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The Bishop of Rome Is Peter's Successor

General Audience — January 27, 1993

Jesus' intention to make Simon Peter the foundation "rock" of his Church (cf. Mt 16:18) has a value that outlasts the apostle's earthly life. Jesus actually conceived his Church and desired her presence and activity in all nations until the ultimate fulfillment of history (cf. Mt 26:14; 28:19; Mk 16:15; Lk 24:47; Acts 1:8). Therefore, as he wanted successors for the other apostles in order to continue the work of evangelization in the various parts of the world, so too he foresaw and desired successors for Peter. They would be charged with the same pastoral mission and equipped with the same power, beginning with the mission and power of being Rock--the visible principle of unity in faith, love and the ministry of evangelization, sanctification and leadership entrusted to the Church.

This was defined by the First Vatican Council: "What Christ the Lord, prince of pastors and great shepherd of the sheep, established in the blessed Apostle Peter for eternal salvation and for the everlasting welfare of the Church, must always perdure, by the will of the same Christ, in the Church which, founded on rock, will remain indestructible until the end of time" (DS 3056).

The same Council defined as a truth of the faith: "It is by the institution of Christ the Lord, that is, by divine right, that blessed Peter has endless successors in his primacy over the whole Church" (DS 3058). This is an essential element of the Church's organic and hierarchical structure, which no one has the power to change. For the Church's entire duration, there will be successors of Peter in virtue of Christ's will.

The Second Vatican Council accepted and repeated this teaching of Vatican I. It gave greater emphasis to the link between the primacy of Peter's successors and the collegiality of the apostles' successors, without weakening the definition of the primacy justified by the most ancient Christian tradition, in which St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Irenaeus of Lyons stand out primarily.

On the basis of this tradition, Vatican I also defined: "The Roman Pontiff is the successor of blessed Peter in the same primacy" (DS 3058). The definition binds the primacy of Peter and his successors to the See of Rome, which cannot be replaced by any other see. However, it can happen that, due to circumstances of the times or for particular reasons, the bishops of Rome take up residence temporarily in places other than the Eternal City. Certainly, a city's political condition can change extensively and profoundly over centuries. But it remains, as is the case with Rome, a determinate space to which an institution such as an episcopal see is always referred--in the case of Rome, the See of Peter.

In truth, Jesus did not specify the role of Rome in Peter's succession. Doubtless he wanted Peter to have successors, but the New Testament does not state his specific desire to choose Rome as the primatial See. He preferred to entrust that to historical events in which the divine plan for the Church, the determination of the concrete conditions of Peter's succession, would appear.

The decisive historical event is that the fisherman of Bethsaida came to Rome and suffered martyrdom in this city. This fact is rich in theological significance, because it shows the mystery of the divine plan which arranges the course of human events to serve the Church's beginnings and development.

Peter's coming to Rome and his martyrdom here are part of a very ancient tradition expressed in basic historical documents and archeological discoveries regarding devotion to Peter on the site of his tomb, which early on became a place of veneration. Among the written documents we must first of all recall Pope Clement's Letter to the Corinthians (ca. 89-97), where the Church of Rome is considered as the Church of blessed Peter and Paul, whose martyrdom during Nero's persecution is mentioned by the Pope (5, 1-7). In this regard it is interesting to underscore the reference of tradition to the two apostles associated in their martyrdom with this Church. The Bishop of Rome is the Successor of Peter; however, he can also be called the heir of Paul, the greatest representative of the early Church's missionary efforts and of the wealth of her charisms. The bishops of Rome have generally spoken, taught, defended Christ's truth, celebrated pontifical rites and blessed the faithful in the name of Peter and Paul, the "princes of the apostles," the olivae binae pietatis unicae (twofold branch of the one piety), as is sung in the hymn for their feast on June 29. The Fathers, the liturgy and iconography often depict this association in martyrdom and glory.

