Catholic Classroom: The First Pope
Question: Who was the first pope?
Today, we have a tendency to take the office of pope as a given. Pope Francis is the Holy Father, the Bishop of Rome, who leads Catholics as the “chief pastor of the whole Church, the Vicar of Christ upon earth.” But where does the office of pope come from, and who first held that title?
We can trace the papacy to scripture. After Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus 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. (Matthew 16:18-19)
With this statement, Jesus firmly establishes Peter as the foundation upon which He will build His Church. Peter is to be the shepherd of the flock after Jesus’s Ascension and to spread the Gospel through the whole world. We see throughout the rest of the New Testament that Peter dutifully takes up this role. He is the first to enter Jesus’s empty tomb after the Resurrection, and he goes on to be first among the disciples and the primary decision maker.
It might be a little surprising that Jesus would choose as the first leader of His Church a person who denied Him three times at the crucial hour. Yet Peter gives us a beautiful example of repentance by moving forward to do the work that God had given him. He was devastated after denying Jesus, but instead of resigning himself to despair, he repented and accepted both God’s mercy and His call to take on an essential role in the establishment of the Church.
Jesus did not choose perfect men to be his apostles, nor did he choose a perfect man in St. Peter to become the first leader of His Church. We, as sinners, are also imperfect, but we can take courage in the fact that God does not choose us for anything of our own merit, but according to His will. He gives us everything we need to do the work to which He has called us. Peter answered the call he received and began an unbroken line of 266 popes that continues to the present. St. Peter, pray for us!