The Petrine Ministry. A calling from the Lord

Michael A. Hayes

The surprising announcement of the resignation from Office of Pope Benedict XVI has sent many hurrying to the history books to find a precedent, and others hurrying to the Canon Law of the Church to find out what happens next. Perhaps the most helpful book to turn to in this situation is the book of the gospels, where the apostle Peter clearly is given a role of significance, in each of the gospels, which underlies the Petrine ministry.

In reflecting on the process that will soon take place there are three texts from the gospel narratives that may provide an insight into the role that the one who is elected Pope embraces. The first text is from Luke?s gospel where Jesus instructs the disciples to be audacious in casting out their nets, duc in altum. Peter is overwhelmed by Jesus? authority and power but is reassured, ?do not be afraid,? and is sent to be a fisher of people.

?When he had finished speaking he said to Simon, ?Put out into the deep water and pay out your nets for a catch.? ?Master,? Simon replied ?we worked hard all night long and caught nothing, but if you say so I will pay out the nets.? And when they had done this they netted such a huge number of fish that their nets began to tear, so they signalled to their companions in the other boats to come and help them; when these came, they filled the two boats to sinking point. When Simon Peter saw this he fell at the knees of Jesus saying ?Leave me, Lord; I am a sinful man.? For he and all his companions were completely overcome by the catch they had made; so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were Simon?s partners. But Jesus said to Simon, ?Do not be afraid; from now on it is men you will catch.? Then, bringing their boats back to land, they left everything and followed him.? (Lk. 5.4-11)

Two most significant aspects of this exchange are that the initiative is with Jesus ? it is he who unbidden gets into Peter?s boat, who orders the casting of nets and who invites Peter into following him ? and the other aspect is the protest of Peter who insists that this is not something for which he is prepared. The passage from scripture emphasises that it is the Lord who calls, and it is the Lord who will empower Peter to follow; choosing is the Lord?s work, and is not dependent on the perceived worth of the one called.

The second text to reflect on is the famous Tu es Petrus from Matthew?s gospel. Here Jesus is enquiring as to the self-understanding the disciples have as to who Jesus is. It is Simon Peter who answers that Jesus is the Christ, after which Jesus confirms a special ministry upon him as the rock upon which his Church is to be built.

?When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi he put this question to his disciples. ?Who do people say the Son of Man is?? And they said, ?Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.? ?But you,? he said, ?who do you say I am?? Then Simon Peter spoke up and said, ?You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.? Jesus replied, ?Simon son of Jonah, you are a blessed man! Because it was no human agency that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven. So I say to you: You are Peter and on this rock I will build my community. And the gates of the underworld can never overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven: whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.? (Mt. 16.13-19)

This passage lies behind the Catholic understanding of the Petrine ministry as being both focus and instrument of unity. Again it is Jesus who has the initiative ? he asks the first question and when Peter responds utters the mandate. Of the four gospels, Matthew?s is the one which most reflects on the way of ordering the life of the community. In this passage Matthew is quite clear that it is the community of the Lord, and it is the Lord who will preserve that community, but Peter does have a specific role in enabling that community to function.

The third text is from the end of John?s gospel, the section known as the Epilogue where Jesus asks Simon Peter the same question three times after which he gives an instruction.

?When they had eaten, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ?Simon son of John, do you love me more than these others do?? He answered, ?Yes, Lord, you know I love you.? Jesus said to him, ?Feed my lambs.? A second time he said to him, ?Simon son of John, do you love me?? He replied, ?Yes, Lord, you know I love you.? Jesus said to him, ?Look after my sheep.? Then he said to him a third time, ?Simon son of John, do you love me?? Peter was hurt that he asked him a third time, ?Do you love me?? and said, ?Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.? Jesus said to him, ?Feed my sheep.? (Jn. 28.15-17)

John deliberately plays out a scene with Peter that mirrors the denial of Jesus from the Passion. Three times Peter is questioned, three times he responds. This too is a scene that is a commissioning ? Peter is entrusted with the care of the sheep and the lambs. It is clear again however, that Jesus speaks deliberately of ?my sheep? and ?my lambs?. Following the long discourse in chapter 10 there can be no mistake but that Jesus is the Good Shepherd and that the sheep are his. Peter is entrusted with the Lord?s flock, and that is essential to any understanding of his role. The other essential element in this exchange is that there is a sole criterion required of Peter for ministry by Jesus: ?Do you love me?? No doubt there will be many offering all sorts of criteria in examining candidates for the Office of Bishop of Rome, but the Lord, who ? as these passages from scripture insist ? is the one who does the calling, has only one.