The Petrine Principal

Feast of the Chair of St. Peter

The New Testament bears ample testimony to the ancient faith of the Roman Christians. Rome marks the final destination of the Acts of the Apostles. Rome was the postal address of the first of St. Paul’s canonical letters.

And the ancient Romans treasured their heritage. They knew, with unerring Christian instinct, what the African Tertullian would say so eloquently in the third century: The blood of the martyrs is seed. If that is so, the Romans were blessed indeed to count among their martyrs the apostles Peter and Paul.

There is no legal document — not even a forged one — that names the successors of St. Peter as title-holders to the Church, bearers of the keys. But the ancient Christians required no other proof than the Scriptures and the apostolic tradition.

Writing probably in 69 A.D. (and surely no later than 96), St. Clement of Rome, the third successor of Peter, remonstrated the faraway congregation in Corinth, in Greece. Clement could do this because he spoke with Peter’s authority, which was granted by Christ Himself. As he concluded his letter, he urged the Corinthians to “render obedience unto the things written by us through the Holy Spirit.” And they did. A century later, the Greek church still hallowed Clement’s letter, as did other churches that counted it among the canonical scriptures and proclaimed its words in the liturgy.

Obedience to Christ in the person of His vicar: This is the common testimony of the Fathers. When the saints of East and West saw danger, they appealed to the pope. We find such pleas in the letters of St. Irenaeus (second century), St. Basil the Great (fourth century), St. John Chrysostom (early fifth century), and St. Cyril of Alexandria (mid-fifth century).

One and all, these were men with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Scriptures. So when they wished for an action that bore the authority of Jesus Christ, they knew where to send their petition. Sometimes they were disappointed by the papal response, but they maintained their faith in the papal office.

In the year 376, the greatest Scripture scholar in the ancient world, St. Jerome, addressed Pope St. Damasus I with a torrent of biblical seals of the papacy: “I speak with the successor of the fisherman and disciple of the cross. Following none but Christ as my primate, I am united in communion with Your Beatitude — that is, with the chair of Peter. Upon that Rock I know the Church is built. Whosoever eats a lamb outside this house is profane. Whoever is not in Noah’s ark will perish when the flood prevails.”

To be a Christian was — then as now — to obey Jesus Christ in the holy Scriptures. Thus, to be a Christian was to obey Jesus Christ in his vicar, the pope.

This was not just the teaching of churchmen who had a vested interested in papal power. It was the faith of the congregations.

The Roman people passed down many traditions of Peter’s ministry in their city. According to one story, during his imprisonment, the apostle preached to his jailers, who begged him for baptism. Finding insufficient water, Peter prayed and a pure spring bubbled up into the cell. Today we may see a most ancient testimony to this story on the walls of the Catacomb of Commodilla. There, the early Christians portrayed Peter as a new Moses, striking a rock wall and drawing forth water.

But, again, reverence for the papacy wasn’t just a Roman thing. A plate found in Montenegro depicts the prison baptism. A coffin in Arles, France, made around the same time, shows Christ handing on the Law to Peter.

Christ gave His Law to Peter with the grace of state. Peter passed it on to Linus, Linus to Cletus, Cletus to Clement, as John Paul passed it on to Benedict last year, while the whole world was watching.