St. Peter is the most important of the 12 apostles, the very first Pope and, according to tradition, the guardian of the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Both St. Peter’s Basilica and the square on which it stands are named after him.
His original name was Shimon (Simon), and was renamed Kepha, Hebrew for Peter, by Jesus Christ.
Encounter with Jesus
Peter lived in the small fishing village of Capernaum, on the banks of the Sea of Galillee, where he worked as a fisherman along with his brother, Andrew. Here, Jesus saw the two brothers as they cast their nets into the sea, and called them to follow him and become “fishers of men”.
In the Scriptures Peter is mentioned as the first apostle. As he was neither the eldest of the twelve, nor the first to receive the Messiah’s call, it is assumed that this primacy was a reference to his level of authority.
In the Gospels, Saint Peter often speaks on behalf of all the apostles. He is one of the three privileged disciples (along with John and James) to witness the transfiguration, and to be brought to the Garden at Gethsemane by Jesus the evening of his arrest. On that occasion, in an attempt to defend his Master, he wounds one of the servants of the high priest. It is over the course of that night that the first Apostle denies that he is one of Jesus’ disciples on three different occasions, thus fulfilling the Master’s prophecy, stating that Peter’s fear would have proved stronger than his faith.
The Primacy of Peter
While Peter’s position of pre-eminence among the Apostles (known as the primacy of Peter) is acknowledged by most Christian denominations, the papal primacy is recognised only by Catholics.
According to the papal primacy, Jesus Christ entrusted Peter with the mission of founding his Church. Therefore, as heirs of the first Apostle, subsequent Bishops of Rome have authority delegated from Jesus to guide the flock of Christ, and rule over the entire Church. It is this divine investiture that determines their supremacy over other Bishops throughout the Church.
The basis for the Catholic primacy of Peter comes from certain episodes of the New Testament. Among these, one of the most important and debated passages comes from the Gospel of Mathew in which Jesus says: “And I say also unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church”. Another source indicating Peter’s supremacy can be found in John 21:15-17 where, following his resurrection, Jesus forgives Peter for denying him and entrusts him with the leadership of the Church, telling him to “feed my sheep […] feed my lambs”.
Saint Peter in Rome
Following the ascension of Christ, Peter led the apostles, and it was not long before he performed his first miracle; healing a cripple who was begging for alms at the Temple gate. He was arrested three times by the Jewish authorities but was always released; according to the scriptures, on two of those occasions his release was due to the intervention of an angel. He was the first to baptize a gentile, the Roman centurion Cornelius.
He later left Judea and became the leader of the Christian community of Antioch.
Saint Peter continued to preach all the way to the capital of the Roman Empire. According to Catholic tradition, he became the first Bishop of Rome and, therefore, the first Pope; representing God on Earth. While there is no definite date regarding the his arrival in Rome, his death is placed between 64 and 67 A.D., during Emperor Nero’s persecution of the Christians. The most commonly accepted church tradition is that Peter was crucified upside down, at his own request, as he felt himself to be unworthy to be put to death in the same position as his Master.
Where is Saint Peter’s Tomb?
For the Romans, burial was an inviolable right, regardless of religion. Christians were no exception to this, even during Nero’s persecution.
Peter’s body was therefore entrusted to his followers and buried in a predominantly pagan cemetery on the Vatican Hill, near the location of his execution; a necropolis that was only discovered under St. Peter’s Basilica thanks to the excavations that started in 1939. That same area was then chosen by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century A.D. to be the site of the Basilica dedicated to Saint Peter, specifically due to the presence of the Apostle’s tomb.
The excavations, that continued until 1949, revealed a 2nd century aedicule resting on a red plastered wall. Scholars identified it as a funerary monument, located on top of the tomb of the Saint. Next to it, on what is known as the “Graffiti wall”, the inscription «Petros eni» or «Peter is here» was discovered.
The remains of Saint Peter were searched for under the aedicule, but nothing was found. In 1952 the archaeologist Margherita Guarducci recovered a box containing bones that had been put aside by the excavation workers but then mysteriously forgotten. Ten years passed before those bones were analysed and recognized as the remains of Saint Peter.
Today, the remains of the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles are located four metres below the high altar of the Vatican Basilica. His remains are preserved in the chapel of the Papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace.
The keys to the Kingdom of Heaven
In the Gospels, Jesus tells Peter that he will be entrusted with the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Saint Peter is often depicted clutching two keys in his hand, the same keys of the Vatican coat of arms: the silver key indicates the spiritual authority of the papacy on earth, while the gold key alludes to the power in the kingdom of heaven.