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Christ to Catholicism


II. Apostolic Christianity and the See of Peter

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Among the elements of Catholic Christianity most controverted by those who oppose her claim to divinity is the Roman Primacy, which she says may be traced in a direct line from St. Peter to the reigning sovereign pontiff. Up to this point we have seen the evidence in the Gospels that Christ established a hierarchical society with a commission to give the world that revelation He had received from the Father. In order to preserve this society in permanent cohesion and doctrinal integrity, He gave it a juridical structure and vested the Apostle Peter with an authority that was unknown till then in the story of God’s dealings with His people. Quite literally, Peter was made a Vicar of Christ, with power to bind and loose on earth and the assurance that his actions would be ratified in heaven.

Necessarily the gospel account of the primacy is not extensive. It only describes germinally what subsequent history had to unfold. For that reason, however, there is more than academic value in seeing what happened after Christ’s Ascension into heaven. How did Peter exercise the authority which, according to the Gospels, made him head of the Apostles and the rock on which Christ had founded His Church.

The Primacy in the Acts of the Apostles

The Acts of the Apostles have been rightly called the Gospel of the Holy Spirit, who in one generation extended the kingdom of Christ into the far reaches of a hostile and unbelieving world. They have been compared to a prairie fire that sweeps along in an atmosphere of dynamic power. But the Acts are also the most authentic proof we have that within a few days of the Master’s Ascension, Peter began to exercise his authority and until his death in Rome some thirty years later was generally accepted as the visible head of the Christian community. This is all the more striking because the author of the Acts was the disciple of St. Paul who we are told, was a rival to Peter and, in fact, the real founder of Christianity on its non-Catholic side.

Election of Matthias the Apostle. Shortly after the Ascension of Christ, while the disciples in the company of Mary were awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit, Peter stood up in the midst of the brethren and announced that another apostle must be chosen to replace the traitor Judas. He laid down the conditions of election. “Of these men who have been with us from the time the Lord Jesus moved among us, from John’s baptism till the day He was taken up from us, of these one must become a witness with us of His resurrection.” [1] Two candidates were put forward, Joseph, called Barsabbas, and Matthias. After the assembly had asked the Lord to show which of these two “Thou has chosen,” lots were drawn and the choice fell upon Matthias, who was immediately numbered with the eleven Apostles. Commenting on this first act of Peter’s primacy, Chrysostom remarks how spontaneously he was accepted as the shepherd of Christ’s flock and the leader in the apostolic college.

Beginning of the Christian Apostolate. On the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles and a violent wind attracted a great multitude to the cenacle in Jerusalem, Peter again took the lead. Standing up, he spoke in a loud voice to the assembled crowd, protesting that the gift of tongues was not intoxication but the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy when “it shall come to pass that I will pour forth my Spirit upon all flesh, and I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth beneath.” Then for the first time in the history of the Church, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ was preached as the visible testimony that God had visited His people in human flesh. Bravely exercising the office committed to him by Christ, Peter rebuked the Jews for having crucified and slain the Savior, whom the Father raised from the dead, and who received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit “which you see and hear.”

Pierced to the heart by these words of Peter, they asked him what to do. He told them to “repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” To which he added a prophecy on the universal destiny of the Messianic kingdom, “for to you is the promise and to your children and to all who are far off, even to all whom the Lord God has called.” [2] The fruit of this sermon which inaugurated the Christian apostolate was the immediate conversion of three thousand souls.

