The primacy of the successor of Peter in the mystery of the church
At this moment in the Church’s life, the question of the primacy of Peter and of his Successors has exceptional importance as well as ecumenical significance. John Paul II has frequently spoken of this, particularly in the Encyclical UT UNUM SINT, in which he extended an invitation especially to pastors and theologians to find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation. (Ut Unum Sint, 25 May 1995, n. 95).
Origin, purpose and nature of the primacy
First Simon, who is called Peter (Mt. 10:2). With this significant emphasis on the primacy of Simon Peter, St Matthew inserts in his Gospel the list of the Twelve Apostles, which also begins with the name of Simon in the other two synoptic Gospels and in Acts (Mk 3:16; Lk 6:14; Acts 1:13). These Gospel passages show clearly and simply that the New Testament canon received what Christ said about Peter and his role in the group of the Twelve. Thus, in the early Christian communities, as later throughout the Church, the image of Peter remained fixed as that of the Apostle who, despite his human weakness, was expressly assigned by Christ to the first place among the Twelve and was called to exercise a distinctive, specific task in the Church. He is the rock on which Christ will build his Church. (Mt. 16:18); he is the one whose faith will not fail and who will strengthen his brethren ((Lk 22:32); lastly, he is the shepherd who will lead the whole community of the Lords disciples. (Jn 21:15-16).
From the beginning and with increasing clarity, the Church has understood that, just as there is a succession of the Apostles in the ministry of Bishops, so too the ministry of unity entrusted to Peter belongs to the permanent structure of Christ’s Church and that this succession is established in the see of his martyrdom, Rome.
On the basis of the New Testament witness, the Catholic Church teaches, as a doctrine of faith, that the bishop of Rome is the Successor of Peter in his service in the Universal Church. (Second Vatican Council, Dogm. Const. Lumen Gentium, Chap. 111, nn.21-23; Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 882).
The primacy is the office that was given individually by the Lord to Peter, to be handed on to his successors. The purpose of it is the unity of faith and communion of all believers. The Bishop of Rome is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity both of the Bishops and of the faithful. (Lumen Gentium, n. 20-23). The Bishop of Rome is a member of the College of Bishops, and the Bishops are his brothers in the ministry. (Ut Unum Sint, n. 95).
The Exercise of the primacy and its forms
The exercise of the Petrine ministry must be understood on the basis of the Gospel. The Bishop of Rome like all the faithful is subject to the Word of God, to the Catholic faith, and is the guarantor of the Church’s obedience; in this sense he is servus servorum Dei. He does not make arbitrary decisions, but is the rock which guarantees a rigorous fidelity to the Word of God against arbitrariness and conformism.
The characteristics of exercising the primacy must be understood primarily on the basis of two fundamental premises:
The unity of the episcopacy;
The Episcopal nature of the primacy itself.
Since the episcopacy is one and undivided the primacy of the Bishop of Rome implies the authority to serve effectively the unity of all the Bishops and all the faithful. This authority is exercised on various levels, including vigilance over the handing down of the Word, the celebration of the Liturgy and the Sacraments, the Church’s mission, discipline and Christian life.
The unity of the Church reaches its highest expression in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, which is the centre and root of ecclesial communion. This communion is also necessarily based on the unity of the Episcopate. Therefore, every celebration of the Eucharist is performed in union not only with the proper Bishop, but also with the Bishop of Rome, with the Episcopal order, with all the clergy, and with the entire people. Every valid celebration of the Eucharist expresses this universal communion with the whole Church.
