passed on by all Christians. They have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection (Rom 6:3-4) to live together through the power of the Holy Spirit as the new Easter people of God.
What more could we expect from the bishop of Rome than that, like Peter, he strengthen the whole church’s faith in Christ’s resurrection? How could he better serve the unity of an Easter people than by proclaiming insistently the event that brought the church into being: the resurrection of the crucified Jesus? The pope must also lead the church with the loving authority of a chief pastor and be a model for all worshipers in celebrating the sacraments. But his great task for all the world is to announce that Christ is risen. Nothing can or should ever count against the power and joyfulness of that unique message.
One picture of St. Peter has fixed itself forever in my mind: a huge 17th-century painting of Peter’s martyrdom. The painting had been taken down from a church and brought for restoration to the studio of an Italian friend of mine. It shows two soldiers using ropes to pull Peter upside down onto a cross. The saint looks stiff and old, but his face is calm and peaceful. Two cheerful little angels watch the scene as Peter faces death and prepares to meet his master in glory.
Classical painters aimed to express the final character and significance of those they portrayed. They wanted to lead us to the reality and identity of the persons they had chosen to represent. That old painting of Peter in my friend’s studio in Rome catches the apostle’s courage in the face of death. Originally martyr (a Greek word) meant ‘witness.’ Peter the great witness became Peter the martyr. He could face martyrdom with such serenity because he had faithfully witnessed to his master’s victory over death. He knew that Jesus had died but was now alive forever. In that resurrection Peter found his destiny and final identity.
When he was elected pope, Benedict XVI found his own final destiny and identity. A serene figure in white, he faithfully preaches the Easter faith that holds us all together. When I see him proclaiming the resurrection, he reminds me of another figure also dressed in a white robe: the angelic messenger sitting in the empty tomb of Jesus and announcing to Mary Magdalene and her companions: ‘He has been raised’ (Mk 16:5-6).
In a few weeks Pope Benedict XVI will arrive in Australia. May he continue to fulfill fruitfully his vocation as Peter’s successor by announcing to the whole world the unique good news that is Christ’s resurrection from the dead. We could desire nothing greater for Benedict XVI than that he continue to show himself to be an Easter pope for an Easter people.
Gerald O’Collins, S.J., an Australian theologian, formerly Professor of Systematic Theology at the Gregorian University, Rome, is research professor at St. Mary’s University College, Twickenham, England.
Adapted with permission from the article originally published in America 2008, 198, 10, 11-14.