Apart from rejecting Mary of Nazareth as the Blessed Mother of God, Protestants had not invested more time and energy into any cause other than the anointing of Peter as the first Vicar of Christ. I have participated in many debates on the matter and I have read many good books, a number of them written by Protestant converts to Catholicism. Those books contain many good biblical arguments involving Old Testament prophetic precedents like those contained in Isaiah chapter 22, and a careful reading of Matthew chapter 16 down to scholarly analysis of the Greek word petros, and the Aramaic word kepha. I believe some of those arguments are stronger than others but I also agree that all of them, taken in good faith, deal quite effectively with the various Protestant objections.
Having praised the arguments in favor of the Catholic position; having recognized their effectiveness when dealing with Christians of good faith, I must say that issues of such centrality as the Marian and Petrine rejection by sectarians both inside and outside the Catholic communion must be addressed with maximum force. Firmly grasping that conviction, I started to read Matthew 16 prayerfully. I strongly recommend those who want to get to the bottom of these issues to do that often, to acquire the habit of praying Scripture and let it soak your mind and heart until you are immersed in all the things that the Holy Spirit has concealed and revealed in Holy Writ. In the same disposition, we should read what the Fathers of the Church have left us, if possible in the proper historical order from the oldest to the newest, consulting good sacred history books to learn about the historical context, the meaning of words, dates, and the images presented to us by the hagiographers. That is what I did, at first in a rather haphazard way but later in a more orderly manner.
Few Catholic writers rise to the argumentation vigor of G. K. Chesterton. He showed me the way in this well known quote from his work Heretics:
“When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society, He chose for its cornerstone 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.”
There is an echo of Saint Paul in Chesterton’s argument: our weaknesses are the door through which Christ penetrates the castle of the sinful soul, making all things new, Christ begins with our infirmities. It must be so since our virtues are normally so scarce if they exist at all, and we know God is not in the habit of building upon sand. So, Christ mines our sinful nature seeking sin as an avaricious miner seeks the veins of gold, for where our feebleness abounds, He will make strength bloom like flowers in the desert. He will extract glory and beauty from shamefulness and hideousness.
But [God] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (Saint Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
That is what Chesterton argues. God is a strange coach who delights in forming a team of cripples to win the Champions Cup. God wants his team to win the cup but what he is struggling for is the soul of his players, that is where the gold is. So, going to our previous metaphor, the man with the better collection of weaknesses is the one most likely to win the coach’s heart. Meeting Christ for the first time and having seen Christ’s power, Peter confessed: “depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” But Christ most likely said in his heart: “he will do, he’s perfect!” Who can possibly understand the way God thinks!
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi he put this question to his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ ‘But you,’ he said, ‘who do you say I am?’ Then Simon Peter spoke up and said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus replied, ‘Simon son of Jonah, you are a blessed man! Because it was no human agency that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven. So I now say to you: You are Peter [Aramaic: Kepha] and on this rock I will build my Church. And the gates of the underworld can never overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven: whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ Then he gave the disciples strict orders not to say to anyone that he was the Christ. (Matthew 16: 13-20)
There are many who claim to understand this passage. If you have read this far, I invite you to read it with new eyes.
The most important thing to understand is that this marks the moment when the spiritual conquest of the world begins. This is also a foundational moment for the Church, not “a church” but “The Church” the House of God: “For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations.” (Isaiah 56:7) All the nations, Catholic from καθόλου katholou formed from the two Greek words kata “about” and the genitive of holos “whole” — the equivalent of הָעַמִּֽים׃ לְכָל־ lekal há.am.mim. I am sure your recognize part of the name of Abraham, the father of nations in the há.am part. The unity and solidity of this Church extends in all directions for every dimension of space and time. It will reach the four corners of the earth. It will extend in time future and past with one solid teaching, unchangeable. Most importantly, it will reach Heaven. Amazingly, almost stretching the limits of reality, at the edge of the impossible: Peter the Fisherman from Capernaum, the despised Galilean whose weaknesses were for ever registered in the Gospel, the man whose very life is a confession, a catalog of falls from grace… That man will have the keys of Heaven and power enough to charge against the gates of Hell and prevail upon them.
