This Sunday: Popes Are Nothing Without Christ

In this Sunday’s Gospel (the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A), Jesus Christ gives Peter an extraordinary authority, saying “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

It seems disproportionate. Peter is just a man, after all, and a weak one at that. How can he give him this power?

This Sunday’s readings explain how this is possible, and why Peter is the right one to receive it.

Take the first reading, from Isaiah. In it, the Lord explains to Shebna, master of the palace, how fleeting his authority really is.

“I will thrust you from your office and pull you down from your station,” says the Lord. “I will summon my servant Eliakim; … I will clothe him with your robe … and give over to him your authority. … when he opens, no one shall shut.”

These words show the flip side of the authority that Our Lord gives to human beings. He can give the power; he can also take it away. The lesson: The authority given to the servants of God is ultimately God’s authority, not their own.

As easily as Peter is given power, he can lose it.

And not only is his authority God’s, but Peter’s wisdom is God’s too. The second reading explains.

“How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!” St. Paul writes about God. “For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been his counselor? Or who has given the Lord anything that he may be repaid? For from him and through him and for him are all things.”

Not only is all authority ultimately God’s, all truth is his as well. What can Simon Peter add to the perfection of God? Nothing. What can the teachings of Peter add to the Lord’s teaching? Nothing. Is it ever Peter’s place to add or subtract from the truth? Never.

So what is happening in the reading when Peter is given the keys of the Kingdom? Why does Christ say “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” to him?

It is clearer in the context of the story. Remember how it begins. Jesus is asking the disciples who he is.  They aren’t sure, and answer by referring to what they have heard others say.

Only Peter answers with confidence, offering his own answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It is only when he has said this that Peter receives authority, and becomes the first Pope.

Ironically, it is only when Peter admits that he is himself in no way the answer to the world’s problems — Christ is — that Jesus makes him “the rock.” Peter’s theological motto is “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” His charism is to be clueless apart from Christ. This subservience to God is the key to the ministry of Peter.

Yes, Jesus gives remarkable authority to Peter — and his successors, the popes. But what Jesus says of himself remains true through it all: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” And even being a Pope does not change that.

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. His book What Pope Francis Really Said is now available on Audible. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, Hoopes served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.