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The Pope’s Three Duties: What He Does and Why He Matters

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The Thesis

Using the tools of Catholic Biblical interpretation and speculative theology, this paper will explore the Peterine Ministry’s duties based upon the two confessions Simon Peter made about himself and one confession that Jesus Christ made about Simon Peter.

The Necessity of Apostolic Succession & the Peterine Ministry

In all four Gospel accounts, Jesus appears to His Apostles as a group and then deigns to give them a mission, which is to encompass the duties of the Church He established to proclaim the Gospel, celebrate the Sacraments, and perform works of charity. In Matthew, Jesus seems to point the first two of those duties in saying, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”[i] The longer ending of Mark has a similar version, with the caveat of signs that will accompany those who “believe”.[ii]

In Luke, Jesus sends the Apostles out with the promise of God the Father to preach repentance (proclaim) and forgiveness of sins (Sacraments of healing) to all the nations, beginning in Jerusalem.[iii] John’s narrative on commission of cooperation also seems to point to the Sacraments of healing, when Jesus breathed on the Apostles who were gathered “and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”[iv]

What is clearly inferred out of Jesus’ commissions is that this is an ongoing work that will naturally extend beyond the lifespan of the Apostles. That is, these tasks to preach the whole world, forgive sins, and baptize are things that don’t have an immediate conclusion. For, the more of the world will be discovered, new sins will have to be forgiven, and new life will have to be baptized.

Indeed, there is a necessity in the commission of the cooperation for the Apostles to discover a way to succeed themselves. So that the work of the Church will continue, it will not only have to remain Apostolic, but it will need something or someone to keep it unified.   That one thing will be the Peterine Ministry.

Paragraph 857 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church finds three reasons it was necessary that the Church be Apostolic:

  • She was and remains built on “the foundation of the Apostles,”[v] the witnesses chosen and sent on mission by Christ himself,[vi]
  • With the help of the Spirit dwelling in her, the Church keeps and hands on the teaching,[vii] the “good deposit,” the salutary words she has heard from the apostles,[viii]
  • She continues to be taught, sanctified, and guided by the apostles until Christ’s return, through their successors in pastoral office: the college of bishops, “assisted by the priest, in union with the successor of Peter, the Church’s supreme pastor”:[ix]

As the third item begins to elucidate, not only is the Apostolicity of the Catholic Church dependent upon its sustained unity with the successor of Peter, the Church’s supreme pastor, but sustaining the unity is a chief ministerial duty of the office of the supreme pastor. This ministry that has succeeded Peter has traditionally been called the ‘Peterine Ministry.’

It must be said that whether there is or is not a Pope of the Catholic Church, the Peterine Ministry still exists. Like silence, the Peterine Ministry patiently waits to do what it was created to do. Even when the Pope proves himself to be a reprobate sinner and duly worthy of the pains of Hell, the Peterine Ministry remains ever holy, unstained, and worthy of all praise, honor, and respect because it belongs to the commission and providence of God.

The Value, Cost, and Power of Confession

Below, I will outline the three duties of the Peterine Ministry that are found in the two confessions that Simon Peter made about himself and one that Jesus made about him, but first, the natural consequences of confession should be explained so that we can see how the Peterine Ministry was built on man cooperating with God.

While it is very good for the soul to confess what it knows to be true (whether in public or private), we must never forget that all forms of confession come with both a steep price and a great reward. The texts from all of these Gospels attest that whenever Simon Peter confessed what he knew to be true in his heart, Jesus responded in kind by giving him a new responsibility, consistent with his heightened spiritual awareness of God, neighbor, and self. It is true, confession always demands responsibility.

In the instant case, the subsequent promises were: “The gates of the netherworld will not prevail against it” and “Then feed my sheep.”   The fruit of Simon Peter’s Confessions was the grace that continues to sustain and propel it. In other words, it is because Simon Peter’s Confessions were true is why the Catholic Church has been able to outlive every monarchy, empire, kingdom, and republic that had come before it and why the successors of Peter still live while the successors to his murderer, the Emperor Nero, do not.

Through confession, we affirm what our soul knows to be true in our minds and mouths. In consequence, God not only holds us responsible for what we confess with our tongue, but also charges us to put our confession to work for His will. In essence, God always attaches responsibility to our confession and gives us the grace to persevere in that confession and responsibility. When Peter confessed, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love [agapao] you,” he was given the responsibility to love God’s little ones – the gift that he received was true life in Christ.

