The primacy of Peter: sermon on the fourth Sunday after Pentecost

“Going up into one of the ships that was Simon’s … he taught the multitudes …”

The Catechism of the Council of Trent remarks that the gospels do not record our Lord as teaching from any ship other than that of Simon Peter’s. St Ambrose, commenting on this episode, remarks that while our Lord speaks in the plural when He says, “Let down your nets for a catch”, since it would have required several people to throw the heavy net overboard, He speaks in the singular when He says to Peter, “Launch out into the deep”. Though many in the Church must labour, it is Peter, under the authority of Christ, who should guide the ship.

The ship, of course, in the gospel, is an image for holy Church. We see St Peter exercising his authority in many ways especially in the Acts of the Apostles, for example when he arranges for a new twelfth apostle to replace Judas, and when he takes the decision to let the Gentiles into the Church on an equal footing with Jews.

But why did our Lord appoint a visible head for the Church? We often answer this question by looking at it from our own point of view. Looking at it from our point of view, we might say that unless the Church had a visible head on earth, it would have fragmented into many churches, and then it would be impossible to know which was the right one. And that is a true and important answer. After all, how do Christians know when they are members of the Church that Christ founded? They know it because they are in communion with Peter, or with Peter’s successor. As St Jerome said back in the fourth century, writing during a time of schism to the pope of his day, “I communicate with none but your blessedness, that is with the chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the rock on which the Church is built. This is the house where alone the Passover lamb can be rightly eaten.”

But we can also answer this question, about why a head was appointed for the twelve apostles, from our Lord’s point of view. There is a saying among Christian philosophers, that “the good is diffusive of itself”. Therefore, whoever is truly good is inclined to share his goodness with others. That’s why we shouldn’t be surprised that God created the world, even though He did not need it for His happiness.

In the same way, our Lord Jesus Christ shares with others qualities and titles that belong in the first place to Himself. For example, He says at one point, “I am the light of the world.” But on another occasion He says to the disciples, “You are the light of the world.” Is there any contradiction between these two things: “I am the light of the world”, and “you are the light of the world”? No, not if the relation between them is rightly understood. He is the light of the world by nature. They are the light of the world by grace, being illuminated by Him.

Or take another title, that of “rock”. St Paul, writing to the Corinthians, calls Jesus a rock. It’s a title often given to God in the Psalms. Yet our Lord Himself, speaking to St Peter, calls St Peter a rock. “Thou art Peter and on this rock I shall build my Church.” So, who is the rock, Christ or Peter? Both: but our Lord is the rock of Himself, because He is the true Son of God, whereas Peter is the rock only insofar as Christ communicated to Him some of His own strength.

Or, one more title, that of “high-priest”. We call Christ our great high-priest, who intercedes to the Father on our behalf. But we also give the title of high-priest to mere men. In a few moments time, when I begin the Roman canon, I shall pray for Antistite nostro Vincentio — “Vincent our high-priest”. Every bishop is high-priest of his diocese. Being goodness itself, Christ shares His high-priesthood with others.

And so, finally, with the title of “head”. Our Lord Jesus Christ is head of the Church, His body. But He wanted to share this title too, as He has shared everything else that can be shared. In the nature of the case, only one other person at a time can share this title of head of the Church. Thus, He appointed St Peter, and St Peter’s successors until He comes again.

So, let us give thanks for our Lord’s generosity; let us pray for our popes; and let us pray for those Christians who do not yet recognise the successor of St Peter. May they see that this too is part of God’s plan for bringing the fish to shore, that is, for bringing us safely to eternal life.