None of what Jesus said or did would have meant anything extraordinary if he had not been the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God. In fact, many of those who do not believe in His divine identity only consider Him to have been, at most, a charismatic leader, with interesting ideas. In His own time, as we know from the Gospel, He was viewed as a heretical upstart by the religious authorities and charged with sedition and treason by the political authorities.
So, the key question about Him, as He Himself knew, was his identity. He had no doubt who He was. He was not asking the disciples to answer the question, “who do you say I am?” because he was tortured by self-doubt. At His baptism and during the Transfiguration, God the Father confirmed publicly to a few chosen witnesses, “This is my Son, the Beloved.” Earlier in His life, when He had reached puberty, Jesus was found in the Temple “doing His Father’s business.”
So, the importance of His question to the disciples is other. It was to do with setting in place the means by which the redemption of the world could be spread throughout the world and continue until He returned in glory. Because if no-one accepted His true identity as the Son of God, the grace of redemption, the Gospel of salvation would not have been known or experienced. We must understand that the death and resurrection of Jesus are the centre of human history. That a human being could conquer death, and rise to a new kind of life which is immortal, transforms the fate of every human being. This is something which has to be known, hence has to be announced, which is what the proclamation of the Gospel is all about. But knowing it is not enough. This new life has to be communicated to our human nature, which is what the sacraments are all about.
For the Gospel to be proclaimed, then, and for the risen life of Christ to be communicated to us in seed form already before we die through the sacraments, Jesus needed to know that there would be those who would do that for Him. He needed people to believe in His divine identity and in the significance of his death and resurrection.
But, of course, what human person could of himself or herself possibly be able to know something as sublime and inaccessible as the divine identity of Jesus? Who can know the mind of the Lord? The disciples themselves, despite having witnessed His miracles and His teaching, were sluggish and petty, as the Gospel itself tells us. Jesus was at times exasperated with them: “How much longer must I put up with you?” he sighed on one occasion. So, Jesus knew that none of them had the ability of themselves to know who He was. How, then, was anyone going to believe in Him?
We get a clue from Our Lady. She was astonished when the Angel sent by the Father told Her she would conceive and that her baby would be divine. Here is what the Angel said: “You are to conceive and bear a son. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” Her sinless heart was afraid but her fear did not stop her asking, “How can this be since I know not a man?” The Angel explains, “the Holy Spirit will come upon you.” This tells us that Our Lady needed to have the divine identity of Her Son revealed to Her: the Father sent an Angel to tell Her. It also tells us that the Holy Spirit, also sent by the Father, was at work in this revelation and in its concrete fulfilment in Her womb.
When it came to asking the disciples, and especially Simon, the polar opposites of Our Lady, to say who He was, Jesus knew for certain that the Father would again send the Spirit to reveal Him. When Peter therefore spoke up and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”, Jesus heard in Peter’s voice the voice of His Father. And so, He replies, “You are a blessed man because flesh and blood did not, could not, reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven.” The joy of Jesus must have been immense! He now knew he had before him the person chosen by His Father and whose faith in Jesus would be the first building block, the rock, of His Church. Peter’s faith, spoken on behalf of the twelve apostles, is the foundation upon which Jesus could begin to build the means through which the Gospel and sacraments would be brought to men and women of all places and times.
It is important to emphasize, though, that Jesus does not call Peter the rock because of his humanity, his flesh and blood. We know that a few moments after calling him Peter, Jesus calls him Satan, because his flesh and blood, his human concern, wanted to prevent Jesus from His passion. Peter is not Simon and Simon is not Peter. The plans of flesh and blood are not the revelation of the Father. And as we sadly know, throughout history the flesh and blood of some of the men who have held Peter’s office have badly scandalized the Church and the world. The man chosen to be Peter must in some way empty himself of himself so as to allow the revelation of the Father and the truth and grace of the Son to shine through. Therein lies the symbolism of the one elected Pope leaving his birth name aside.
What the Church requires of Peter, because such has been his commission from Christ, is that he preserve and hand on faithfully the fullness of the Catholic faith. In preserving it, he defends it against the gates of hell, the power of sin in all its fascination and subtlety. In handing it on, he unfolds more fully the riches of its meaning, saying things in a new way without saying new things. As the Spirit gave him knowledge of Jesus Christ from the start, so Peter is led by the same Spirit towards the fullness of the truth across the centuries until the Truth in person, Jesus Himself, returns. And He will be the same Jesus who was taken up in the clouds at the Ascension, not a different Jesus, not a different Truth, but a Truth more fully known and loved, a Truth whose immeasurable depths will still not have been plumbed by then but whose splendour will have shone out more and more brilliantly in the unfolding of history.
The ministry of Peter, the Pope, the Holy Father, is pivotal to this by the explicit will of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The key of David, the keys of the kingdom of heaven have been given to him. What a privilege! What a responsibility! What a gift for the Church and for humanity! Let us pray for Pope Francis, commending him to St. Peter and all the other saintly Popes of the past, entrusting him to the care and intercession of Her who is the Seat of Wisdom and imploring the Most Blessed Trinity itself to preserve and strengthen him in the faith of the Church and to protect him from the onslaught of the powers and ploys of evil. He needs our prayers!