When God intervenes to give someone a new name, we can be sure that we are witnessing something momentous. Abram’s elevation to Abraham signified that he was to be the father of a multitude, someone through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Jacob’s new name Israel meant ‘power with God’.
So when Our Lord tells the fisherman Simon that he is to be called ‘Peter’, this must mark a significant event in the history of salvation. By divine election Simon is to be Cephas, the ‘rock’ on which Our Lord will build His Church. To Peter will be granted the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, with the power to bind and loose, and the gates of hell will never prevail against this Church.
People often ask what is the main difference between Catholics and other Christians. Is it our devotion to the Blessed Virgin and to the saints? Or perhaps it is the Church’s teaching on Our Lord’s real bodily presence in the Blessed Sacrament and Her doctrine on the Sacrifice of the Mass?
The most precise answer is simpler than any of these. The main difference between Catholics and other Christians can actually be summed up in one word, and that word is a name: ‘Peter’.
What makes a Catholic is not just his devotion to the Blessed Virgin and his belief in Transubstantiation, essential though these are. There are in fact plenty of Anglican parishes where the Blessed Virgin is honoured with the title ‘Our Lady’ and the saints are venerated in processions and litanies. The eastern Orthodox denominations share our belief in Our Lord’s Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament. Their bishops and priests are ordained in the same line of Apostolic Succession as ours, and they administer the same seven Sacraments.
What makes someone a Catholic is essentially communion, through Baptism, with the Pope. A practising Catholic believes that Our Lord appointed St Peter to be the Prince of the Apostles, and that St Peter’s successor is alive and reigning today in the person of His Holiness Pope Francis. A practising Catholic is one who submits himself in obedience to the authority of the Pope of the day in those areas and circumstances which fall under the Pope’s divinely ordained remit.
The Papacy is the visible guarantee of unity in our Church and of the constancy of the Church’s unchangeable doctrine. If we could climb into a time machine and return to the world in ten thousand or a million years’ time, what should we find? There is one thing of which we Catholics can be quite sure: if the world is still here, then we shall find exactly the same Catholic Church, essentially unchanged – the same structure of pope, bishops, priests and deacons; the same seven Sacraments; the same doctrine on Heaven and hell; the same command to keep the Lord’s Day holy; the same teaching on contraception and on the meaning and nature of marriage.
We know all of this with certainty because of Our Lord’s promise that the gates of hell will never prevail against His Church. We know it with certainty because our Faith is built not on clouds or pious ideas, but on an indestructible rock. If the Church had ever managed to get it wrong on any of these issues then it would mean that She had been binding the consciences of the Faithful to assent to something false. The gates of hell would have prevailed. Our Lord’s promise would be proven to be false, and one shudders even to make such a suggestion. He is Truth Itself.
As Catholics in the twenty-first century we can be grateful that we have this divinely guaranteed assistance to steer us through the minefields of moral dilemma with which modern life confronts us. Breakthroughs in science, medicine and technology are a testimony to the wonderful gift of reason with which God has endowed human nature. But such advances also mean that today’s world challenges us with increasingly complicated choices. The divine assurance that has been granted to St Peter and to his successors means that there is an unquenchable light to guide us through this valley of shadows.
The supernatural prerogative of infallibility that Our Lord invested in St Peter and successive bishops of Rome is really a negative, preventative, guarantee. It safeguards the Pope from falling into positive error when he teaches on faith and morals ex cathedra [i.e. in his official capacity as Successor of St Peter]. The Church has never claimed that popes are necessarily blessed with any charism of divine inspiration. They do not need to be. Everything to be known for the purpose of salvation is already contained in the Deposit of Faith that was sealed with the death of the last Apostle in around 100 A.D. With the completion of that Deposit the role of popes and bishops henceforth would be to unpack and teach that unchanging Truth, and to guard it against any dilution or novelty.
Looking at history, it becomes clear that some popes have done a better job at succeeding St Peter than others. Some have been brilliant teachers, others not. Some popes have been capable administrators, while the pontificates of others have been characterized by corruption and neglect. Even those few whose names are bywords for depravity, however, have never managed to teach heresy ex cathedra.
When a pope does a good job of succeeding St Peter it is only to be expected that he will attract flak. The Prince of the Apostles was put to death for preaching the Gospel, after all, and a number of his successors suffered the same fate. When you hear the names of Linus, Cletus and Clement in the Canon of the Mass, remember that these were popes who mingled their own blood with the Precious Blood of Our Lord in martyrdom. The shepherds appointed by Our Lord to feed His sheep are not here to appease the mob or to grovel to the press. They are here to teach the Faith in season and out, and when push comes to shove to give their lives in the service of the Gospel.
Appearing on the balcony of St Peter’s after his election, our new Pope seems immediately to have won a place in the hearts of all men of good will, both inside and outside the Church. We should give thanks for this blessing and pray that God will use Pope Francis’s disarming frankness and winning modesty to gather in rich harvests of conversions and vocations. It would be painful to see anyone of such evident goodness and integrity subjected to abuse from the rude and scoffing multitude. But it shouldn’t surprise us if and when this happens, and it certainly should not discourage us. Such a volte face is probably inevitable once the media wakes up to the fact that in addition to possessing an infectious joie de vivre and a passionate concern for the disadvantaged the Pope is also a Catholic.
We should pray for Pope Francis every day. May God bless him with a long and successful reign. May the patronage of Our Lady of Fatima protect His Holiness from all harm. And may the intercession of St Peter always gain for him the zeal and courage of those popes who, in the footsteps of the fisherman, have given their lives for our holy Catholic Faith.