I thought I would take advantage of “sede vacante”……there NOT being a pope……to reflect on facts and fantasies about the papacy.
Concerned about the Catholic Church and the survival of the papacy, one of my pen-pals has been sending emails, reminding people that “Our Blessed Lord picked Saint Peter to be the first pope and he will surely take care of the church today by selecting a new one.”
An American archbishop wrote in his diocesan paper a few days ago that “Our Lord selected St. Peter to be the first pope, making him the rock on which the Catholic Church would be solidly built.”
There are facts, for sure. There are a lot of fantasies as well.
Let’s start from the very beginning……..
Peter was a young married man, probably around twenty years old. Most likely he had children but we don’t know for certain. He must have been strong-willed and maybe even a bit stubborn. His nickname was “Rocky.” So in the scriptures Jesus says “You are Rocky and on this rock I will build the community of my followers.” Jesus and his early disciples had no understanding of “church” as we know it today. Jesus picked Peter to be the leader of his group of followers in Jerusalem. Not a pope. No popes existed back then. (Later biblical translators translated the word for community into “church,” something unknown in Jesus’ days.)
The next person to be the leader of the disciples in Jerusalem was James. Again no pope, simply the leader of the group. (James the New Testament says was “brother of Jesus” but that is a subject for another day…….)
Peter went off to Rome, where, later, he would be executed. In Rome he was not the bishop. The Christian community in Rome at that time did not have a single bishop as leader. Interestingly the Roman community was under the guidance of a group of leaders: a “council of elders.” Peter was probably a member of this council of elders but was never “bishop of Rome” and certainly not pope. About this historians are in agreement.
After 70 AD the leadership center for the Christian community shifted to Rome. But not under Peter and not under a pope. No pope. And there were no popes in Rome at this time. The council of elders was the Roman leadership team. First century “collegiality”!
What’s in a name………..
Our word pope comes from a Greek word meaning papa: father. By the three hundreds and four hundreds AD the term pope was used for bishops in general and then later used more for special bishops. So we see in the historic literature references to the “Pope of Constantinople,” the “Pope of Rome,” etc. the understanding was that all the “papas” should work together.
The “papa” in Rome had an honorary position but was not the supreme decision-maker. The papa in Rome was “first among equals.”
Each “papa” took care of the church in his region. This all changed when the Roman Empire collapsed.
Papa Leo I did it: when in Rome do as the Romans did…..
When Rome collapsed, the bishops of Rome assumed more control over civil and ecclesiastical life. Pope Leo I (who died in 461) said “Peter speaks to the whole church through the Bishop of Rome.” And here we have the beginning of the papacy!
Since there was no Roman emperor, the bishop of Rome took over the ritual, the dress and the pageantry and power structures of the Roman emperor. Ancient Rome was resuscitated and baptized into papal Rome. Not even MGM could have reproduced Imperial Rome and its emperor with the precision and detail adopted by the bishops of Rome ……
Since then we have had a long parade of papas….some were kind and benevolent. Others were ruthless and immoral depots.
They all rather enjoyed having papal power……
Periodically over the centuries, various powerful bishops of Rome reaffirmed and strengthened their authoritarian power, turning the pope (for a while) into the number one monarch on our planet. Pope Pius IX of course tried to recapture that supreme earthy authority when he had himself proclaimed infallible.
And the papal story goes on and on……..
But now one asks: Was Peter the “First Pope”?
He was certainly the first leader of the early Christian community. Only with a highly symbolic imagination can one say he was the First Pope. But we Catholics are known for our creative imaginations….. 🙂
How refreshing it would be if the next pope would confine to a museum or sell to theatrical costume shops all the old Roman imperial dress and ritual regalia; and adopt a more contemporary way of dressing and walking on this earth and implement a shared-decision-making leadership style. That indeed would be in the Petrine tradition!
That’s the kind of papa I could vote for!