The same can be said about our confessions when we receive the Sacraments. For example, a man and woman will confess a number of things during the Sacrament of Matrimony, and God will give them both the sustaining grace that they need to keep every one of their vows, and to each of these confessions is attached a responsibility to love beyond herself. Simon Peter’s first confession came with the responsibility of keeping the keys of binding and loosing; that is, Christ Jesus gave His Church the responsibility to be the means of Salvation; meaning that, those within the Church are promised to be saved, and those without it are not promised anything.

When we publicly confess the truth of God, God always gets the increase and glory. For example, look what happened when Simon Peter publicly confessed the truth of who Jesus of Nazareth was to the crowd gathered in Jerusalem for the Pentecost:

“He testified with many other arguments and was exhorting them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were Baptized, and about three thousand persons were added that day.”[x]

St. Paul is another great example of how we cooperate with God without counting the cost of our confessions. Through God’s propelling and sustaining grace, Paul could always remain accountable to his confession. Even when his initial confession about Mark reflected a negative assessment of him,[xi] he later proved to be accountable for an improved confession about Mark.[xii] Writing to the Church at Corinth, Paul wrote about the process of being propelled by grace with a desire to fulfill the will of God in this way: “For the love of Christ impels us, once we have come to conviction that one died for all; therefore all have died.”[xiii]

The First Confession and Duty of the Peterine Ministry (Matthew 16:13-20)

“But who do you say that I am?” Simon Kephas said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”   Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed you are, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Kephas, and upon this kephas I will build my Church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.   I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven; and whatever you lose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven. Then He strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that He is the Messiah.”

The first duty of all men called to the Peterine Ministry is to proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah and the Begotten Son of Eternal Father, to be guided by the truth of God the Father, to obey the commands of God the Son, and to listen for and to act upon the promptings of the Holy Spirit.  

Indeed, we are all called to do these very things, but even more so, the successors of Peter. In other words, when Simon Peter confessed who he knew Jesus to be, all those who heard (and still hear) this good news were (are) blessed, and they were (are) happy that he knew (knows) that Jesus is Savior and Lord. That does not mean that John, Andrew, or any other disciples did not know the answer to the question that Jesus asked Peter. On the contrary, it only means they were not asked then.   We are all called to know who Jesus is, but when the Pope knows Jesus, we are all better off and blessed by his relationship with the Lord. When the Pope does not know Jesus, we are not happy for him not knowing, and we are not better off for his lack of knowledge.

It is also very interesting and crucial to note here that the Jews understood God Himself to be Kephas (Rock), but here Jesus deigns to give His human disciple that very same name. The Jews also knew God to be their Shepherd, but, in the Johannine Confession, Jesus moves to make Kephas our Shepherd.[xiv]

To clarify, Jesus was not calling Simon God in either case, but He was saying that the Church, of which Jesus is the head,[xv] would be established through Simon, and that Church would be our source of life (i.e., truth, freedom, Salvation, God). From this point, and until all is completed, Simon would no longer belong to himself. Through this decree of God, Kephas and his ministry would be fully configured into the mystical Body of Christ; that is, Kephas is only Kephas through the Kephas; Shepherd through the Shepherd; Priest through the High Priest. Kephas and all he is called to do flows out of the Body of Christ (the Church belonging to the Kingdom of God).

Tertullian in Chapter 13 of Against Marcion, remarks similarly as to why Jesus changed the name of Simon to Peter:

“But why to Peter? If it was because of the vigor of his faith, there were many solid materials that might lend a name from their strength. Was it because Christ was both a rock and a stone? For we read of His being placed “as a stone of stumbling and as a rock of offense.”[xvi]


The Second Confession and Duty of the Peterine Ministry (John 21:15-19)

“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you agapao me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love phileo.” He said to him, Pasture my lambs.” He then said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you agapao me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I phileo you.” He said to him, “Pasture my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you phileo me?”   Peter was distressed that He had said to him a third time. “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord you know everything, you know that I phileo you.” [Jesus] said to him, “Shepherd my sheep.” Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted, but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”

The second duty of all men called to the Peterine Ministry is to be the servant, slave, and friend of all creatures of God.  

Indeed, we all should desire to be the first in the Kingdom of God by being the least and always putting the needs of others before our own, but even moreso the Pope lives to be a sacrificial offering. By virtue of the Bishop of Rome being the Church’s most visible and recognizable face on earth, great blessings come when he is also the most visible and recognizable face of Christ Jesus.