The universal destiny of Israel in the Church universal goes hand in hand with the fact that the Christ comes not only to save Israel but to save the whole world through Israel (John 4:22). The scene in Caesarea Philippi is reminiscent of the first encounter of Jesus and Peter by the shores of Lake Gennesaret. This time Jesus confesses to be the awaited Messiah but that revelation is made through Peter. The scene strongly resembles the foundational moment of the nation of Israel, when Joseph, the vizier of the Pharaoh of Egypt reveals his power and secret identity to his brothers visiting Egypt in search for bread.
Simon Peter is also called the son of Jonah and that connects us to the resurrection as one of the foundations of the Church. This resurrection is one of the signs promised by Jesus who compared his returning from death to the return of the prophet Jonah from the belly of a big fish.
Jesus uses the image of Isaiah 22 to name Simon as the steward of the new royal house of Israel (Isaiah 22:15-25). In this manner he indicates that he is the King of Israel forever (Matthew 16:37) and Peter is the royal steward or vizier of the royal house that is restored to Israel from that moment onward.
I admit that all of these parallels are sometimes overwhelming and that a certain dexterity in the handling of sacred history is needed to make sense of them all. Our minds fail to grasp the ultimate sense of this puzzle, trained as we are in the discipline of Western thought. In contrast, this abundance of meaningful coincidences is the very reason why the oriental mind feels attracted to contemplate these words. For them the mystical complexity of the passage is also a sign of its transcendental importance.
The enigma is one that at the same time conceals and reveals. It attracts the reader and begs to be deciphered! The divine mystery presented here is the destiny of Israel that must be transformed into a universal Kingdom-Church by means of Jesus its new King-Priest.
There are many other interesting counterpoints that we can examine. One of them is not readily apparent to those not familiar with the Aramaic language used by Jesus and his disciples. Please pay attention to the name that Jesus gives to Simon Peter: Kepha (meaning a rock, large stone, or a rocky elevation, or promontory). Besides being a very original name, Kepha is also very suggestive. Only God Himself and Abraham (Isaiah 51:1) are compared to a rock in the Old Testament. Moreover, the name chosen for Peter by Jesus seems to contrast phonetically with the name of Kaiaphas, the High Priest of that year (John 11:51).
Kaiaphas was not a High Priest selected according to the Levitical tradition. He had been appointed by the Romans to replace the real High Priest (his father-in-law Annas). This political appointment of the High Priest was forced upon the Jews by the Romans. The Romans and the Hasmonean kings did not like a permanent High Priest appointed for life. The Romans picked a male from the family of Annas to serve as High Priest for a year at a time. At the time of Jesus’ death it was Kaiaphas’ turn to serve as High Priest. (See Isaiah 22:15-25) Peter’s new priesthood will now take the good news of the kingdom to all the nations of the world, even nations that do not even exist yet. Most significantly, it will preside over that expansion after conquering the very city of Caesar: Rome.
In previous articles, I tried to look at the anointing of Peter from different angles —links to that series of articles are provided below— but the amount of prophetic material packed in Matthew 16 has proved to be impossible to cover in one pass. I am working on a book that will attempt to cover all of it in some detail, the result of about three years of research. But the important point I want to make is this: the Church is not a paper boat sent into history on a wing and a prayer. The Church is a volitional creative act of God, it won’t fail because it was founded on Peter who is intimately united to Christ by way of the Fisherman’s human weakness:
But this one thing, the historic Christian Church, was founded on a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible.
It is impossible to ignore the power and symmetry of the image presented to us by Matthew. It is also impossible to reconcile it with the Protestant image of the restoration of the Church by Luther (or any of the hundreds of such claimants.) It is also incompatible with the notion of an ‘invisible church’ whose true members are known only to God. Most importantly, the image we are introduced to here, this powerful parable, proves the folly of those who think they can pull a fast one on Christ and conquer the visible Church like if it was a mere country. We have been warned: a man could in his madness, obtain by deceit the Seat of Peter and attempt to force the hand of God. That man of disobedience will share with the Iscariot the terrible judgment: “But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had never been born.” (Matthew 26:24)
Pro Christo cum enim infirmor, tunc potens sum. For Christ’s sake … when I am weak, then I am strong. The present weakness will one day be remembered as our strongest hour. Peter was anointed in his weakness to be the strength of the Church in times of trial.
“Nolite timere pusillus grex, quia complacuit Patri vestro dare vobis regnum.” (Luke 12:32)
This article was previously published by The Lepanto Institute
Links to the Cycle of Peter
The First Great Catch of Fish
Peter Grows in Faith
Peter: Sign and Action
The Fisherman’s Destiny