A papal visit like next week’s trip to the U.S. by Benedict XVI is an opportunity not only to check out the current occupant of the Chair of St. Peter, but also to learn more about the 2,000-year history of the papacy and the Catholic Church. To help us do this, author Christopher Bellitto, an assistant professor of history at Kean University and one of the foremost authorities on church lore, and his publisher, Paulist Press, have agreed to let us cite 10 examples–one each for the next 10 days–from his new book, “101 Questions on Popes and the Papacy.” (Click here for more information on the book.)
So let’s start with the basics: No. 1: “Was Peter the first pope?”

Yes, but not in the way modern readers might think. Jesus selected Peter from among his twelve disciples and set him apart in a leadership position that, over the course of time, came to be called “pope,” with the bureaucracy behind him eventually being called “the papacy.” Peter was a “first” of some kind, a person set apart from the others. He is the man tradition says led the Christian community in the city of Rome—the center of the Roman Empire—and was martyred there, probably around the year 64 in a wave of persecutions under the emperor Nero. But Peter did not wear a white cassock, celebrate Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, run the Vatican, write encyclicals, or name cardinals.
Because this is a key question for history and theology, we must spend some time with the scriptural precedents for saying that Peter was the first pope. These passages will be debated, interpreted and reinterpreted, and used as foundations and criticism during much of the church’s life that followed Jesus and Peter. Some will say these passages point to Peter as “the first pope”—if only in a very rudimentary way—and others will say these passages point to Peter as a kind of “first among equals,” just a spokesman, a shared decision maker, or a presider among others.

Matthew 16:18-19 provides the absolutely essential moment. These verses follow a scene where Jesus asks his followers who people say he is. Some say John the Baptist or prophets like Elijah or Jeremiah. Jesus presses his closest disciples to answer the question. Peter responds that Jesus is, indeed, the Messiah and the Son of God. Jesus praises Peter and then says: “And I tell you, you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” So important are these words that a condensed form of these two verses in Latin is inscribed in huge letters in the dome above the high altar in St. Peter’s Basilica.
The other critical passage that sets Peter apart is John 21:15-17. Here, the resurrected Jesus takes Peter aside and asks him three times if Peter loves him —this is after Peter denied knowing Jesus three times on the night during Holy Week now called Holy (or Maundy) Thursday. Three times Peter says yes, and Jesus tells him to feed his sheep and lambs. As this gospel paints the scene, Peter and Jesus are physically standing apart from the others. Jesus gives this special charge to Peter directly and individually.
Similarly, in the scenes in Acts of the Apostles right after Pentecost (see, for instance, chapters 2-4), Peter is playing a leading role and is often the first to speak up, to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection, and to say that miracles are taking place in Jesus’ name and not by human authority. The other disciples are present—preaching, teaching, and performing miracles—but Peter seems to have taken the lead.
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