Nevertheless, the Roman Pontiffs have exercised their authority in Rome and, according to the conditions and opportunities of the times, have done so in wider and even universal areas, by virtue of their succeeding Peter. Written documents do not tell us how this succession occurred in the first link connecting Peter with the series of the bishops of Rome. It can be deduced, however, by considering everything that Pope Clement states in the letter cited above regarding the appointment of the first bishops and their successors. After recalling that the apostles, "preaching in the countryside and the cities, experienced their first fruits in the Spirit and appointed them bishops and deacons of future believers" (42, 4), St. Clement says in detail that, in order to avoid future conflicts regarding the episcopal dignity, the apostles "appointed those whom we said and then ordered that, after they had died, other proven men would succeed them in their ministry" (44, 2). The historical and canonical means by which that inheritance is passed on to them can change, and have indeed changed. But over the centuries, an unbroken chain links that transition from Peter to his first successor in the Roman See.

This method of historical investigation (which could be called genetic) into the Petrine succession in the Church of Rome is confirmed by two other considerations. There is a negative one which, beginning with the need of a succession to Peter by virtue of Christ's very institution (and so iure divino, as is usually said in theological-canonical language), confirms that there are no signs of such a succession in any other Church. Moreover, there is another consideration we could call positive: it consists in showing the convergence of signs that in every age point to the See of Rome as that of Peter's successor.

Regarding the link between the papal primacy and the Roman See, significant testimony is given by Ignatius of Antioch, who extols the excellence of the Church of Rome. In his Letter to the Romans this authoritative witness of the Church's organizational and hierarchical development in the first half of the second century addressed the Church "which presides in the land of the Romans, worthy of God, worthy of honor, deservedly blessed, worthy of happy success, worthily chaste, which presides over charity" (Introduction). Charity (agápe) in St. Ignatius' language refers to the ecclesial community. Presiding over charity expresses the primacy in that communion of charity which is the Church, and necessarily includes the service of authority, the ministerium Petrinum. In fact, Ignatius acknowledges the Church of Rome's teaching authority: "You have never been jealous of anyone; you have taught the others. So I want those lessons that you give and enjoin in your teaching to be steadfast too" (3, 1).

The origin of this privileged position is indicated by those words regarding the significance of his authority as bishop of Antioch, which is also quite venerable because of its antiquity and relationship to the apostles: "Not as Peter and Paul do I command you" (4, 3). Rather, Ignatius entrusts the Church of Syria to the Church of Rome: "In your prayer remember the Church of Syria, which in my stead has God for its shepherd. Only Jesus Christ, and your charity, will rule it as a bishop" (9, 1).

In seeking to determine the apostolic succession of the churches, St. Irenaeus of Lyons in turn refers to the Church of Rome as the example and criterion par excellence of this succession. He writes:

"Since in this work it would take too long to list the successions of all the churches, we will consider the great and very ancient church known to all, the church founded and established in Rome by the two glorious apostles Peter and Paul. By showing the tradition received from the apostles and the faith proclaimed to men, which comes to us through the succession of bishops, we refute all who in any way, whether from madness or vainglory or blindness and mistaken thought, gather together beyond what is right. In fact, it is with this church, by reason of her more excellent origin, that every church [that is, the faithful who come from every area] must necessarily be in agreement--with this Church in which the tradition that comes from the apostles has always been preserved by everyone" (Adv. Haer., 3, 2).

The Church of Rome is acknowledged as having a "more excellent origin," which is that of Peter and Paul, the greatest representatives of the authority and charism of the apostles: the "keybearer of the Church" and the "Doctor of the Gentiles." The other churches can live and work only in agreement with her; agreement entails unity of faith, teaching and discipline, precisely what is contained in the apostolic tradition. The See of Rome is thus the criterion and measure of the apostolic authenticity of the various churches, the guarantee and principle of their communion in universal "charity," the foundation (kephas) of the visible organism of the Church established and ruled by the risen Christ as the eternal shepherd of the entire sheepfold of believers.