Successor of St Peter the Apostle
With the dramatic pronouncement to the chief of the apostles, “You are Peter and on this Rock I will build my Church” (Matthew 16,18-19), Our Lord founded the Church and gave it his own authority to reconcile all people with the Father and save souls for eternal life.
The Church has a supernatural origin, being born “from the side of Christ”, as Saint Augustine describes it, and a supernatural purpose, to save all people for eternal life. This mission is exercised in the sacraments, the preaching of the Gospel and the witness of Christians, who are in relation to the world as yeast is to dough (cfr Matthew 13,33-35).
Yet the Church also has a human structure. That there exists such a structure stands to reason, since Christ’s mission must be carried out in time and history, where human beings operate! The Church teaches that, “In order to shepherd the People of God and to increase its numbers without cease, Christ the Lord set up in his Church a variety of offices which aim at the good of the whole body. The holders of office, who are invested with a sacred power, are in fact dedicated to promoting the interests of their brethren, so that all who belong to the People of God … may attain to salvation” (Lumen gentium 18). The Catechism of the Catholic Church elaborates this point very clearly, indicating in greater detail why the Church needs a hierarchy.
So Our Lord chose Saint Peter and empowered him with supreme authority over the community of believers, the Church (cfr John 21,15-17).
Saint Peter was the first Pope. To him (who is also known as “the Prince of the Apostles”) Our Lord gave two main tasks: the so-called “power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (cfr Matthew 16,19) and the role of strengthening the other apostles, the original bishops (cfr Luke 22,31-32).
The “power of the keys” denotes the authority that Saint Peter was given, by divine mandate, to forgive sins (“binding and loosing”) and, by extension, to teach with authority about right doctrine (the Catholic faith) and about how we should act (morals).
In strengthening the other apostles, Saint Peter acted as a visible sign of unity to the whole community of believers, the Church. Right from the start of the Church’s life, we see how the other bishops deferred to St Peter’s authority on deciding upon important matters (cfr Acts 15,1-35).
The authority of Saint Peter is continued, through the Apostolic Succession, in the ministry of every subsequent Pope. As the Catechism reminds us, “this pastoral office of Peter and the apostles belongs to the Church’s very foundation and is continued by the bishops under the primacy of the Pope”. Every Pope, as Bishop of Rome and successor of Saint Peter, “is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful” (Lumen gentium 23).
Through the Apostolic Succession, then, every Pope has the same authority as that given to Saint Peter. As such, he has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church. The college of bishops, when it acts in unity with the Pope, also has supreme and full authority over the universal Church. Nevertheless, the Pope’s supreme power can always be exercised unhindered.