Saint Peter, the First Pope

“They who sow in tears shall reap in joy.” (Ps. 125) To Saint Peter, prince of the Apostles, these were very sacred words. It is a tradition that Saint Peter’s cheeks were furrowed by the streams of repentent tears which flowed until the day he entered his eternal glory.

Born in Bethsaida, he was the eldest son of Jonas, a fisherman. Simon and his brother, Andrew, were partners in the fishing trade with two other brothers, James and John, the sons of Zebedee. These hard working and God-fearing men were destined from all eternity to give their lives entirely to the fishing of men. Andrew was one of the two Apostles with Saint John the Baptist when Our Lord was baptized. Saint Andrew very simply told his brother, “We have found the Messias,” and brought Simon to see Jesus. The first moment the Eternal eyes of Our Lord met the eyes of Simon, a very significant event happened. The name of Simon, which he had borne for 40 years was changed: “Thou shalt be called Cephas, which is interpreted Peter.” (John: 1, 42) Our Lord singled out Saint Peter from the very beginning. Neither priority of call, nor seniority accounts for his holding chief place among the Apostles. Only a special designation by Our Lord accounts for this choice. From now on he is the first to be named in every mention of the Apostles and, on every important or solemn occasion.

His character was one of straightforwardness; very outspoken, impetuous, and always very virile. Our Lord loved him for these qualities even though it got him into trouble once in a while. When Our Lord asked his disciples, “Whom do men say that I am?” They mentioned John the Baptist, Elias, Jeremias or one of the prophets. Then Our Lord asked them, “Yes, but whom do you say that I am?” Instead of a quiet, meek answer, Saint Peter proclaimed, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” Our Lord rewarded him for his profession of faith by declaring to him the dignity and authority which all the successors of Saint Peter would retain until the end of time. “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys to the kingdom of Heaven. And whatever thou shalt bind on earth, it shall be bound also in Heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in Heaven.” How simply Our Lord put infallibility, remission of sins, the Divine Institution and perpetuity of the Church into a few sentences!

Leonardo da Vinci painted the Last Supper depicting Saint Peter grasping a knife in his hand with a look of fire in his eyes, inquiring who it was that would betray Jesus. This portrays perfectly the impetuous love and solicitude he had for Our Lord. Again in the garden of Gethsemane, we see him slashing the ear of the high priest’s servant when he advanced to arrest Jesus. But eventually, this impetuosity led him into the three-fold denial of Our Lord. Immediately, however, “the Lord turning looked on Peter…And Peter going out wept bitterly”.

Humbled, but not crushed by his fall, he and Saint John were the first to visit the tomb three days later where Our Lord was buried. Saint John beat him in the race to the sepulchre but allowed the Prince of the Apostles to enter first.

It is worthy of note that after his Resurrection, Our Lord addressed Saint Peter as Simon once more. However he was reinstituted, so to speak, as the head of the Apostles at the same time making public amendment for his three denials. Jesus asked three times, “Simon Peter lovest thou Me?” “Yea Lord, Thou knowest that I love Thee…” “Feed my lambs…Feed my sheep” was His command, a command to all future keepers of the keys.

When the Holy Ghost descended in blazing tongues of fire upon the Apostles on Pentecost, wonderful changes were wrought in them; not the least of which was a new spirit of courage and zeal. In one day the Chief of the Apostles converted 3,000, then later 5,000. Thus the organization of the Church began under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. Deacons were appointed to take care of the practical needs of the new converts. Soon the Apostles, crossed over the boundaries of Judea and preached to the Jews as well as Gentiles.

Our Apostle first went to Samaria with Saint John to confirm the new converts there. It was also there that he first met Simon Magus, who later became the first teacher of heresy. Simony, as it is now called, is the buying of ecclesiastical favors or positions. Peter considered Simon Magus a true convert, but as it turned out later, this was far from reality, as we shall see.

This interview was followed by a most significant event – the baptism of Cornelius, a centurion in the Roman army. While he was praying an angel had appeared to him and told him to send for Peter. When Peter arrived, Cornelius was instructed in the Faith and baptized, giving him the honor of being the first Gentile convert. In the year 36, a Church was established at Antioch, of mostly Gentile origin and because Saint Peter was the first bishop of that city it became known as the Primatical See of the Church.

Soon after this Saint Peter was imprisoned by King Herod who had killed Saint James and intended to do the same to Saint Peter. But God miraculously delivered him by sending an angel to release him, enabling Saint Peter to continue his zealous apostolate of preaching and converting.

The gospel was rapidly spreading across the world. But some who preached it insisted on the requirement of circumcision as in the Old Law and others favored the manner in which Cornelius’ conversion was handled. It was resolved that all should meet at Jerusalem to discuss the matter and make a decision. This was the first council of the Church and took place in the year 50. The authority of Saint Peter over the other apostles is very clearly manifest as it was his decision that settled the matter. He declared that the necessity of circumcision was no longer required for salvation.

