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.

Saint of the Week: St. Andrew the Apostle

St. Andrew on a Column in Nicholson Square, Edinburgh

Since St. Andrew’s Day was this week, and St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland (where I live), he’s this week’s saint.

St. Andrew, judging from the Gospel accounts, was originally a fisherman, and then a disciple of St. John the Baptist.  But when the Baptist declared, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Andrew and some of the others decided to go check out Jesus’ digs.

After having spent a little bit of time with Jesus, Andrew ran off to tell his brother Simon that he’d found the Messiah.  Simon is important because later on, Jesus calls him the Rock (Petros in Greek), and he goes on to be a great leader in the apostolic band.

During the brief years of Jesus’ ministry, although not of the closest three (the Rock, James, John), he was of the inner four, often coming in lists with the other three.

He also spoke up and pointed out the boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish.  He is mentioned once in Acts.

So much for the biblical record.

As my previous post about St. Matthias tells us, there is a document known as The Acts of Andrew and Matthias in which St. Matthias goes to the land of the cannibals, and St. Andrew rescues him from being gormandized.  The OE poem Andreas (alluded to here) is about Andrew realising Matthias’ trouble through a dream and his journey there.  Jesus is the helmsman of Andrew’s ship and awesomeness ensues.  Andrew shows up and preaches to the cannibals then sets Matthias free.  More awesomeness follows this.

Following this, I believe that these apostolic fellows go and preach to some barbarians.  They show a little caution this time, not wishing to be had for dinner.  But the barbarians prove not to be cannibals.  Thankfully.

As tradition has it, Aegeates, a pagan proconsul whose wife Andrew converted, was angered by his wife’s Christianity.  He accordingly had Andrew crucified in the shape of an X — hence the Saltire on Scotland’s flag.

What do we take from all this?  St. Andrew was a man who found the Messiah and wasn’t afraid to bring others to him.  He brought his brother.  According to the old stories, he brought the good news about the Messiah to the cannibals as well as the people of Greece.  We may not all be the Rock — a great public leader — but can we not all be Andrew?  I reckon we can.

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Saint of the Week: St. Thomas the Apostle

Continuing in last week’s apostolic theme, let’s discuss St. Thomas now.  The Gospel of John is the only Gospel in which Thomas turns up as more than a name in a list.  The first occasion is John 11:16.  Jesus is going to go to Judaea, where it is likely that the leaders will kill him.  Thomas (called Didymus — which means “Twin”) demonstrates his zeal for the Lord, saying:

“Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

These words demonstrate that, regardless of how much Thomas understood at this stage of the game, he was committed to Jesus and to Jesus’ mission.  He was willing to join Jesus on a life-threatening undertaking, willing to die with him.  Such faith is impressive.

In John 20, Thomas turns up again in the famous “Doubting” Thomas story.  When Jesus first appears to the disciples after the Resurrection, Thomas isn’t there.  In the film The Gospel of John, we see Thomas at the market buying some food for the others.  He says that he won’t believe it and that he would have to put his hand in Jesus’ wrists and side before he would believe.

This unbelief is no more remarkable than that of the other disciples when Mary Magdalene and the women tell them the same Resurrection story, so we ought to be more gentle on poor St. Thomas and his reputation.

Jesus appears again to them, and when Thomas sees Him, rather than touching the wounds (as I saw him do in the Chester Mystery Plays), immediately falls to Jesus’ feet and worships Him, saying, “My Lord and my God!”

This is an appropriate reaction.

Thomas was also present for Jesus’ appearance on the shore when he and several other disciples were fishing together as recounted on John 21.  Given this tidbit of evidence, St. Thomas was likely a Galilean, and like Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John, was a fisherman.

And like Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John, Christ made Thomas a fisher of men.

With our Eurocentric view of Christianity, we tend to view the great spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire as being facilitated entirely by Roman sea-routes and roads and the widespread use of Greek as the common language of the Hellenistic world.

However, when we observe the pattern of movement in Acts, we see that the Apostles are not simply travelling throughout the Roman Empire, but are travelling throughout the Jewish Diaspora.  The first place they would go in each city was the synagogue, and if there was no synagogue, they would find whatever Jews and God-fearers there were and preach to them the Good News of Jesus.  Thus the Church spread beyond the borders of Rome to the diaspora in Mesopotamia and elsewhere.

Did you know that there is a Jewish diaspora in India?

According to Wikipedia, they arrived in Cochin, Kerala, about 2500 years ago and in Maharashtra 2100 years ago; others have arrived elsewhere more recently.  According to tradition, St. Thomas arrived in India about 2000 years ago.  Given the trade routes between the Eastern Mediterranean and India, such as from the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean or the Silk Road, it is entirely plausible for a Jewish person to have made his way there, probably enjoying the hospitality of his fellow Jews of the diaspora along the way.

According to the Acts of Thomas, once he was in India, St. Thomas went about preaching celibacy.

I know, right?  You were probably thinking, “Jesus.”  Or “Eternal life.”  No.  Celibacy.  He shows up in the bedchamber of a royal wedding and convinces them to live together “chastely” rather than have sex.  And somehow, this manages to convert the king and various other persons in India.

St. Thomas continued preaching in India and the Church was founded there.  He ended up being martyred, no surprise if the Acts have anything to say about his method of evangelisation.  This martyrdom was after he converted a king’s wife, and he was pierced with spears by four soldiers.  Thus, the spear is part of his iconography.

In 1498 when the Portuguese showed up in India, they met Mar Thoma Christians who worshipped in Syriac and claimed descent from St. Thomas.  Because of the various activities of Roman Catholic and Protestant (esp. Anglican) missions in India, the Mar Thoma Christians have become divided amongst themselves (yay western Christianity!).  They are mainly in Kerala (notably where one of the Jewish diasporae is found in India).

His feast used to be December 21 (BCP), but is now on July 3 (BAS).  Celebrate accordingly.