Jesus asked a simple question of his disciples, ‘Who do you say I am?’(Matthew 16:16). You can just imagine the silence that ensued. I am sure some of them looked away, some of them studied the back of their hands, some moved little piles of dirt around with the toes of their sandals. Who knows how long the silence lasted before Peter broke it with his answer? ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God’. Peter was always the first one to jump in, the first one out of the boat to walk on the water, the first to volunteer his opinion on any given subject. Yet Jesus said to him that his answer was not his own. It was given to him by His Father.
While the other disciples hung back for fear of giving the wrong answer, Peter risked his own answer, which turned out to be God’s answer, and Jesus was very pleased. Jesus, then changed his name from Simon to Peter. Petra is the word for rock in Aramaic, which was Jesus own language. ‘You are Peter’, Jesus said to him ‘and on this rock, I will build my church’. Peter was chosen not because the right answer occurred to him, but the right answer came to him to him because he was chosen. Jesus conferred on Peter three roles: (1)’rock foundation’ of the Church, (2) holder of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; (3) one who binds and loses. Peter was therefore appointed as the first head of the church even though it is disputed if he was referred to by the name ‘Pope’. He was chosen by Jesus to guide the people and he adopted a missionary role and travelled converting people to Christianity.
There have been more than 260 occupants of the papal office since Peter and every one of them has faced the challenges of the day. Pope Francis, as Peter’s successor oversees a church at a very difficult time. We pray that God will bless him in his ministry and strengthen him in times of trial and stress. Particularly in giving him the courage to do necessary work such as his recent visit to Canada on what he described as a ‘penitential’ trip aimed at reconciliation with Indigenous people for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in residential schools.
‘O God, shepherd and ruler of all the faithful, look favourably on your servant Francis, whom you have set at the head of your Church as her shepherd; Grant, we pray, that by word and example he may be of service to those over whom he presides so that, together with the flock entrusted to his care, he may come to everlasting life.’