The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states,
When Christ instituted the Twelve, ‘he constituted [them] in the form of a college or permanent assembly, at the head of which he placed Peter, chosen from among them’ (CCC 880).
The Lord made Simon alone, whom he named Peter, the ‘rock’ of his Church. He gave him the keys of his Church and instituted him shepherd of the whole flock. ‘The office of binding and loosing which was given to Peter was also assigned to the college of apostles united to its head. This pastoral office of Peter and the other apostles belongs to the Church’s very foundation and is continued by the bishops under the primacy of the Pope (CCC 881).
Although our Orthodox and Protestant brothers and sisters reject Peter’s primacy of authority, the Catholic Church defends his primacy with good reason.
The Bible and the Early Church Fathers either implicitly or explicitly describe Peter’s primacy, and the Church has consistently appealed to these traditions in defense of papal authority. However, rather than examining quotes about Peter’s appointment from the Bible and the Church Fathers, this article will explore the underlying reasons Christ chose Peter to be the Church’s prime minister. But before we discuss these reasons, let us examine some criteria Jesus did not use.
Criteria Jesus Did Not Use
Peter was not the first would-be apostle to follow Jesus. John 1:35-42 (RSV-CE) reports that St. Andrew and another of John the Baptist’s disciples, probably St. John, meet Jesus and follow Him. Later this day Andrew finds Peter and tells him they found the Messiah. Jesus and Peter subsequently meet, and Jesus tells Peter, whose name was Simon, that he will be called Peter.
Peter was not the oldest apostle. Tradition holds that Andrew was Peter’s older brother. Conversely, Peter was not the youngest apostle. That title goes to the above-mentioned John, St. James’ brother.
Peter was not the most theologically adept apostle. Although Peter was an intelligent man, John was arguably the smartest, or perhaps the most well-read apostle. John’s gospel is probably the most theological of all the New Testament books; although, I would also give high marks to the Letter to the Hebrews. Regardless, John’s understanding of Jesus Christ and all he fulfills is unparalleled in Holy Scripture. Although John was an older man when he wrote his gospel, one can hardly deny his lofty insight.
Peter was not the strongest willed. Peter’s occasional vacillation is evident from his fear-driven denial of Christ and his later concern about the circumcision party (Jews who wanted Christians circumcised). On the night of Jesus’ betrayal, scoffers ask Peter three times if he is one of Jesus’ disciples. Peter denies Him all three times. In Galatians 2, Paul admonishes Peter “to his face” because Peter, upon seeing the circumcision party, withdrew from the Gentiles.
Additionally, when the other apostles fled during Jesus’ persecution, John alone stayed in the vicinity and was present at the Crucifixion (John 19:26).
Peter did not choose his words wisely. On one occasion when Jesus told the apostles about His impending death (Matthew 16), Peter exclaimed, “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” Jesus rebuked him saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” Although Satan did not suddenly possess Peter, Peter’s words opposed God’s eternal plan for man’s salvation. Peter allowed his emotions to dominate his intellect.
Peter was not the “beloved disciple.” This honor goes to St. John. The Gospel of John refers to John as the “beloved disciple “or the “the disciple whom Jesus loved” five times. This does not mean that Jesus did not love the other disciples. Rather, John, being the youngest of the Twelve, was probably the most innocent and, therefore, looked up to Christ as a child looks up to a good father. Jesus, being purely innocent, was probably drawn to John’s innocence.
Peter was not the best for last. Jesus did not choose a best for last. Rather, He chose Judas last; the man He knew would eventually betray him.
Peter was not even the fastest apostle. This little award goes to, you guessed it, John. After the Resurrection, John and Peter run to the empty tomb, but John arrives before Peter (John 20). However, out of deference to Peter, John waits for Peter to enter the tomb first.
Criteria Jesus Used
Peter was a business owner who followed Jesus’ instructions. In Luke 5:1-11, Jesus boards Peter’s fishing boat and tells him to put out into the deep. Peter follows Jesus’ instructions and he and his partners (James and John) catch so many fish that their nets begin to break, and their boats began to sink. Although Jesus boards Peter’s boat, Peter does as Jesus tells him.
Peter quickly acknowledged his own failures. In the preceding passage, Peter responds to Jesus’ miracle by dropping to his knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”
Peter often spoke on behalf of the apostles. Many verses record Peter speaking on behalf of the other apostles. Scripture also uses phrases like “Peter and the rest of apostles” (Acts 2:37) or “Peter and the apostles” (Acts 5:29) to indicate Peter’s primacy among the Twelve.
Other than Jesus, Peter was the only other apostle to have walked on water (Matthew 14:28-33). Peter not only demonstrated his faith in Jesus by walking on water but also by asking for this ability in the first place.
Although the turbulent sea and wind frighten Peter, and his consequent loss of faith causes him to sink, he asks Jesus to save him and walks back to the boat with Jesus. The other apostles see this whole episode, and when they return to the boat, they worship Jesus.
Peter was resolute. In Acts 4:10, the Jewish elders and chief priests arrest and interrogate Peter for healing a cripple and preaching salvation through Jesus. Peter responds by blaming them for Jesus’ Crucifixion and proclaims Jesus’ Resurrection. In Acts 5:1-10, rather than taking the easy path, Peter carries out a death penalty of sorts against Ananias and Sapphira, who lied to God.
Peter demonstrated his tenacity and led by example. In John 21:18-19, Jesus tells Peter how he must die. Despite certain knowledge of his future martyrdom, Peter chooses to follow Jesus unto death. 2 Peter 1:13-15 confirms this. Peter writes, “I think it is right, as long as I am in this body, to arouse you by way of reminder, since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ showed me.”
Peter confessed his love for Jesus three times (John 21:15-17). Most likely due to Peter’s threefold denial, Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him three times. Peter responds in the affirmative each time. Jesus then gives Peter direct commands to “feed my lambs,” “tend my sheep,” and “feed my sheep.”
Peter showed his love for Jesus. In John 21:7, while fishing in the Sea of Tiberias, Jesus tells Peter and some of the other apostles/disciples to cast their net on the right side of their boat. After catching a large quantity of fish, John exclaims, “It is the Lord!” Peter immediately dons his clothing, jumps out of his boat, and swims to Jesus (John 21:7).
Peter confessed Jesus as the Son of God. In Matthew 16:16, Jesus asks his disciples who others say He is. After they answer, “John the Baptist,” “Elijah,” and “Jerimiah,” Peter declares, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus instructed Peter alone to strengthen his brethren (Luke 22:32). Jesus’ exhortation would have been in vain had Peter not been the chosen leader. Although Peter stumbled, he loved Jesus, was outspoken, risked ridicule by speaking on behalf of the Eleven, and was saddened by his betrayal.
How Peter’s Behavior Is an Example for Us
Peter, like many of us, had obstacles to overcome. One could even argue that Peter’s flaws outweighed his strengths. Nevertheless, Jesus saw an eagerness in Peter that the other disciples did not seem to exude. Peter was tenacious, humble, outspoken, instructive, forceful, and spontaneous yet deliberate.
Peter loved others and, ultimately, loved Jesus to death despite knowing the type of death he would suffer. Peter was a leader through and through, and Jesus knew this. We can all learn a lesson from Peter’s growth in Christ and his ultimate sacrifice. Like Peter, we can all become better Christians.