First Apostolic Miracles. When the Master commissioned His disciples to preach the gospel, He also gave them power to work miracles in His name, to cast out demons, to heal the sick and even to raise the dead. Evidence of this power in the Acts is so striking and ubiquitous that rationalist critics are provoked into accusing St. Luke of “weakness as a historian for his credulity in reporting cases of miraculous healing and of spiritual gifts.” [3] In reality, the signs and wonders are part of the logic of divine revelation. If the Lord demands our faith in mysteries, He makes them acceptable by integrating what exceeds human power in the field of knowledge with phenomena which surpass human agency in the order of visible reality. Since the latter is certainly from God, the former must also come from Him. Consequently just as Christ went about simultaneously preaching His doctrine and confirming it with prodigies, so Simon Peter started the Christian catechesis with teaching what he had learned from Jesus and making his message credible with signs and wonders that followed. The other Apostles, especially St. Paul, would perform miracles no less striking than Peter’s. But he was the first to exercise this charismatic power in the apostolic Church and set the pattern for asking the Spirit of Christ to testify in His own favor. Soon after Pentecost Sunday, as Peter and John were going into the temple to pray, they met a certain man who was lame from his mother’s womb. Instead of giving him the alms that he begged, Peter gazed upon him and said, “Silver and gold I have none; but what I have I give thee. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, arise and walk.” Immediately that man’s feet and ankles became strong and “leaping up, he stood and began to walk.”

The incident was so public that a crowd of people gathered around the two disciples “filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened.” Peter took the initiative and preached the second great discourse on Jesus crucified, this time directly telling the Jews that “you killed the Author of life, whom God has raised up from the dead; whereof we are witnesses.” In imitation of Christ he excused them on the score of ignorance but demanded repentance and conversion, “that your sins may be blotted out.” [4]

Witness to the Name of Jesus. While Peter was still speaking to the people, the priests and Sadducees fell upon him and John and put them in prison for proclaiming the Resurrection of Christ from the dead. The next morning they were brought before the Sanhedrin, with Annas and Caiphas sitting in judgment, and demanded “by what authority or in what name have you done this?” Thereupon Peter gives public testimony to his faith, boldly facing the very men who had crucified Jesus, where only a few weeks before he had cringed at the passing remark of a servant maid. “Rulers of the people and elders,” he addressed them, “the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, has become the cornerstone. Neither is there salvation in any other. For there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” [5] As it happened, the Apostles were released, but Peter’s intrepid witness to his Master marked the beginning of an open hostility to the Church which Christ had foretold would be the price of fidelity to His name. It was a new lesson for Peter in the duties of his pastoral office, not only to increase and nourish the flock committed to his care but to protect it from the enemies whom Christ had described as ravening wolves. It was the initial conflict with the gates of hell which the Lord implied would storm against His Church, though vainly because of the supernatural immobility of the rock on which she was built.

Exercise of Judicial Power. Consistent with the miraculous atmosphere of the apostolic church, Peter’s first exercise of judicial power carried with it a divine sanction that terrifies us even centuries after the original event. The more fervent among the early Christians sold their possessions and turned over the proceeds to a fund for the poor. Among these were a man named Ananias and his wife Sapphira who had sold a piece of land and by fraud kept back part of the price. Peter rebuked Ananias and passed judgment on his sin as a lie to the Holy Spirit. On hearing these words, he immediately collapsed and died. Three hours later his wife repeated the deception and was asked, “Why have you agreed to tempt the Spirit of the Lord?” She also fell down at Peter’s feet and expired, so that “great fear came upon the whole Church and upon all who heard of this.” [6] The correlation between Peter’s judgment and God’s visitation palpably illustrated the ratification which Christ had promised to make in heaven for whatever His vicar would bind upon earth. Moreover it showed the area of morality over which the Church, by divine right, has jurisdiction: not only the gross external crimes that affect the common good, but secret sins and even those which involve a broken pledge to God.

