Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Thursday, March 17, 2005

Peter and the See of Rome 

A Protestant but Catholic-curious reader writes:
Here's one question that seems to nag me: If Peter was at one time the bishop of Antioch (according to Eusebius), then why isn't the bishop of Antioch considered to be a successor of Peter just as the Roman bishop is?

It seems to me, as I look at the sources, that neither Peter or Paul were bishops in any modern sense, that the monarchial episcopacy developed in the early 2nd century, but that Peter and Paul did both die together in Rome and no doubt poured their teaching into that church.
There are two clearly separate questions here. The second I will answer later on. The first raises the age-old question of the connection between Peter and the Petrine See (i.e., Rome). I say 'age-old question', but in fact it was not really a question for the early Church. It was not Peter's short-term episcopal stint in northern Syria, but the fabulous and horrific spectacle of his bloody martyrdom in the Eternal City, which was blazoned on the imaginations of his contemporaries. From the moment of his death, his tomb and relics were venerated there. One of Peter's successors there, Clement, writing still within the first century, boasts of Peter's glorious martyrdom in his own city. Irenaeus, writing not much later, speaks of the Church in Rome being "founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul."

Similarly, the Fathers speak habitually of Peter handing on his office, not to the bishops of Antioch, but to his successors in Rome:
"The blessed apostles [Peter and Paul], having founded and built up the church [of Rome] . . . handed over the office of the episcopate to Linus" (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3:3:3)

"[T]his is the way in which the apostolic churches transmit their lists: . . . like the church of the Romans, where Clement was ordained by Peter" (Tertullian, Demurrer Against the Heretics 32:2).

"Linus, whom he mentions in the Second Epistle to Timothy as his companion at Rome, was Peter's successor in the episcopate of the church there" (Eusebius, Church History 3:4:9-10).

"For what we have heard from the blessed apostle Peter, these things I signify to you" (Bishop Julius of Rome, Letter on Behalf of Athanasius).
This would mean little except that we have not a single claim of this sort, in all of our historical documents, made by any bishop of Antioch. If the bishop of Antioch believed that he had any sort of claim to the succession of Peter, would he not have objected to the claims made above, or at least voiced similar ones himself?

This does not really answer the question put to me, of course. I have shown only that the early Church was unanimous in considering the bishop of Rome, and only the bishop of Rome, as the successor to Peter. I have not shown why this is the case, which is, I believe, the question at hand. And I can't really supply an answer to this, because the only answer the early texts give us, is that Peter was martyred in Rome, and that the shedding of his blood in Rome somehow consecrates that city perpetually as his See. I cannot explain this claim (which is enigmatic precisely because of its theological potency, not its theological groundlessness) except to say that all of Peter's contemporaries voice it and accept it, seemingly to a man, and thus it became locked in the minds of churchmen for generations, and eventually accepted as dogma by the Church herself (at the first Vatican Council).

There was certainly no eternal mandate which connected Peter to Rome. It is only the 'divine plan' of human history which brought about the events leading to this mystical connection. In the words of the current holder of that office, John Paul II:
In truth, Jesus did not specify the role of Rome in Peter's succession. Doubtless he wanted Peter to have successors, but the New Testament does not state his specific desire to choose Rome as the primatial See. He preferred to entrust that to historical events in which the divine plan for the Church, the determination of the concrete conditions of Peter's succession, would appear.

The decisive historical event is that the fisherman of Bethsaida came to Rome and suffered martyrdom in this city. This fact is rich in theological significance, because it shows the mystery of the divine plan which arranges the course of human events to serve the Church's beginnings and development.

*UPDATE*: I encourage you to visit the reader's own blog. He has asked for the thoughts and input of my readers.

# posted by Jamie : 10:20 AM


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Ad Limina Apostolorum: An ecclesiastical term meaning a pilgrimage to the sepulchres of St. Peter and St. Paul at Rome, i.e., to the Basilica of the Prince of the Apostles and to the Basilica of St. Paul "outside the walls".

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