The Armenian Fathers’ testimonies about the primacy of the Bishop of Rome
St. Gregroy the Illuminator and other Fathers of the Armenian Church have left admirable testimonies about the Catholic faith. In the writings of Agatangelos, our historian of the 4th century, we read the following words which are attributed to St. Gregory the Illuminator: Our beneficent Lord and Redeemer, Son of God, asked who men said the son of man was. When they (the apostles) had replied, he continued: but you, who do you say that I am? The first among them, Peter responded: Thou art the Son of the living God. This why he was declared blessed. Blessed are you, son of Jonas, he said, because thou hast not received this knowledge from thy parents, nor from thy people, nor from men, but the Father has revealed it to thee. And He made him the rock of stability of all the Churches. (Agatangelos, Venice, p. 339-340)
In the Hadjakhabadoum (collection of sermons, p. 163), St. Gregory the Illuminator says again: In the Gospel the Lord says to Peter: Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, that is, the people believing in God, and the gates of hell will be considered truly holy and just in heaven, and the evil and unjust who thou whilst have bound upon earth, will be bound in heaven to undergo chastisements.
St. Sahak (4th century), in his turn furnishes an eloquent testimony in his Book of the Canons. These are his words: One sole Lord, one sole faith, one sole baptism: and whoever wishes to say that they are many wishes evidently to say that the faith is multiple. The Law of God does not teach us of a church made of stones and wood, but it shows us the human race founded by the faith upon the rock of stability. Therefore, the true faith is the Church which gathers us together and amalgamates us in the unity of the knowledge of the Son of God. The Vivificator in person teaches us this in saying to Peter: Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against thee. What should one understand by rock? Will it be a piece of stone? By no means, but he will be a rational man, head of the Apostolic College, who, because of having believed and confessed with an unshakable faith Christ the Son of God, was proclaimed blessed and was named Peter (rock). Therefore, those who have been built upon him are not stones, but men participating in his faith
St. Eghishe (Fifth century). The Following passages are taken from sermons on various occasions.
What are you saying, my Lord Peter, you are sitting on the shore and worrying about the sea, you are preparing your boat. Let’s go, you say, fishing. Do you see that by saying so you are training the other Apostles to do the same and they must follow you? Because feet take you wherever the brain wills, and the brain is in the head, and you are the head of the disciples.
Now, therefore, one is the flock and one is the shepherd, one is the pasture and one is the keeper of all. There are the lambs and the sheep and the multitude whom he called the flock, above all the Apostles: all these he entrusted to Peter, and those who collaborated with them in their preaching, all of them are holy and divine lambs.
This passage, paraphrasing the words of the Lord addressed to Peter, illustrates a beautiful ecclesiology, developed in the true spirit of the divine call that encompasses all mankind, from the very beginning till the end of time:
Shepherd, he says, thus, innocents and sinners, even those who will put you to death. Shepherd, he said, and do not be afraid, just as I came to save and renew in life everyone, the evil and the good, so that they may become one flock under the only care of the only shepherd; so that they may listen to his voice, follow his steps, and receive the same life, and thus become cleansed lambs, not untamed, wild and destructive. Even if someone will run from the reach of your shepherding staff, and will turn against your truthful gospel, do not be afraid, take courage and strength, fight even to death, through which you will glorify me. ( Ibidem, p. 361).
Khosrow, Bishop of Antzevatsik (Tenth century). Pastoral care of his flock prompted Khosrow to write commentaries on the Order of Public Prayer and on the [Divine Liturgy]. The following quotations are from his Commentary on the Order of Public Prayer.
Not only did he make Peter stand after his fall -the denial- but he made him head of the Apostles, foundation of the Church, gate keeper of the kingdom he prepared for him. (Ibidem, p.377)
What kind of a person was the head of the Apostles, Peter, keeper of the heavenly kingdom? He received not from men, nor from angels the knowledge about the Son, but from the Father of light, and justly was, awarded the beatitude from the Lord. He could say without restraint “We left everything and we followed you.” And in return he received the ruler’s throne, was named Rock by the lord and was set as the foundation of the Church. He was enflamed with pious desire and love toward Christ, and always yearned for the coming of God. (p. 377)
St. Gregory of Nareg(c. 950 – c.1010) articulated a marvelous and insightful ecclesiology and it is in that context that we must read his understanding of Peter’s primacy.
