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1 Peter 5:1-4; Matthew 16:13-19

As with the feast of the Lateran Basilica, today’s feast is actually a papal feast.  We are celebrating the church’s unity in the bishop of Rome, the pope.  The Latin word for chair is cathedra, from which we draw the English word cathedral.  A cathedral is a bishop’s church in which the bishop sits in his capacity as shepherd of a local diocese.  When he sits on his cathedra in his cathedral the bishop symbolically presents and protects the unity of the local church over which he presides.

According to ancient tradition, the bishop of Rome (the Pope) sits in the cathedral of Rome and is liked by an unbroken chain of succession to the apostle Peter.  He thus sits, symbolically, in Peter’s chair.  The pope as bishop of Rome and successor to Peter is understood to be the guarantor of the entire Church’s unity in Christ.  The responsibility to preserve this unity was, again according to Catholic tradition, bestowed upon Peter by Jesus himself when in Matthew’s gospel he declares, “you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church.”

Although there has been great disagreement among Christians about the exact meaning of this text, there is strong evidence that the early church did single out Rome and Rome’s bishop for special honor as the sign of the unity of the church.  The important thing to remember, however, is that this honor was never seen as a power play (at least ideally).  The honor bestowed upon Peter and Peter’s successor was always linked to the image of shepherding.  That is, pastoral authority was always connected explicitly to pastoral sensitively and acumen.   Hence, we read in 1 Peter that the leaders (the presbyters) are not to “lord” their authority over those in their care.

After all, the “chief shepherd” in Peter’s epistle is not Peter; it is Christ himself.  It was not Peter’s person but his confession of Christ that merited his designation “rock.”  All who are charged with shepherding the church of Christ would do well to ponder the implications of the confluence of these readings.  The psalmist’s reminder that the “the Lord is our shepherd” contextualizes but does not remove all human authority.

By John O'Keefe

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