Visitation of the Christian Communities. For some time after Saul’s miraculous conversion to Christianity, and partly because the Christians were relieved of his persecuting zeal, “throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria the Church was in peace and was being built up, walking in the fear of the Lord, and filled with the consolation of the Holy Spirit.” During this period of relative calm, Peter undertook what seems to have been a formal visitation of the Christian communities. St. Luke says that “he visited all the saints,” in the aforementioned territories and came as far west as Lydda, where he found a man named Aeneas who had been a paralytic for eight years. The moment Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals thee; get up and make thy bed,” he arose completely cured. As a result of this miracle, those who already believed in Christ were strengthened in their faith, and the Jews who until then had remained aloof were brought into the fold, since, according to Luke, “all who lived at Lydda and in Sharon (the neighboring region) turned to the Lord.” [7] Before he left Lydda a group of disciples from Joppa came to ask Peter to visit a certain Tabitha who had just passed away. When Peter raised her from the dead, the news became known all over Joppa, and, as in Lydda, “many believed in the Lord.”

The salient feature of Peter’s visitation of the Churches is more than a sample of how he exercised authority over the other disciples. It shows the extent of the Church’s development within a few years of the Ascension and the recognized need for a center of unity that was more than local, by having all the communities defer to the Church of Jerusalem, which at that time was governed by Simon Peter. Later on, while he was kept in prison by Herod, “prayer was being made to God for him without ceasing by the Church,” that is, by the whole body of the faithful praying for their chief pastor, thus instituting a practice that has become a profession of the Catholic and apostolic faith.

Presiding at the Council of Jerusalem. As the number of gentile converts increased, the character of Christianity became correspondingly less Jewish. Those members of the Palestinian Church who lived according to the pharisaical rule watched the development with profound regret and made every effort to keep the Church within the limits of Judaism. Her estrangement from Jewry, they believed, could be prevented or mitigated only when all the Churches and their members agreed to observe the Mosaic Law. The conflict which arose from this attitude provoked the most serious crisis in apostolic Christianity and was finally settled by what is properly regarded as the first ecumenical council in the Church, in which Peter presided and gave the decisive judgment.

According to the Judaizers, unless a man was circumcised and kept the Law of Moses down to the smallest detail, he could not be sure of his salvation. Paul and Barnabas who had remarkable success in converting the gentiles led the opposition. There was a temporary ad hoc settlement of the issue when Peter, in answer to a vision, visited the gentile centurion Cornelius and ordered him and his household to be baptized after the Holy Spirit descended upon them as a sign of divine approval. But the basic question remained unanswered, whether after baptism it was still necessary to follow the Mosaic dispensation. Under suasion from Paul who demanded a show-down, the Apostles and presbyters called a meeting in Jerusalem to look into the matter. After a long debate, Peter got up and declared, “Brethren, you know that in early days God made choice among us, that through my mouth the gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness by giving them the Holy Spirit just as He did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith. Why then do you now try to test God by putting on the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as we are.”

This proved decisive. Immediately “the whole meeting quieted down” and listened while Paul the Apostle of the Gentiles and James the venerated leader of the Judaeo Christians expressed their agreement with the decision of Simon Peter. Paul and Barnabas told the assembly of the great signs and wonders that were wrought among the gentiles through their ministry. James, who might have been expected to object, generously recalled how the Prophet Amos had foretold that not only the Jews but “the rest of mankind” is destined “to seek after the Lord and all the nations upon whom my name is invoked,” clearly showing that the Messianic kingdom is intended for the gentiles as well as for the erstwhile chosen people of God. He therefore concurred in Peter’s judgment “not to disquiet those who from among the gentiles are turning to the Lord.” [8]

One aspect of the issue which Peter settled deserves special emphasis. The immediate problem was only whether the Mosaic code was binding on the converts from paganism. Peter decided it was not. But he went beyond this decision to make a sweeping declaration that even for Judaeo Christians, the Law of Moses was no longer efficacious. He was stating in so many words that the Old Covenant had come to an end and that rules and regulations that had bound and bound together for centuries the Israelites were now abrogated and that salvation must be sought independently of them. If it seems like an academic question to us, it was not really so for the Semitic people who had come under the influence of the Mosaic tradition. There is sound historical evidence to show that not a few Judaizing Christians in the first century had later repudiated the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus and turned back under Jewish pressure to non-Christian Judaism. The movement ended by regarding Jesus as a mere prophet and by rejecting the title “Son of God” as detrimental to the majesty of God. Ultimately the movement developed into Ebionism, which in time became a great force in world history in Islam, with its passionate protest against the divinity of Christ.