And his (Jesus Christ) companion of yoke (Cross) and of destiny
The first one, preceding all others and most honoured,
The foundation rock and cornerstone,
The renowned stone beautifully inscribed with the sevenfold confession,
In the measure -begun and to be fulfilled-
Of sacramental time in this age,
And adorned with glory,
By the lips of the giver of life,
Made alert and wise
By the beneficence of the Father most high.
Docile in the correct confession
Of the Spirit’s intellection,
He saw the timeless cause
Of the inscrutable birth,
And deservedly 127 was augmented
By the words of the uncreated:
“Blessed are you Simon, scion 128 of Jonah.”
And through him,
To those who hold his same covenant and office,
Was announced the same blessing
From the voice -indescribable gift-
Of the creator. (The Teaching of the Armenian Fathers, p. 385).
St. Nerses Shnorhali (1102-1173) proclaimed this very same Apostolic preaching in its integrity and genuine beauty. The obvious place to begin is his Commentary on Matthew.
Expounding on Peter’s response to his Master’s question, he writes:
Simon the head took the initiative in answering about the theology of the Head, so that no one else might say stupidly what is unfitting and leave an evil memory in this world. Indeed this was the very beginning of things to come and what was going to be said then would endure as constitution and canon to those who followed. This is the reason why the disciple of truth spoke the truth saying: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” (Teaching of the Armenian Fathers, p. 389).
Four points are stated in Christ’s investiture, explains Shnorhali. (Ibidem, p. 391-392). The first is Christ the Lord shows himself equal to the Father: “As the Father granted you to know me, similarly I constitute you Rock of the faith,” Secondly, “I shall build my Church on your confession of faith,” The Church, not only the physical building, but the one built from many peoples on the unity of faith as foundation, that is the Lord, and his Apostles. Thirdly, the power of evil -expressed by the image ‘gates of the underworld’-, that is temptations, shall never move this faith, “as the swells of the sea can not move the rock.” Shnorhali exclaims: “Look at the power of the Lord! He made a fisherman harder and firmer than all rocks! Even if the whole world will attack him he will not move.” Fourth, Christ promises to his Apostles the gifts granted to the prophets: the Father had said to Jeremiah “I put you as a pillar of iron, and as a wall of bronze” (Jer. 1:18). for his people; and the Son constitutes Peter the same for the entire world.
Shnorhali concludes with these words, “He elevated Peter to extremely high honour, because the disciple understood the highest things about Him and revealed His person to be the Son of God and promised him authority that belongs only to God, namely
remitting sins and keeping the Church unshakable through all the swells
breaking on her” (Ibidem, p. 391-392).
In his letter to Emperor Manuel of Byzantium the great Catholicos states:
We learned, in addition, that the holy and first among chief bishops the Patriarch of Rome, the successor of Peter the Apostle sent learned persons to your royal person to discuss the union in faith.
Shnorhali proclaims the Primacy of Peter eloquently in works that do not necessarily treat ecclesiology, The following passage is from Elegy on Edessa written after the fall of the city into the hands of the Saracens in 1144 AD.
And you Rome, Mother of cities, illustrious and honourable
See of Peter the Great, head of the Apostles
Unshakable Church, built with Kephas the rock,
Invincible against the gates of hell,
Opener of the heavenly seals! (Ibidem, p. 403).
St. Nerses of Lambron (1153-1198 or 1199, July 14) was Archbishop of Tarsus, Greeks and Latins considered him worthy of the name Second Paul.
He composed the monumental Commentary on the Divine Liturgy in 1176-1177 from which we quote the following passage:
We were taught that you; Peter, are second after Christ. You became head of us, disciples, after the Head. He made you the foundation of this temple and immovable rock for all of us. He gave to you lambs and sheep to shepherd after receiving the pledge of your love. Help us solve our doubts, we ask you. Go back and study the words you read and you will be confirmed, if you will believe to the last, you will be convinced. What did Christ ask me? Remember again. Did he not ask me first if I loved him? He asked it twice. He asked it three times. Not for nothing, brothers, he entrusted me with shepherding the flock after securing my love through my confession. And when he entrusted, didn’t he say ‘Peter shepherd my sheep’ I give you to feed not to inherit, to take pastoral care and not to dominate like a tyrant’. (Teaching of the Armenian Fathers, p. 417)
Sarkis Shnorhali (Twelfth century) received his education in Garmir (Red) monastery on Sev (Black) Mountain. He was a classmate of Nerses Shnorhali. He embraced the monastic life and composed commentaries imbued with the style and techniques of St. John Chrysostom.
