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The Merciful Chair of St. Peter

The Second Vatican Council taught clearly about the authority of the Pope, the Successor of St. Peter. It is easy to misinterpret this power, given to one man, in purely secular terms, and to fear the damage he could do. With the help of Sacred Scripture and the reflections of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who later became Pope Benedict XVI) , G.K. Chesterton, the Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen, and Pope Francis, however, we will see that papal primacy and the celebration of this mystery on the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, are truly mysteries of God's boundless mercy.

Petrine primacy

In the Second Vatican Council's great teaching on the Church, with the Latin title Lumen Gentium, we get a clear presentation of the power entrusted to the Pope:

Just as in the Gospel, the Lord so disposing, St. Peter and the other apostles constitute one apostolic college, so in a similar way the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are joined together. … But the college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head. The pope's power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. (Lumen Gentium #22)

Scriptural witnesses

The language of the Church in the Second Vatican Council including “primacy” and “full, supreme and universal power” developed its precision over time as it was elaborated throughout the history of the Church, but it finds its origin in the words spoken by Jesus to Peter in Sacred Scripture, “feed my lambs … tend my sheep … feed my sheep,” (John 21:15,16,17) and “I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:32) We can look also to the affirmations of St. Paul who went specifically to Peter (Cephas) to confer with him on disputed points in the faith (Gal 1:18) and testifies that he did it specifically so that he “might not be running, or have run, in vain.” (Gal 2:2) It is also Peter who is identified by St. Paul as the first witness of the Resurrection (1 Cor 15:3-7) and in lists which vary in many details, Peter is named first in every listing of the twelve Apostles (Matthew 10:2-4, Mark 3:16-19, Luke 6:14-16 and Acts 1:13). Finally, the most well known passage, which is also the Gospel for the Mass for the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, states persuasively, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bound on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19)

Peter's weakness

In reflecting on all these texts, however, we cannot take a triumphalist approach to Petrine primacy, because another point emerges more strongly–the mercy of God. Each scriptural affirmation of Jesus's choice of St. Peter to lead the Apostles and the Church is accompanied by an acknowledgement of Peter's weakness and failure. The commission from John 21 is interspersed with a threefold recognition of Peter's threefold betrayal. The call that Jesus gives to Peter in Luke 22 will take effect after Peter's recovery from his denial. When St. Paul affirms the role of Peter as a criterion for the authenticity of the Gospel in Galatians 1, he also recognizes the personal failure of Peter in Galatians 2:14. Finally, in the context of the power entrusted to Peter in Matthew 16, we find Peter chastised by Jesus immediately afterwards for being a stumbling block and failing to think as God does (Matthew 18:23).

Observations of Ratzinger, Chesterton, Sheen and Pope Francis

In light of these Scriptures, which Cardinal Ratzinger interpreted more carefully and thoroughly in the book Called to Communion, he concluded that Petrine primacy is really a doctrine of mercy. The choice of Peter, in the face of his profound weakness, shows that the Church is built on the rock of mercy and forgiveness:

This seems to me to be a cardinal point. At the inmost core of the new commission which robs the forces of the destruction of their power is the grace of forgiveness. It constitutes the Church. The Church is founded on forgiveness. Peter himself is a personal embodiment of this truth, for he is permitted to be the bearer of the keys after having stumbled, confessed and received the grace of pardon. The Church is by nature the home of forgiveness, and Peter is the perpetual living reminder of this reality: she [the Church] is not a communion of the perfect but a communion of sinners who need and seek forgiveness. Behind the talk of authority, God's power appears as mercy and thus as the foundation stone of the Church; in the background we hear the word of the Lord: “It is not the healthy who have need of the physician, but those who are ill; I have not come to all the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) (Called to Communion, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger)

Saint Paul expresses this principle clearly, sharing it from his own experience and relating the words of Jesus to him, “My grace is sufficient for you for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) He firmly embraces the same mystery that is manifested in Peter, “for when I am weak, then I am strong.” As Cardinal Ratzinger identified, the “Church is founded on forgiveness…she is not a communion of the perfect but a communion of sinners who need and seek forgiveness.”

G.K. Chesterton expressed the same truth in his own unique way, touched with humor, pointing out that by founding the Church on the weakness of Peter, Jesus subverted the wisdom of the world and according to the mystery of divine wisdom thus prevented the Church from suffering the ultimate collapse that worldly wisdom is subject to:

The thing which is valuable and lovable in our eyes is man—the old beer-drinking, creed-making, fighting, failing, sensual, respectable man. And the things that have been founded on this creature immortally remain; the things that have been founded on the fancy of the Superman have died with the dying civilizations which alone have given them birth. When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society, He chose for its corner-stone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob, a coward—in a word, a man. And upon this rock He has built His Church, and the gates of Hell have not prevailed against it. All the empires and the kingdoms have failed, because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men. But this one thing, the historic Christian Church, was founded on a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible. For no chain is stronger than its weakest link. —G. K. Chesterton, Heretics

The great televangelist Archbishop Fulton Sheen expressed it similarly, but in his own characteristic, poetic simplicity, “No chain is stronger than its weakest link, and the weakest link of the chain of Popes was the first. But that weak link was held in the hands of Christ. That is why the papacy will never fail.” (Quoted in Through the Year with Fulton Sheen)

Pope Francis reiterated this theme on the Feast of the Chair of St Peter in 2016 as he celebrated the Jubilee for the Roman Curia. He reminded those who support him in exercising St Peter's merciful power, that that power was originally and is still entrusted to weak and fallen men who are, therefore, in an even better position to seek out the lost, heal the sick and raise up their brothers from their sins:

Pastors, above all, are required to have as their model God Himself, who cares for His flock. The Prophet Ezekiel described God’s way of acting: He goes out in search of the lost sheep; He leads back the lost to the fold; He bandages the wounded and cares for the sick (34:16). A behavior that is a sign of a love that knows no bounds. It is a faithful, constant, unconditional dedication, that His mercy might reach all those who are weakest. And nevertheless, we must not forget that the prophecy of Ezekiel starts from the observation of the failures of the shepherds of Israel. (Pope Francis, homily, Chair of St Peter, translation by WAOB®)

Power Made Perfect in Weakness

From this vantage point we can revisit the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and see how the weakest man is placed in the center so that he can be a point of unity for all. “The Roman Pontiff, as the successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful.” (Lumen Gentium #24) After all, one thing that we all share is weakness and sin. Few are strong and none are sinless, so it makes divine sense that the principle of unity and cornerstone of the Church should be one who is deeply aware of his need for mercy so that the mercy of God can shine brightly through him. “Power is made perfect in weakness.”