The city of Rome continues to be regarded as the centre of Christianity. Jesus predicted the spread of Christianity as far as Rome – to the ends of the earth. But it was not just because Rome was the capital of the empire that it came to have a central place in the Christian Church.
Saint Peter and Saint Paul preached the gospel, taught the faith, and witnessed to it by their love and by their martyrdom. The Christian community at Rome was a privileged one. It guarded the memory of these two great apostles. It protected and venerated their tombs. It could trace its understanding of the faith back to Peter and Paul.
Among the many churches founded by the apostles, Rome thus came to have a special place because its Christian life was founded on the preaching of Peter and Paul, and on their blood shed out of love for Jesus. Other churches – founded by Saint Andrew or Saint John, or some other apostle – deferred to Rome.
Saint Ignatius of Antioch, writing to the Church of Rome about 110 AD described it as 'having the chief place in love'. Seventy years later, Saint Irenaeus of Lyons referred to the Church at Rome as 'the greatest and oldest Church'. Christian faith and love were regarded as authentically taught in Rome if they were taught anywhere. This was because the seed from which the Christian community in Rome grew was the faith and love of Peter and of Paul.
When the apostles died, their ministry in the Church was regarded as having been passed on to bishops. So the bishops, the leaders of local Christian communities, were regarded as the 'successors of the apostles'.
In the same way as Peter and Paul were regarded as having a special place among the apostles, and the Church at Rome regarded as having a special place among the Churches, so the bishop of Rome was regarded as having a special place among the bishops. As leader of the Christian community at Rome he was, in some sense, the successor of Saint Peter. He presided over the Church which was regarded as the greatest and the oldest, and one holding the chief place in love, the one referred to for help in times of disagreement or division or crisis in other churches.
It is clear from the gospels that Saint Peter was the spokesman among the apostles. Peter was the first to express clearly his faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God. On the rock of this faith, on Peter, Jesus said he would build his church. In Saint John's gospel, it is on the strength of his love that Peter is chosen. As a symbol of Jesus giving authority to Peter, there is a reference to the keys of the kingdom. In the Jewish understanding, for Peter to hold the keys meant for him to have the authority to decide what was in accordance with the teaching of Jesus and what was not; and also to decide who should be admitted to membership of the community.
The bishop of Rome, as successor of Saint Peter, has inherited this special authority in the Church. It is not a personal privilege for the man who happens to be Pope. It is an awesome responsibility, to teach the message of Christ faithfully, to be the leader in faith and in love, to preside over the Christian community at Rome, and, together with his fellow bishops, over the whole family of believers throughout the world.