This commentary first appeared in The Northern Cross, the diocesan newspaper of Duluth, Minnesota in February 2010.
Father Richard Kunst:
February 22 is a liturgical feast day that I am particularly fond of: the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter. It is a feast that commemorates the teaching authority of the pope, the Vicar of Christ.
There is so much that can be written about the papacy and our understanding of Christ’s special representative on earth, but for me one of the most inspiring views of the chief shepherd of the Catholic Church comes from the scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments.
It might surprise some readers to think that the Old Testament has anything to do with the papacy. We commonly think of the Old Testament as just the stuff that happened before Jesus, that the Old Testament is the Jewish book and the New Testament is the Christian book.
In reality, the Old Testament is a Christian book since, from the Christian perspective, it was written to prepare us for the coming of Jesus Christ. If we did not have the Old Testament, we would never have been able to identify Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah.
With this in mind, we have to realize that Christ did not come into existence 2,000 years ago when Jesus was born. Jesus Christ is God the Son, the second Person of the Trinity. He has always been. So if God the Son has always been and the Old Testament’s purpose was to prepare us for his coming, then God the Son has to be active in the Old Testament.
God the Son is in the Old Testament in what theologians refer to as “types” of Christ. God the Son shows up in different forms, for example in the pillar of cloud that led the chosen people through the desert to the Promised Land.
Another type of Christ is the bronze serpent that God commands Moses to make after the people were bitten by serpents. God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole so that anyone who had been bitten could look at the serpent and he would be healed. The serpent is a type of the crucified Christ.
Another one of the many types of Christ in the Old Testament, again during the Exodus event, was when the Hebrews were dying of thirst. Moses struck the rock. After doing so, water flowed out to save the people from death. The rock was a type of Christ, and so thereafter throughout the Old Testament God is often called the Rock, the saving Rock.
Now fast-forward 1,800 years from the Exodus to Jesus. Jesus sends out the Twelve two by two to spread the word that the Kingdom of God is at hand. When they come back, Jesus takes a poll as to what the people are saying about him. The answer? Some people think he is the Baptist come back from the dead, others think he is Elijah come down from heaven or one of the other prophets. Then Jesus puts them on the spot and says, “OK, Apostles, but who do you say that I am?” Simon answers, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). What Jesus then says to Simon is crucial: “Blessed are you, Simon, son of John, for no mere man has revealed this to you but my Heavenly Father, and so I say to you, you are Peter (Kepha, Petros, Rock), and upon this ROCK I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:17-18).
Do you see what is happening? In the Old Testament, God the Son was represented as a Rock. The Rock that was struck by Moses so as to save the Hebrews was a type of Christ. Now God the Son in the flesh inverses the sign and points to Peter and says: “You now are the Rock, the new type of Christ; you will be my representative and my church will be built upon you as Rock.”
The Gospel scene in the 16th chapter of Matthew is all about the birth of the papacy as the new type and representative of Christ. This is why the pope is so central to who we are as Christians. He is the new Rock, and where the pope is, there is the church, the Body of Christ. Every time we see him on TV or read about him in magazines or the newspaper, our hearts and souls should churn with love for God. We should hang on every word the Holy Father speaks because he is speaking for the Rock who saved Israel; he is speaking for Christ, God the Son.