The following passage is taken from the Commentary on the Apostolic Letters (non Pauline):
And when I say Peter, who do I talk about? About the one who was called the Rock and was set as foundation of the Church. The one who lovedChrist very much. About the one who was appointed to close and open the door of heaven. About the one whose hands poured the foundations of the Church of Antioch and of Rome, the jewel of the Universe. (Ibidem, p. 426).
In the following passage the influence of Chrysostom’s 32nd Homily on the Epistle to the Romans is evident:
Peter (…) who was called Rock and was set as the foundation of the Church. The gates of the underworld never overpowered him. He was not rejected as the foundation of the Church and did not lose the spirit of apostleship. Peter preached the gospel in Jerusalem, in Samaria, in Palestine, in Antioch, and Mesopotamia, in Rome, in Spain and in distant islands. I wish to see your holy head, that became the head of the Church and received the Head of us all, and embrace it. I wish to see the heart that was so large and wide to care for all the Churches. I beg you, honourable Father, head and leader and apostle and overseer of the New Covenant and us the people. Entrust to the Lord to the Word the common fulfilment of our Church, so that everyone may stand firm on the foundation of your confession, Open to us the closed doors of Heaven! (Ibidem, p. 429-30).
John of Erznga (c. 1250-1325) was a renowned teacher of his day; He is the author of devotional and didactic works, vernacular poetry, hymns and a treatise on the motions of heavenly bodies. In 1280 he prepared the Rule of the Monastery of St. Gregory in Erznca.
The following passage is taken from his Commentary on Matthew:
Although all the Apostles were leaders, he appointed Peter their head, and not only theirs but also he elected him to shepherd the lambs and sheep and rams. There is a primacy of order and there is one of power, and he has both. (p. 429)
John of Orodan (1315-1388). This understanding of the Primacy of Peter is accepted even by authorities who developed acerbic exchanges with Armenian Dominicans established in Nakhichevan from the early fourteenth century. John of Orodan was the headmaster of the School of Datev. In his Book of Sermons he says this: “Christ is the only head of believers (…) and he gave this office to Peter when he said You shall be called Kephas’ that is head.”
Testimony from the Order of Public Prayer of the Armenian Church
A Church that professes the true faith received from the Apostolic Preaching prays in the same spirit of truth and integrity. The daily prayers of the Armenian Church, its ancient hymns and beautiful songs celebrate the precious gift of God’s Gospel.
Creator of all creatures from nothing,
Similarly you the Rock, created your Church
On the words of the Rock.
On the foundation poured in New Zion
Build us a Church in union. (Morning song by St. Nerses Shnorhali)
The following lines are taken from the Midnight Hymn of the feast of Peter and Paul:
Rejoice today Church of God
In the memory of the holy Apostles,
Founded on the faith of the Rock,
And adorned in the glory of the Incarnate Word.
You confessed, through the revelation of the Father,
The essence of the indescribable Only Begotten,
And deserved the grace to be called blessed
Rock indestructible from the gates of hell.”
You called the blessed Peter
To be supreme among the chosen Apostles,
Head of the holy faith,
Foundation of the Church.
The Armenian Church prays during the Easter season:
Today the Rock of faith and beloved John
Against all 147 ran to the tomb of the risen,
They proclaimed what they saw
Christ is risen from the dead.
The Miserere of the Second Sunday after Pentecost says:
Give life to your servant,
Whom you honoured from the See of Rome,
Where was placed the Rock of faith,
Foundation of the Church.