This dialogue between our Lord Jesus and St. Peter in sacred Scripture is particularly important to Latin Rite Catholics, not only because of its implication in regards to the Primacy of the Petrine Ministry, but also because of our belief in that one of the fruits of Christ’s love in us is the outpouring of the Spiritual and Corporeal Works of Mercy. Being one of the least prosaic dialogues in all of Scripture translated into English, this conversation between Jesus and Kephas is best discussed in relation to the dynamic variation of three words found in the Greek text (love, feed, and know).

The conversation opens up with Jesus asking Simon Kephas, “Do you love me?” Here He was not asking Peter, ‘Do you love me’ in the same way in which we might ask our spouse or children such a question, but the word for ‘love’ that Christ is using here is related to the Greek word agapao (Given that this conversation between Jesus and Peter more than likely took place in Hebrew or Aramaic, rather than Greek, the word for ‘love’ that was used by them was probably ‘ray-ah’, which is an intense love between friends).

Agapao is the type of love that Jesus charged us all to exercise in the Matthean commission.[xvii] In this way, because it is free and blind, agapao love is thought to be Divine. In sacred Scripture, agapao love is general, obligatory, a duty, a call – it is to love God, neighbor, and self in spite of who or what they are. Neither was Jesus asking this question for the accumulation of mundane knowledge or validation because the risen Lord knew all and did not need any validation from men.

Simon Kephas responds to Jesus’ question, “Do you agapao me?” by telling Him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I phileo you.” The Greek phileo/philos is a different type of love than agapao. Phileo is the love that friends share. It is a love of personal attachment, bonded love, heart-felt, and freely choosing. That is to say that, we can love someone with agapao love without loving them with a philos love, but we cannot love them in philos unless we have first loved them in agapao. Kephas’ choice in words here is not to be taken lightly! Remember, not many days ago Jesus told His Apostles that, “No one has greater agapao than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s philos. You are my philos if you do what I command you”.[xviii] Therefore, when Kephas tells Jesus that he phileos Him, he is essentially telling Him, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I would die for you’ and ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I would do whatever you would command.’

This first confession that he would do what Jesus commands even if it costs him his very life causes Jesus to attach the first condition/cost/responsibility to Simon Peter’s love for Him, which was, “Pasture my lambs” (Most translations of the Greek here use the word ‘feed,’ but the Greek is ‘bosko,’ which means to pasture or feed).

Throughout this dialogue, it must be noted that the charge that Jesus is issuing to Simon Peter is both universal and perpetual. That is, there are no words here to indicate that Jesus is commanding Peter to take charge of His lambs/sheep for just a certain period of time or even until his death. On the contrary, there is every indication here that this command will continue even after Peter meets his temporal end.

By this, we know that the Lord’s command was not just given to the individual man Peter, but was to endure in the successive Petrine Ministry. In addition, note how Jesus repeatedly refers to the lambs and sheep as His own (‘my lambs’ ‘my sheep’). By this, we know that the Petrine Ministry was given charge to tend to all the sheep that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, has laid down his life for (Cf. Jn. 10:1-18).

Christ asked Peter a second time, “Do you agapao me?” and again Peter acquiesced by saying, “Yes, Lord, you know that I phileo you.” In response, the Lord attached a second condition/cost/responsibility to Peter’s love for Him: “Pasture my sheep.” The distinction here is that a lamb is a young sheep. Therefore, up to this point, Jesus has told Peter, ‘ If you would lay down your life for me and do all that I command, then pasture my young and my old’.

The Son of Man then turns to Kephas and asks him the most important question of the day, “Simon, son of John, do you phileo me?” Whereas in the two times prior, Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him as he ought, He now turns Peter’s own words back on himself by asking him whether he would really lay down his life for Him. The text tells us this tri-query was a source of distress for Peter.

Indeed, the future Bishop of Rome should have been distressed because it was not many cocks crowing ago that he had told Jesus to his face, “I will lay down my life for you”[xix]. On that day, Jesus told Peter that he would not lay down his life for him but would deny Him three times.[xx] In contrast, on this day, Peter again says that he will lay down his life for his Master, but instead of refuting his confession, this time, Jesus accepts it.

