I was originally thinking of writing a general overview of the history of the papacy this week, but I decided that was too much for one post, so for now I’m just going to stick to the first person regarded by Catholic tradition to have held the office of Bishop of Rome. This was none other than St. Peter, leader of the apostles. As with all of the apostles, we know very little about him for sure, but there are a lot of apocryphal stories told about him. As leader of the apostles, though, he’s more prominent in the Gospels than most of the others, and Paul actually mentions him a few times. Based on what we’re told in the Gospels, he and his brother Andrew were fishermen from Galilee, who were called by Jesus to be disciples.
There’s a mention of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law, so if this is accurate, he must have been married. His original name was Simon, but after he recognized Jesus as the Messiah, his master identified Simon as the rock on which he would build his church. Therefore, Jesus gave Simon the name Cephas, meaning “rock,” of which Peter was the Greek equivalent. Why Jesus seemingly held Peter in such high regard at this point when he called him “Satan” at other times isn’t really clear, and there’s no real indication that Peter was his favorite. For instance, the mentions of “the disciple Jesus loved” in the Gospel of John were not referring to him. Still, Peter must have had some leadership skills, and he became a prominent figure in the early Christian community, although he quite likely had a subordinate role to Jesus’ brother James.
That Peter ever went to Rome, let alone established a church there, is not known for sure. The Catholic belief is that he did, however, and met his death being crucified upside down during Nero’s persecution of Christians. He was then buried at the site where St. Peter’s Basilica was later built.
I believe that bones found in this area have indeed been dated to the first century, but it can’t be confirmed that any of them are those of the apostle. Not surprisingly, there are other ideas as to where Peter’s remains might be. Lists of the popes refer to his successor as Linus, but the only indications that Linus actually even existed come from some time later.
It’s been suggested that he might be the same as the Linus mentioned in 2 Timothy, but even the Catholic Church admits that there isn’t much evidence for this. I also couldn’t say whether there’s any connection between this supposed pope and the kid with the blanket.
Another early tradition had Peter immediately succeeded as Bishop of Rome by Clement I, about whom much more is known.
Presumably based on the passage in which Jesus says Peter will be the keeper of the keys to the kingdom, the saint has taken on a role in popular culture. It’s rare to see a depiction of the gates of Heaven without St. Peter hanging out there and deciding who will be admitted.
In more recent portrayals, he sometimes even has a computer. I can only assume Peter’s being on permanent guard duty is Jesus’ revenge for the apostle denying him three times.