St. Peter in Rome

St. Peter’s stay in Rome and his martyrdom in that city are closely tied in with the origins of the papacy. They serve as a link to unite the original communities in Asia Minor where “the disciples were first called Christians,” with the Roman Catholic Church whose sovereign pontiffs claim direct succession from the Prince of the Apostles. When the Vatican Council declared that “Blessed Peter even to this time governs and exercises judgment in his successor, the bishops of the holy Roman See, which he established and consecrated with his blood,” it was only repeating an ancient tradition that goes back to the first century of the Christian era. [9] Those who question the historical fact are afraid of its doctrinal implications. And although the opposition is weakening in the light of recent excavations which confirm the written tradition, the issue is still controverted by certain critics of the Roman Primacy.

First Epistle of St. Peter. The earliest text which indicates the presence of Peter in Rome occurs at the end of his first epistle, written in the latter part of 63 or the beginning of 64 A.D. He concludes with the salutation, “The Church which is at Babylon, chosen together with you, greets you; and so does my son Mark.” [10] All the evidence available identifies Babylon as Rome. Babylon was already in ruins, and there was no suggestion for five centuries that Peter had ever been there, whereas the tradition connecting him with Rome is one of the strongest in the Church. From the Apocalypse, the Jewish writings and the Sibylline books of the first century, we know that this name was a cryptic designation for the city of Rome. This is confirmed by Papias, a disciple of John the Evangelist, writing about the year 130 A.D., as found in the fourth century historian Eusebius of Caesarea. Speaking of Papias and Clement of Alexandria (died 215 A.D.), Eusebius reports “they say that Peter makes mention of Mark in his first epistle, which, they say, he wrote also in Rome, as he indicated when he calls the city figuratively Babylon.” [11]

Clement of Rome to the Corinthians. Before the end of the first century we have another authentic witness to Peter’s stay and martyrdom in Rome from the pen of his successor in the papacy, Clement I, writing to the Corinthians about the year 96 A.D. This most famous document of Christian antiquity outside the Scriptures was occasioned by the envy and jealousy among the faithful in Corinth which threatened to destroy the Church in that city. In order to compose the strife, Clement wrote an urgent letter to the contestants and pointed out the tragic results that can follow from an envious spirit. “Through envy and malice,” he said, “the greatest and most righteous pillars of the Church were persecuted and contended even unto death. Let us set before our eyes the good Apostles. There was Peter, who by reason of malicious envy endured not one nor two but many trials, and so, having been martyred, he passed to his appointed place of glory. Amid envy and strife, Paul pointed out the way to the prize of patient endurance.” Then he continued, “Unto these men of holy lives was gathered a vast multitude of the elect, who through many indignities and tortures endured the envy and set a noble example in the midst of us. Through envy women were persecuted as Danaides and Dirces, suffering cruel and unholy insults; they steadfastly finished the course of faith and received a noble price.” [12] Clement therefore represents Peter and Paul and the rest as one group (sunethroisthe), who together gave to the Romans and in their midst (en hemin), a noble example of courage.