In his first two answers, the Greek text uses the word eldo for ‘know,’ but in this last confession of Kephas, the Greek changes from eldo to ginosko for ‘know.’ The distinction here seems to be that in the first two confessions, Kephas was saying “Yes, Lord, you can be sure that I phileo you,” which makes perfect sense in the context of his previous unfulfilled prophecy. Peter is efforting here to convince Jesus that he really means his words this time. To add extra emphasis in this last confession, Peter tells Jesus “Yes, Lord, you can be absolutely certain that I phileo you,” [Jesus] said to him, “shepherd my sheep.” Now we see that the third condition to St. Peter’s love for Christ is to shepherd (Most translations of the Greek here use the word ‘feed,’ but the Greek is ‘polmaino’, which means to Shepherd, rule or supervise) the Lord’s mature sheep.

To summarize and paraphrase the entire dialogue, Christ Jesus told Simon Peter that, ‘If you would truly lay down your life for me and do all that I command, then do not just sit in your boat all day and fish, but, rather, become the fisher of men that I taught you to be. Simon, son of Jonah, if you would truly lay down your life for me and do all that I command, then live in me by laying down your life for the same sheep I laid down my life for. Feed my young and rule my old.’ Indeed, what the Lord asked Kephas, He continues to ask each one of His disciples every day. It will not hurt to repeat myself here in saying that, sheep follow their Shepherd, therefore we follow St. Peter and his successors.

““Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted, but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when He had said this, He said to him, “Follow me.”

If we were initially confused as to why the Lord was content in St. Peter pasturing His lambs and sheep, but later was demanding that he shepherd (rule, supervise) His sheep, well it was because we did not read it in the light of the great command, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”.[xxi]

The indwelling of Christ indeed becomes so strong that in that instant, it completely takes us over and leads us where we wouldn’t have otherwise gone, and then we finally understand what His call “Follow me” means. This complete and utter vulnerability to the will of God was obviously understood by nearly all of His Apostles, to the degree that all but one of them suffered even a martyr’s fate for the glory of God. And how did Kephas, in turn, instruct us on these commands from the Lord?

“Tend the flock of God in your midst, [overseeing] not by constraint but willingly, as God would have it, not for shameful profit but eagerly. Do not lord it over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd is revealed, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:2-4).

The Third Confession and Duty of the Peterine Ministry (Luke 22:31-34)

“Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers.” He said to Him, “Lord, I am prepared to go to prison and to die with you.”   But He replied, “I tell you, Peter, before the cock crows this day, you will deny three times that you know me.”

The third duty of all men called to the Peterine Ministry is to be the rock of strength, unity, and support for his brother bishops.  

Since the very beginning, bishops far and near have sought the wisdom and guidance of the Bishop of Rome. Over the past two millennia, this duty of the Pope has only increased by becoming more difficult and more important. Despite the fact that there have been some bishops who have rejected the Peterine Ministry, the Bishop of Rome remains to be their humble servant.   His arms remain wide open and fully extended to them to come back into full communion with the Church of Christ in Rome. Out of the Peterine Ministry the waters of Christian unity flow.

In addition, out of this third duty of the Peterine Ministry, all Christian order, governance, and structure flow. The Church is unified because it is ordered, governed, and structured through, by, and with the Peterine Ministry. It is this order, governance, and structure that flows out of the Peterine Ministry that the first two duties are able to reach all of God’s people.

Regardless of who he thought he was as the time, the Pope was never a king, rather, his office puts him in complete service to The King, of who he is also a friend. Inasmuch as the Peterine Ministry was given only to St. Peter and his successors, the Pope is never completely alone in the dispatch of his duties. Much the opposite; he needs his brother bishops as much as they need his ministry, and when they work together to build up one another and the Church, we are all highly blessed and better off for them doing so.


[i] Mt. 28:16-20.

[ii] Cf. Mk. 16:14-18.

[iii] Cf. Lk. 23:13-49.

[iv] Jn. 20:22-23.

[v] Eph. 2:20; Rev. 21:14.

[vi] Cf. Mt. 28:16-20; Acts 1:8; 1 Cor. 9:1; 15:7-8; Gal 1:1; etc.

[vii] Cf. Acts 2:42.

[viii] Cf. 2 Tim. 1:13-14.

[ix] AG 5.

[x] Acts 2:40-41.

[xi] Cf. Acts. 15:36-41.

[xii] Cf. 2 Tim. 4:11.

[xiii] 2 Cor. 5:14.

[xiv] Cf. Ps. 23; Exo. 34.

[xv] Cf. Eph. 1:22.

[xvi] Translation used from Bercot, David W. editor. A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs. Hendrickson Publishers Inc. Peabody, Massachusetts. 1998. 514. Print.

[xvii] Cf. Mt. 22:36-39.

[xviii] Jn. 15:13-14.

[xix] Jn. 13:35.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Jn. 15:13.

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