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The Papacy: The Petrine Ministry in the Early Church (3 of 3)


Students will understand that after Jesus created a special Petrine ministry to lead and unify His Church (demonstrated in lesson two) He then used that ministry to secure the unity-in-truth of the early Christian Church, through its many struggles and difficulties.


The Scripture References - to be read aloud: Acts 2:14-41; Acts 15:1-31; John 17:1-23.

Review last lesson:

  • Describe the early Church pattern; what did it involve? (Acts 2:42 "teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, prayers")

  • What was the significance of a name change among the Jews? (a name change meant a change of roles, of inner nature, of destiny)

  • What did Jesus change Simon's name to? (Kepha - Aramaic for rock; Petros - Greek for rock)

  • What was the significance of Christ changing Peter's name? What was he telling us when He said "You are Petros (rock) and on this rock I will build my Church?" (He was indicating that Peter was to be the lasting foundation stone, the rock-support for the Church in every generation.)

  • What did Christ mean when he said "I will give you the keys of the kingdom...?" (The keeper of the keys in ancient Israel had authority to admit or exclude from the king's household whomever he wished. Peter was to have this role and function over Christ's household and would have heaven's guidance in this.)

  • Explain what Christ was telling us when, three times he called Peter to feed his sheep? (In ancient Israel the rabbis customarily used a formula of words three times in the act of solemnly transferring authority to someone in the community of faith; Christ was giving authority to Peter who was to tend His flock as Christ had tended it.)

  • As Shepherd what three duties was Peter given by Christ when Peter was told, "Feed my sheep?" (He was to provide for he faithful, protect them, lead them to where they should go)



We discussed last time how Jesus intended Peter (and those who would be appointed to carry on Peter's ministry) to be the leading shepherd and unifying rock of the Church community.

I. How did Peter carry out his role after Christ's departure to heaven? What does this teach us about the role of the Pope today?

A. We see Peter in the New Testament as first-in-rank among the apostles.

  • Peter conducted the selection of a new apostle to fill the gap left by the death of Judas Iscariot (Acts 1).

  • He preached the first missionary sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:14-41).

  • He exercised disciplinary authority over sinful Christians such as Ananias and Sapphira, and the magician Simon Magus (Acts 5and 8).

  • He frequently spoke in the name of the whole apostolic band (Acts 3:15, and 10:41).

  • He admitted the first non-Jewish or "Gentile" converts into the Church (Acts 10 and 11).

  • He spoke persuasively on the issue of the admission of Gentile converts to the Church at the first general council of the apostles and elders in Jerusalem.

  • Clearly, Peter was doing what Jesus had called him and deputized him to do: lead, shepherd, and unify His flock.

B. Peter was not, however, an"absolute monarch" or "dictator" of the early Church.

  • St. Paul once rebuked Peter publicly to his face for not living up to his own teachings on welcoming Gentile converts (Ga. 1:11).

  • Of course, Paul was a saint and the saints are sometimes called upon by the Holy Spirit to challenge the Pope to live up to his high calling.

  • St. Catherine of Siena rebuked a Pope for failing to return the papal residence to Rome, after lingering many years in Avignon.

  • St. Philip Neri once sent a letter to a Pope admonishing him for his misconduct.

After all, popes are not sinless; they can fall short in their conduct and commit sins as any other Christian. But by reason of his office, and with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, he is still the "rock" and "shepherd" of the Church.

St. Paul once described St. John and St. James as "pillars" of the Church alongside Peter (Gal. 2:9).

  • But this did not mean that they were all seen as equal "pillars" in St. Paul's eyes.

  • In the same writing, St. Paul called Peter "Cephas" (the Rock) and went to check his own teaching with Peter above all the rest in Jerusalem (Gal 1:18, 2:9).

In one place the New Testament says that Peter and Paul were "sent" by the other apostles to Samaria on a mission (Acts 8:14) how can a pope be "sent" somewhere by his brother bishops?

  • A pope can be "sent" to do something by his fellow bishops if he is humble enough and wise enough to recognize the call of the Holy Spirit in the consensus of his brother-bishops asking him to do something.

  • For example, Pope John Paul II recognized the will of the Spirit when his brother-bishops, at a Synod in Rome, asked him to write an encyclical clarifying the Church's moral teaching. In that sense, they "sent" him to do something for the Church, with his consent.

  • Pope John Paul II actually went the "extra-mile" for them, and wrote two such encyclicals: Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae.

At the general council in Jerusalem Peter did not seem to rule the Church, wielding papal authority (Acts 15:1-31).

