April 14, 2005
In 533 A.D., a new Pope was elected. His given name was Mercury. It was the name of the pagan god of trade and profit. Hardly suitable for a Pope. So he adopted the name of the martyred John I. By the tenth century, name changes had become common when a man filled the shoes of the fisherman. Down through the centuries, there have been 23 Johns, 16 Gregorys, 15 Benedicts, 14 Clements, 13 Leos, 13 Innocents, 12 Piuses, seven Urbans, and six Pauls. The very first Pope himself had a name change. But it was not by his choice. It was imposed on him.
Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist. Immediately after John pointed to Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, Andrew went to Jesus to discover for himself who Jesus was. The very next day, he brought his brother to Jesus. This is true evangelization. A personal encounter with Jesus always spills over into bringing others to the Lord. “Jesus looked hard at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John; you are to be called Cephas’—meaning Rock” (Jn 1:42).
Names are important. Changing a name, significant. When God makes a covenant with Abram and promises to make him the father of nations, he changes his name to Abraham (Gen 17:1-22). Jacob’s name becomes Israel, for this patriarch embodies the centuries-long struggle that God’s chosen people endure in bearing His blessings to the world (Gen 32:23-32). God takes special care in giving the Baptist his name. Not the father, but the angel makes the choice. “Your wife Elizabeth is to bear a son and you must name him John"(Lk 1:14). With a sense of humor, Jesus even nicknames James and John “Boanerges” or “sons of thunder” (Mk 3:17). But it is with utter seriousness that he renames Simon Peter.
Kephas) comes from the Greek translation of the Aramaic
kepha or rock. In the Old Testament, the metaphor of a "rock" (Hebrew:
kepha) is applied to Abraham. He is the foundation from which the chosen people have been hewn as stones cut from a quarry (Isaiah 51:1-2). But it is God who is called rock again and again. God is the source of strength and protection for his people. The psalmist prays, “The Lord is my rock and my fortress’ (Ps 18:2). No one else. As rock, God is our salvation (Ps 62:2.6.7). Interesting to note, in the ancient world, Rock was never used as proper name. Jesus is the first to use
Kephas or Rock as a proper name. Jesus is beginning a new era in the history of salvation. He is forming a new people.
The new and unusual name Peter given to Simon has meaning. But so does the place where Jesus solemnly confers this name on him. The storm clouds are gathering around the ministry of Jesus. Jesus knows that his enemies are arrayed against him. He knows that his mission will end in the cross. So he withdraws with his disciples to the north of Galilee. He wants time alone with those who will carry on his work. How important it is to take time away from our normal work to reflect on and to deepen our understanding of our mission in life.
They come to Caesarea Philippi. Philip the Tetrarch built this city. He named it in honor of Caesar Augustus, who had died in A.D. 14. The city no longer exists. But, near the small Arab town of Banias, ruins recall its past. The remnants of fourteen temples to the Baal, the Canaanite god of fertility, were unearthed in this area (cf Jos 11:17; 12:7). Here a grotto claimed to be the birthplace of Pan, the Greek god of nature. Here Caesar received the homage due only to divinity. As Jesus and his disciples approach Caesarea Philippi, the ancient gods of Canaan, Greece and Rome watch. In this same place, among the southern foothills of Mount Hermon, the River Jordan takes its origins. No Jew sees that river without remembering the great things God had done for His people in bringing them to the Promised Land.
The choice of place is deliberate. Against the competing claims of false religions, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mt 16:14). In continuity with God’s revelation to the Chosen People, Peter confesses, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:15). Jesus responds with the solemn conferral of a new name. He promises a new mission. “You are Peter and upon this rock, I will build my Church"(Mt 16:18). The others understand what is taking place. The very location shouts to them of the importance of this moment. The old faiths fade away. The new emerges. Jesus has singled out Peter. He is to have a role in the foundation of the Church not given to another. As the foundation stone gives stability to a building, Peter is to give stability and strength to the Church. Jesus is choosing a living person to be the visible source of unity in the Church.
The New Testament itself gives witness to the primacy of Peter. In every list of the apostles, Peter is always named first (Matt. 10:1-4, Mark 3:16-19, Luke 6:14-16, Acts 1:13). In fact, in the earliest tradition we have about the appearances of the Risen Lord, it is to Peter, not Mary Magdalene that Jesus first appears (1 Cor 15:3-8). Peter had failed. He had denied Jesus three times. Perhaps the recollection of this appearance of Jesus to Peter accounts for the authority that Peter immediately exercises among the others.
Peter is the first to show leadership after the Ascension. He calls for the election of someone to take the place of Judas among the Twelve (Acts 1:15-26). He is the first to speak publicly. On Pentecost, he stands before thousands to preach the gospel and to explain the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:14-40). The rest of the New Testament calls Peter by his new name. James and John remain James and John, not Boanerges.
When the new Vicar of Christ greets the world on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, no doubt he will meet us with a new name. The name could very well indicate something of the direction he will set for the Church. In 1958, Angelo Roncalli took the name of John XXIII. A surprise. No Pope had used that name in centuries. The last was an antipope. John XXIII truly surprised the world when he called for the Second Vatican Council to re-form the Church according to its New Testament image. In 1963, Giovanni Battista Montini took the name of Paul VI. The last pope with the name Paul was in the period immediately after the Council of Trent in 1605. Choosing a biblical name and one attached to a great council, Paul VI signaled his desire to reconvene Vatican II and to carry forward the work of the Council.
Will the new Pope take a name that heralds continuity with his predecessor? Will his name signal to us a concern for social teaching, an insistence on moral teaching, an outreach to other religions, an emphasis on evangelization? Any name, like the choice of the man himself, will be a surprise. But there will be no surprise that he will be Peter, the rock on whom the Lord builds his Church in our day.