After six years of fruitful labor, the Prince of the Apostles traveled to Rome, the capital of the vast Roman Empire. Having made his way over land and sea, he arrived at Porta Portese, into the heart of a pagan world. A handful of early converts, who had been driven from Jerusalem in the first persecution had settled on the bank if the Tiber. :Of these he was welcomed and taken in by Saint Priscilla and her family, of which every member is a saint.

It was here that Saint Peter became more acquainted with Simon Magus, the magician who had sought to purchase the gifts of the Holy Ghost to use in his witch craft. His supposed conversion had been short lived and he had been making such a reputation for himself that the Samaritans regarded him as a deity. After his discomfiture with Saint Peter in Samaria he fled to Rome, ensnaring many into his net of deception.

Simon was highly favored by Nero, the Emperor, who was a great patron of magical arts and those connected with conversing with infernal powers. Saint Peter felt obliged to expose Simon’s impostures. An eminent relative of Nero, recently dead, sufficed for the accomplishment of a duel between the two Simons. The face and power of Saint Peter to raise many from the dead, had persuaded the youth’s friends to call for the Apostle. Others caught the magic of Simon Magus. Death was the penalty for failure to raise the young man to life.

The sorcerer began his charms and incantations, which seemed to cause the youth’s hand to move. At once everyone declared him alive and held Saint Peter as a fool for opposing so great a power. Saint Peter calmly asked that Simon step back from the bedside. Instantly the phantasm ceased showing this to be a mere delusion of their senses. Entreating Almighty God to show His power for the good of souls, Saint Peter approached the youth. He was exhorted in Our Lord’s name to rise. Immediately he stood, walked, spoke, and ate. The crowd angrily turned to stone Simon Magus, but Saint Peter begged his life to be spared. Maddened at the thought of his loss of power and reputation, Simon promised that on a certain day all would see him fly to heaven. The day arriving, he climbed to the mount of the Capitol. He threw himself from the height of the rock and began his flight. Stupor and confusion settled over the people, conjecting that it must be the power of God to perform such a feat. Saint Peter, witnessing the ordeal, confidently lifted his heart to the God of Truth. Instantly the wings he had made failed to hold him, causing him to crash to the ground. Being carried to a nearby village, Simon soon after died in misery. Instead of converting Nero, the death of Simon enraged him to the extent of having Saint Peter imprisoned.

But “as the Word of God is not bound” Saint Peter continued to preach even in prison, and converting his jailer, God supplied the necessary water for baptism by causing a spring to bubble up from the prison floor.

The earnest entreaties of the Roman Christians, at length succeeded in having the Prince of the Apostle comply with their plan for his escape. He was lowered over the wall of the prison and began his way to Porta Capina. While fleeing, he met Our Lord carrying His Cross.

“Lord, where goest Thou?”

“I go to Rome to be crucified again for thee.”

Saint Peter understood it to be the will of God for him to return to Rome to suffer for his flock. At the very spot where this incident occurred, there is a little Church called “Quo Vadis?” commemorating this event.

Upon his return to Rome, he was imprisoned and scourged. At length Saint Peter gave his farewell blessing to all of his flock and brethren, especially to Saint Paul who was going to be beheaded the same day outside Rome. Then he was led to the top of Vatican Mount, the place of execution. He was to die by crucifixion, the most shameful and tortuous death. Deeming himself as unworthy to die in the same position as Our Lord, he petitioned the Officers to crucify him upside down. His request was granted. The first pope and Vicar of Christ received his eternal reward June 29th in the year 67.

The first 31 popes all shed their blood in defense of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Pope John Paul II is the 266th successor in the unbroken line of popes since Saint Peter.

The special feasts which the Church celebrates in honor of Saint Peter are: June 29, the day of his martyrdom; June 30, commemorated with Saint Paul’s feast; August 1, the finding of Saint Peter’s Chains (Incidentally the chains found in Jerusalem and those found in Rome link perfectly signifying the union of the Old and New Law); the Chair of Saint Peter, February 22; and the Basilicas of Saints Peter and Paul, November 18.

Holy Scripture contains two brief epistles of Saint Peter, one written about 30 years after Our Lord’s Ascension, and the other while he was in prison shortly before his martyrdom. The whole Gospel of Saint Mark is in actuality a narrative of Saint Peter written by Saint Mark, his favorite disciple.

The greater glory of God was the Apostle’s complete goal and desire. Judea, Samaria, Antioch, Pontus, Galatia, and many other towns bear the footprints of Christ’s first Vicar as he scattered the seed of the Gospel. Sowing with tears, and finally in blood, Saint Peter, prince of the Apostles reaped the Eternal Joy of Heaven, bearing in one hand the keys given to him by Our Lord, and in the other the glorious palm of martyrdom.