Gaius the Presbyter on the Tombs of the Apostles. An outstanding witness to Peter’s living and dying in Rome is the presbyter Gaius, a contemporary of Pope Zephyrinus, towards the end of the second century. Gauis was opposing the Montanist heretic Proclus, who appealed to the fact that the church of Hierapolis in Asia Minor possesses the graves of the Apostle Philip and his daughters. In reply, Gaius retorted, “But I can point out the trophies of the Apostles. For if you go to the Vatican Hill or to the Ostian Way, you will find the trophies of those who have founded this church.” Eusebius, who quotes Gaius, further explains that Peter’s crucifixion and Paul’s beheading in Rome are “confirmed by the fact that the names of Peter and Paul are preserved in the cemeteries there to this day.” Consequently he interprets Gaius as identifying “the places where the bodies of the aforesaid Apostles are laid.” [13] The trophies (trophaia) to which Gaius refers are taken by Eusebius to mean nothing less than the tombs of Peter and Paul. St. Ireneus, Bishop of Lyons around 180 A.D., is equally explicit when describing the authorship of the Gospels. “Matthew issued a Gospel among the Hebrews in their tongue,” he wrote, “while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome and establishing the Church. After their death, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, transmitted to us in writing the things that Peter had preached.” [14]

Confirmatory evidence to the unanimous literary tradition was discovered in 1915 on the Appian Way in the catacombs under the Basilica of St. Sebastian, formerly called the Basilica of the Apostles. Numerous inscriptions have been cut into the walls of the catacomb by the Christian faithful, invoking the intercession of Sts. Peter and Paul and recalling the sacred rite of Refrigerium of Libation in honor of the Apostles. 191 inscriptions (graffiti) have been discovered, 33 of them in Greek and the rest in low Latin. Typical petitions read, “Peter and Paul, keep us in mind….Peter and Paul, pray for a great sinner….Peter and Paul save Vincent….I, Tomius Coelius, offered a libation to Peter and Paul.” [15] The funerary character of the etchings is clear from the frequent occurrence of the words refrigerium and votum, both of which at the is period imply definite connection with a rite offered especially at the actual tomb, and act of petition on behalf of the offerer as well as of honor for the dead. Supporting archeological data indicates that the bodies of the two Apostles were temporarily removed from the Vatican (for Peter) and the Via Ostia (for Paul) to this out of the way cemetery on the Appian Way, most probably in 258 A.D., the year of the general desecration of Christian burial places during the persecution of Valerian. They remained there until the early fourth century when peace was given to the Church by the Emperor Constantine, who had the bodies restored to their original tombs and built two great basilicas on the hallowed sites.

Tomb of St. Peter at the Vatican. The testimony in favor of Peter’s sojourn and martyrdom in Rome is so conclusive that practically no one denies it. “All the early sources,” says a Protestant scholar, “about the year 100 become clear and easily understandable, agree with their historic context, and with each other, if we accept what they clearly suggest to us, namely, that Peter stayed in Rome and died a martyr there. Any other hypothesis on Peter’s death heaps difficulty on difficulty, and cannot be supported by a single document.” [16] A further question, however, is whether the present St. Peter’s Basilica can be scientifically established as the burial place of the first Apostle. Excavations at the Vatican begun in 1939 and continued to the present day give full credence to the traditional belief that under the columns of Bernini and the Confessio Petri lies the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles.

Besides the definitive report published by the Vatican, at least a dozen volumes have come out on the subject in the last decade. [17] On examining the evidence we find that it falls into two classes, literary and archeological, which are mutually dependent. The literary evidence covers three items in particular: that by the year 200 there was a shrine on the Vatican Hill which people venerated as the burial place of St. Peter; that eleven of the first fourteen successors of the first pope were buried “next to the body of the Blessed Peter in the Vatican”; and that around 335 A.D. the Emperor Constantine built a gigantic church on the Vatican in honor of the Prince of the Apostles. [18] The recent excavations under the Basilica of St. Peter have unearthed a large cemetery, both pagan and Christian, together with a monumental shrine that was certainly dedicated to the first Apostle. A brief catalog of these findings will help to estimate their value on a purely scientific basis.

The first discovery was an unusually thick wall of considerable size, whose purpose was to make level the sloping hillside and furnish a substructure for the Basilica of Constantine. Why choose this particular spot on the side of a hill, which is the worst possible site for a large building, and go to the trouble of leveling it off with tons of earth, unless it was believed to be the very place where St. Peter was entombed?

