You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church.
Joseph Ratzinger, commenting on this passage, observes that our canonical Greek text must derive from an Aramaic original. There is a direct citation of Aramaic in the name “Simon Bar-Jonah”. There are also typical Aramaic phrases: “gates of the underworld”, “keys of the Kingdom”, “bind and loose”, “on earth and in heaven”. The word play on Simon’s new name “Rock” also works better in Aramaic than in Greek. Ratzinger concludes, against many contemporary liberal scholars, that we have here no anachronistic invention of the early Church, but on the contrary a direct echo of the very words of Jesus, memorably spoken on this most solemn of occasions.
What did Jesus mean by giving the name “Rock” to the first of his disciples? We must presume he had in mind here two Old Testament texts in particular. First of all, from Isaiah Chapter 28. Thus says the Lord: Now I shall lay in Sion a granite stone, a precious corner stone, a firm foundation stone. No one who relies on it shall stumble (v.16). Any Christian will naturally apply this text to Jesus the Messiah, who is himself both the builder and the foundation of the new Jerusalem, the new holy people, the new Kingdom of God. But Jesus does not apply this text to himself; he applies it to Simon Peter, or “Kepha” - Cephas. A second noteworthy text is the verse from Psalm 117: The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner (v.22). In a later Chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus does apply this text directly to himself, while in controversy with the chief Priests and Scribes (21:42). According to the Acts of the Apostles, St. Peter himself cites this verse from the Psalm in his speech before the Sanhedrin, applying it to Christ’s Resurrection. “Only in him”, Peter concludes, “is there salvation; for of all the names in the world given to men, this is the only one by which we can be saved.” Yet at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus gives the name Rock not to himself, but to Peter.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus had contrasted the foolish man who built his house on sand, only to see it collapse before the wind and rain, with the wise man who built on rock, whose house nothing could destroy (7:24ff.). Did Jesus then act as a wise builder when he chose Simon Peter? Was he wise to invest Peter with such awesome and divine authority? Because there is so much in Peter that seems to have been the opposite of rock-like. A little earlier in this Gospel, when Jesus came to the disciples walking on the water, Peter had acted as spokesman for the rest, manifesting strong faith, and then with noble courage he stepped into the sea. Then immediately he wavered, and received the rebuke, O man of little faith! (14:31). Following the Caesarea Philippi declaration, Peter will receive another title. Get behind me Satan! For you are an obstacle in my path. You are thinking not as God does but as men do (16:23). Then during the Passion, Peter would waver again, three times denying his Lord (Mt 26:69ff.).
As for Peter’s power of binding and loosing: it was urgently called upon in the early Church, when controversy arose concerning the incorporation of the Gentiles. What would be their relationship with the Jewish Christians, and to what extent would they be bound by the ceremonial laws of Moses? We read in Acts how Peter wisely and well took a strong decision on all that (cf. Acts 11:17; 15:10 etc.). But then he wavered. Hence the confrontation with St. Paul, recounted in Galatians. When Cephas - the Rock - came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, since he was manifestly in the wrong (2:11). Peter was not in the wrong concerning his declared decisions, but only concerning his inconsistent behaviour. He was not in the wrong regarding his rock-like faith, but only regarding his weak capitulation in face of human pressure.
So today we have the feast not just of St. Peter, but of St. Peter and St. Paul. Peter, the first witness of the Resurrection, and Paul the last (1 Cor 15:5,7). The two complement each other, need each other, support each other. Each had a special revelation about Jesus from God the Father (Mt. 16:17; Gal 1:12 etc.). Each also had a mission of unique and lasting importance for the whole Church. So the First Eucharistic Prayer, the Roman canon, in listing the Apostles, puts Peter and Paul together at their head. The list has twelve members; so to make up for the extra one, St. Matthias is relegated to the second list of martyrs after the consecration and anamnesis.
Is this correct? Is it wise? It would surely seem not to be wise according to the wisdom of the world. Yet we know that in fact it is wise according to the wisdom of God (cf. 1 Cor 1:26). For the Church as Christ’s Body is an extension of the mystery of the Incarnation. Grace is mediated though human means, the divine through the earthly, and so Jesus entrusted his Church not to angels but to men. We want all of these to be great Saints. Historically of course very many Pastors have risen to the heights of heroism and sanctity. Yet none of them started as a flawless superman; all were frail human creatures, sinners by definition, and sometimes their judgement could lead them badly astray! Let us then not be unduly unsettled, upset, scandalised, disheartened, when we see Church leaders who are unfaithful, or inconsistent, or worldly, or just weak. We do not for that reason abandon the Church, which even in bad times remains the one ark of salvation, ever the efficacious communion of love, apart from which, as the ancient Fathers said, there is no salvation. St. John of the Cross wrote that where there is no love, put love, and you will find love. So also: where there is no faith, put faith; where there is no hope, put hope. That is virtue. And if all around you seem weak, then is the time above all to be strong.
After 21 centuries the Catholic Church continues to stand. She stands on the witness of SS. Peter and Paul, which does not change, because God does not change, and neither, come to that, does human nature. We celebrate SS. Peter and Paul, because to do so gives honour and glory to Jesus Christ the Lord, who chose them, and conferred his own authority on them; Jesus, whom they confessed, proclaimed, and bore witness to, even to the shedding of their blood.