Pope of the Month: St. Peter ‘Prince of the Apostles’

Because I need to review my papal history and the development of the office and role of the Bishop of Rome up to Leo the Great and beyond, today I bring to you a new feature on my blog: Amidst the weekly saints, once a month we shall focus our attention upon one Bishop of Rome. We shall go chronologically from Peter onwards, looking at many (but not all) men who have been the heads of the Christian community in that city.

Given how many popes are colourful characters, it shall prove an interesting ride!

St. Peter the Apostle

St. Peter, along with his apostolic comrade St. Paul, has already been Saint of the Week here. He is a logical starting point for a discussion of papal history; the Liber Pontificalis seems to think so, as would have Pope Leo I amidst others.

Yet as soon as we look at St. Peter as a Pope, we are confronted with the questions, ‘What is a Pope? How long has there been a Pope?’

Well, the word Pope comes from the word Papa and was in olden days used of all of the ‘Patriarchs’ of the Church — that is to say, the bishops of the major cities who had jurisdiction over large geographical areas. That is why the Patriarch of the Coptic Church is ‘Pope’ Shenouda — not because he believes that he has universal jurisdiction but because he is the head Bishop of the Coptic Church.

The various roles of these Patriarchs have grown, developed, and changed over time. So when one asks, ‘What is a Pope?’ in reference to Rome, one must respond, ‘The Bishop of Rome,’ and then inquire further as to whether the question refers to the current Bishop of Rome or Innocent III or Gregory the Great or Leo the Great or Damasus or Clement or Peter.

Of course, Peter was not a Patriarch.

Peter was an Apostle.

And it seems, from what we gather in Acts, that Peter was a sort of ‘head’ Apostle, and we see in the Gospels that Peter was part of the inner circle of disciples gathered around Jesus. Of course, as an Apostle, he was still a man, and we do learn from Paul’s letter to the Galatians that Peter was open to rebuke.

Still, he seems to have been a if not the leading man of the Apostles, and was involved in the Church’s foundations in Jerusalem, Antioch, and beyond.

According to tradition, indeed, St. Peter was the first ‘bishop’ of Antioch. What we mean by bishop at this point in time is debatable. D H Williams, writing for a low-church Baptist-type audience, styles these very early Apostolic and sub-Apostolic bishops as pastors.

This is, in essence, what every bishop is meant to be. He is the shepherd of the flock in a particular city — in the earliest days of the church, this flock would have been smaller than elsewhere. It stands to reason that if you had an Apostle, someone who had walked with the Lord and heard His very words, someone commissioned by the Lord and anointed by the Holy Spirit, if you had such a person in your community, this person would have assumed a position of leadership.

Like a pastor. Or a bishop.

Thus, Peter was the first Bishop of Antioch, where the disciples were first called Christians. The Liber Pontificalis says he was bishop there for seven years before joining the mission of Rome. This tradition is sensible if you ask me — many of the apostles had gone on missions to various eastern cities, and Antioch’s church seemed fairly well-established. Rome was the largest, greatest city in the world, the centre of law and politics. For an Apostle to join the Christian mission there seems very strategic, really.

And, once there, since he was a leading man amongst the Twelve, Peter would have assumed a position of leadership amongst the fledgling, persecuted Church in the City, passing along his remembrances of the Lord, helping organise the growing band of believers there.

Tradition (preserved in the Liber Pontificalis and no doubt elsewhere) tells us that St. Mark was his disciple, and that the Gospel of Mark, from which the other synoptic Gospels derive, is based upon the teachings and remembrances of St. Peter.

The dangers of life as a clergyman have always been many, none moreso than in Rome during the reign of Nero (d. 68). Under the reign of this madman (I toss the historian’s caution to the wind!), many Christians were persecuted — thrown to wild animals whilst wrapped in the skins of dead beasts (Christian burritos!), set alight like torches, crucified, beheaded.

St. Peter gained the martyr’s crown under Nero. Tradition tells us that he was crucified upside down, not considering himself worthy of the death of the Saviour. The place of Peter’s martyrdom? Vatican Hill, Rome.

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