Near the wall and immediately below the present high altar of St. Peter’s was found a sizeable monument with a shallow niche about ten feet square, which is traditionally associated with funerary shrines. Built into a red wall of its own, the monument can be dated to 160 A.D., from the stamp of Marcus Aurelius on some of the bricks in the pavement. Under the monument and directly below the niche were found reburied bones which the excavators identified as human. A preliminary examination showed them to be those of a person of advanced age and powerful physique. Significantly, the red wall at this very spot, and only here, does not go so deep into the ground, as though to avoid disturbing, to be astride, a grave. Buried in a recess in front of the monument were found innumerable coins, probably votive offerings, including six that were minted before the shrine was constructed and seventy-seven ranging from 80 to 300 A.D. Scores of Chi-Rho monograms on the walls and one invocation of St. Peter right next to the monument confirm that fact that this was a place of Christian worship and prayer.

Neighboring on the monument is a series of graves of varying antiquity, from the first and second centuries, including one that bears the stamp of Vespasian who died in 79 A.D. Their location suggests they were deliberately aligned with the monument in subordinate relation to a central tomb which lay underneath. Moreover since they are all inhumations, they should be considered Christian and not pagan, because at this early date the pagans generally cremated their dead. A reasonable conclusion, therefore is that already in the first century Christians had themselves buried around the grave of the first Apostle. Whether any of these include the eleven popes said to have been interred “next to the body of St. Peter” is still an open question.

The significance of the Vatican excavations is more than academic. It is bound up, according to Pope Pius XII, with the development of the Church as a historical fact. “Although the monumental proof of Peter’s residence and death in Rome is not essential to the Catholic faith, we had widely-known excavations carried out under the Basilica. Their result—the discovery of Peter’s tomb under the cupola, just beneath the present Papal altar—is admitted by the great majority of critics.” [19] Even the most skeptical, whose theological bias is all to the contrary, are willing to admit that “the excavations speak in favor of the report that the execution of Peter took place in the Vatican district.” [20]

Chapter II - References

  1. Acts 1:21-22.

  2. Acts 2:17, 19, 38-39.

  3. Adolph Harnack, The Acts of the Apostles, London, 1909, p. xxxix.

  4. Acts 3:6, 10, 19.

  5. Acts 4:7, 9, 12.

  6. Acts 5:3, 11.

  7. Acts 9:31-35.

  8. Acts 15:7-11, 16-19.

  9. Denzinger, 1824.

  10. I Peter 5:13.

  11. Eusebius, "Historia Ecclesiastica," II, 15, Migne, Patrologia Graeca 20, 172.

  12. St. Clement I, "Epistula ad Corinthios," V, 1, MPG 1, 217.

  13. Eusebius,"Historia Eccleciastica," II, 25, MPG 20, 207.

  14. St. Ireneus, "Adversus Haereses," III, 1, MPG 7, 844.

  15. Francesco Fornari, S. Sebastiano Extra Moenia, Rome, 1934, pp. 30-33.

  16. Hans Lietzmann, Petrus and Paulus in Rome, Berlin, 1927, p. 238.

  17. The two-volume report, Esplorazioni sotto la Confessione di S. Pietro, was published by the Vatican in 1951. Among English studies the best is The Shrine of St. Peter and the Vatican Excavations, London, 1956, by Jocelyn Toynbee and John W. Perkins.

  18. Gaius, the Roman priest quoted above, is the authority for a second century shrine to St. Peter on the Vatican. The burial place of the early popes is given in the Liber Pontificalis, written in the sixth century but drawing on data from the earliest Christian history. Constantine's basilica on the Vatican site is attested by all historians and goes back to a still extant inscription from the original cathedral.

  19. Pius XII, Address to the Tenth International Congress of Historical Studies, Sept. 7, 1955, Discorsi di Pio XII, Vaticano, 1956, pp. 213-214.

  20. Oscar Cullman, op. cit., p. 152.

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