Six years ago on April 19th, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected the 265th Pope since the time of Christ, and took on the name Pope Benedict XVI. Since yesterday I talked about the first Passover, I though tonight I might continue in the spirit of teaching by writing about the history of the papacy – and the beginnings of the Catholic Church. During my seminary days, we were required to study the origins of the various Christian denominations, and there has been much confusion over the years about the history of the church. And, like most things religious, it started with a conversation that eventually, through the leading of the Holy Spirit, ended up in the book of Matthew.
The story unfolds when Jesus asks the disciples, in Matthew 16:13, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” Skipping ahead to verse 16, Peter, one of the disciples, answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus replied, in verses 17-19, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
And herein lies the beginning of the Catholic Church – as well as the beginning of the disputes between different Christian denominations over the “true” religion. And the argument has something to do with the interpretation of the words in the original Greek. Peter’s nickname was “the Rock” and in the Greek, the translation goes something like this – “You are “Petro” (the Rock), and on this “petra” (rock) I will build my church.” Notice that the first Rock is capitalized, and the second one is not. One of the biggest questions is whether the church was built on Peter, which is the position of the Catholic Church, or whether it was built on Peter’s proclamation that Christ was the Son of the Living God – the “rock” upon which the Christian faith was founded. This view is more predominant in the Baptist faith, as well as other conservative denominations.
In any event, the interpretation of this Scripture has been the reason for many of the Holy Wars throughout the ages, and for differences in doctrinal belief between Catholic and other branches of Christendom. And by the way, both Catholic and Baptist believers are Christian. It never fails to amaze me that people wonder if Catholics, or Baptists, or Methodists, or Presbyterians, etc. are all Christian – and the answer is YES. They may have different core beliefs about how to interpret Scripture, but they all believe in the deity of Jesus Christ, and all of the above branches of Christianity support the notion of the “Trinity” – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
So back to the Papacy – Peter became the first human leader of the church on Earth. When Christ ascended to heaven, Peter and the other disciples waited for a visit from the Holy Spirit, which occurred at Pentecost. The story of the beginnings of the church are recorded in Acts 2, but suffice it to say that Peter gave the first sermon and led the rest of the followers of Christ as the church grew in it’s early days. Eventually, most of the original apostles (those 12 who were taught directly by Christ), with the exception of John, suffered deaths at the hands of their enemies. Peter, who was to be crucified, did not consider himself worthy to be crucified the way Christ was, so he requested to be nailed to the cross upside down – and that is how he died.
Various leaders followed throughout the years, and eventually the Catholic Church recognized its leader as the Pope. The Vicar of Christ, as he is sometimes called, is to represent Christ on this earth and to lead the church in this world. And while there are various thoughts as to whether it is one church, or many churches, as other denominations would profess, those nuances, as well as the interpretation of the Lord’s Supper and baptism, are subjects for other blogs at a later time. So history has now recorded 264 additional Popes since Peter – each of them patterning their papacy after some predecessor who they sought to emulate. There have been 2 John Pauls, 16 Benedicts, 23 Johns, 6 Pauls and many others throughout the years. But, a piece of trivia for you here, there has never been another Pope named Peter. Nobody wants to be compared to the original and Peter was so revered in the church that no Pope has chosen to break the tradition.
So there you have it – a short history of how the papacy came to be – and how the Pope, otherwise known as the Successor of the Prince of the Apostles (in reference to Peter), continues to lead the College of Cardinals – loosely compared to the apostles in the time of Christ. My encouragement tonight is to not allow differences in Scriptural interpretation to mute the impact of Christ in our lives and my prayer is that this Easter, and in all the days, we may worship God as Christians, and not as individual groups of people who camp on their differences rather than on what we have in common – Jesus Christ as Lord. Have a great day!