  • It was not necessary for Peter to "pull-rank" on anyone, because after he expressed his mind on the matter at issue, the whole assembly came together to a common mind. Persuasion was enough to secure the unity of the Council.

  • When Peter had finished speaking "all the assembly kept silence" (Acts 15:12) because, after listening to the arguments, the chief Shepherd of the Church had just his view. This sealed the unity of the whole assembly.

Again, all this is evidence that in the NT, St. Peter is held to be, and behaves as, the chief Pastor and Rock of unity of the Christian community.

Peter was martyred in Rome under the Emperor Nero around 63 A.D. as attested to by numerous ancient authors (e.g., Tertullian, Peter of Alexandria, and Eusebius) and the remnants of his tomb have been found in Rome.


II. What was the attitude of the early Christians toward the ministry of the bishops of Rome, who claimed to carry on St. Peter's role.

Let us do an investigation, and pile up the evidence. Listen very carefully to each of the following four historical events – lets see what we can learn from them....

1. St. Clement was a pope near the end of the first century (d. ca. 96 A.D.). He had sat at the feet of the apostles in his youth, and according to one of his contemporaries, he "still had the apostles' teachings ringing in his ears".

  • Clement received a letter from a church in Corinth, far away to the east in Greece. The letter informed him that the Corinthians had deposed (kicked-out!) their clergy.

  • St. Clement responded: "Because of sudden and repeated calamities and misfortunes [here in Rome] we think [pontifical "we"] our attention has been slow in turning to the things debated among you."

  • St. Clement then reprimanded them for deposing their clergy and insisted, under penalty of sin, that they restore their clergy to their rightful places. He wrote, "If some are disobedient to the things [Jesus] has spoken through us, they should know that they are enmeshing themselves in sin, and in no small danger."

  • In short, Pope St. Clement intervened i the affairs of faraway Corinth at his own initiative, and settled their dispute by the authority of the Church of Rome.

  • In fact, his letter was held in such high esteem by the Corinthians that they were still reading it aloud in their church a generation later!

  • St. Clement's pontificate was celebrated in the ancient liturgy of the Eastern Church by singing these words: "Peter, Prince of the Apostles, left thee [Clement] as worthy successor of himself; after him, thou didst rule the Church most capably."

  • What does all this tell us about the attitude of the earliest Christians to the authority of the Bishop of Rome? (answer: that he has authority to intervene even in far away churches o settle divisive disputes).

2. St. Irenaeus of Lyons had learned the Catholic faith from St. Polycarp, a man who had known the apostle John personally. St. Irenaeus became bishop of Lyons, France, in the mid-2nd century A.D.

  • In response to strange and secret doctrines put forward by some Christian fringe-groups, St. Irenaeus wrote these words:

    We do put to confusion all those [heretics] by indicating that tradition [of doctrine] derived from the apostles of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul...for it is a matter of necessity that every church should agree with this church, on account of its pre-eminent authority, that is, the faithful from everywhere...

  • Later in the same book, St. Ireneus provides us with a list of the early popes, the Bishops of Rome, stretching right back to St. Peter himself, and he finishes by writing: "In this order, and by this succession...the tradition from the apostles and the truth has come down to us."

  • What do these words imply about the attitude of 2nd century Christians to the authority of the Bishops of Rome? (answer:His office is descended from St. Peter; the Church of Rome and its bishops therefore have pre-eminent authority, and teach the truth from the apostles).

3. Pope St. Leo the Great (mid-5th century)

  • In 451 A.D., the Church held a General Council of bishops at Chalcedon to settle a dispute that had arisen about belief in Christ i.e., is Jesus merely a inspired human being? Or solely a divine being? Or the divine Son of God, dwelling among us a human being?

  • At tis time the whole western part of the Roman Empire lay in ruins due to the invasion of the barbarians, and even the city of Rome had been captured and sacked. The capital city of the Roman Empire had long since been moved to the East, to Constantinople, present day Istanbul.

  • At this General Council in Chalcedon, 596 bishops attended from the eastern part of the Empire, but only four made it from the west, including the Pope's representatives, who read out a long letter from the Pope, firmly establishing that Jesus Christ is both fully human and fully divine. This is called "the Tome of Leo."

  • After hearing the Tome, Bishop Peter of Corinth, who had been sitting among some bishops of a different opinion, crossed over to the hall to sit with the Pope's representatives; he was greeed with the shout "Peter thinks as does Peter – orthodox bishop welcome!"
  • In the end, the bishops present embraced Pope St. Leo's teaching with the shout "Peter has spoken through Leo!" They composed a new "definition" (clarification) of faith that Jesus is fully human and fully divine, in conformity with the Pope's wishes.

  • After the Council, the Patriarchs (archbishops) of Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Antioch wrote a letter to Pope St. Leo, calling him the "interpreter of the voice of Blessed Peter...the one commissioned with the guardianship of the vineyard by the Savior."

  • The ancient Eastern liturgy, on the feast day of Pope St. Leo the Great, sings, "As the successor of the divine Peter, enriched with his presidency and primacy, Leo published his divinely inspired definition."

  • What does this story tell you about the attitude of 5th century Christians to the role of the Bishop of Rome? (answer: that on matters of doctrine, he speaks with the authority of St. Peter, and protects the Church from false teaching).

4. Conflict with the Emperor. At the very end of the 5th century, the Byzantine Emperor (in Constantinople) tried to settle a theological controversy in the Church himself, by issuing an imperial edict requiring everyone in the Empire to accept his viewpoint.

  • The Pope at the time would not stand for this, and he excommunicated the Byzantine Emperor, and all who supported him on this matter.

  • Most of the bishops of the East (many of whom were appointees of the Emperor), whether out of fear or confusion, stood by the Emperor. As a result, the eastern and western portions of the Church were split from each other for about 30 years.

  • In the end, however, the Emperor and the bishops gave in to papal demands and teaching authority. The bishops of the east signed a retraction of their rebellion, including these words, "We cannot pass over in silence the affirmations of our Lord Jesus Christ, 'You are Peter, upon this Rock I will build my Church.' These words are verified by the facts. It is in the Apostolic See (the See of Rome) that the Catholic religion has always been preserved without blemish...This is why I hope that I shall remain in communion with the Apostolic See, in which is found the whole, true, and perfect stability of the Christian religion."

    What does this incident tell you about the attitude of the Church's bishops in the early 6th century A.D. to the leadership role of the Pope? (answer: that his authority comes from Christ's promise to Peter, and makes the Pope an entirely reliable rock of "truth" and "stability" for the worldwide Church)

These examples could be multiplied...

Beyond any reasonable doubt, in the early Church the Bishop of Rome, the Pope was seen as and acted as the Church's Rock and leading Shepherd, the center of unity, truth, and stability for the world wide Church.

Is this not an answer to the prayer that Jesus prayed just before His arrest, agony, and passion? Read together John 17:1-13. Why did He offer this prayer? (answer: "that they all may be one..."). Why did Jesus think it was so important that his followers be united in "love" and "truth"? (answer: that the world may believe...").

Teaching Note:

Have a large map of the Mediterranean area of the world on display during this lesson. Students should be familiar with the location of places such as Rome, Corinth, Jerusalem, Constantinople, Alexandria, Lyons, and other cities mentioned in this lesson – and with the geographical division between the Western and Byzantine Empires. Some familiarity with this geography is essential in order to understand the extraordinary reach of papal authority even in ancient times.



Robert Stackpole, S.T.D. "The Papacy: The Petrine Ministry in the Early Church (3 of 3)." Catholic Education Resource Center.

This lesson plan may be reproduced and distributed by any means as long as credit is given to the original author and to the Catholic Education Resource Center.

The Author

Robert Stackpole is an Associate Professor at Redeemer Pacific College in Langley, British Columbia where he also seres as Academic Coordinator. An American by birth, Robert Stackpole earned a B.A. in History from Williams College in Massachusetts, and a Masters degree in Theology from Oxford University in England. Robert was an ordained Anglican pastor before becoming a Catholic in 1994. After his conversion, he married a Catholic Canadian, and they went to Rome together, where Robert obtained a Doctorate in Theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (the Angelicum). Upon returning to North America, in 1997 he began work as the Research Director, and later Director, of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy based in Stockbridge Massachusetts, a position that he still holds. In that capacity, he has been a speaker at many conferences, and the author of numerous journal articles and books on the Divine Mercy message and devotion, including Jesus, Mercy, Mercy Incarnate (Marian Press, 2000) and Divine Mercy, A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press, 2008), as well as St. Peter Lives in Rome: An Anglican Discovers in the Ministry of the Pope (Marian Press, 2005), as well as the editor of Pillars of Fire in my Soul: The Spirituatlity of St. Faustina (Marian Press, 2003). At present he is the author of the Divine Mercy Q&A course that regularly appears on the principal divine Mercy website every Wednesday at

Copyright © 2001 The Catholic Education Resource Center
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