This week, I received a question from a new member of Bayside Church on the subject of Papal succession. Papal, or Apostolic, succession is the Roman Catholic teaching “that each pope is the successor to the Apostle Peter who was chosen by Jesus as the rock on which the church was to be built.”

The person who asked the question has come from a Roman Catholic background. Regarding Papal Succession, she wrote, “That’s the big thing for me that always made me believe the Catholic Church is the true church. Jesus gave the keys to Peter. Then Linus was the 2nd Pope. Peter would have known of Linus. And then the handover goes down through the years ending up at Pope Francis.” She then asked, “Do you believe that is what Jesus meant to happen when He handed over the keys? That it would be handed down to each new Pope?”

It’s a great question and one I will seek to answer in this blog. I should add here that I’m not writing this to criticise the Catholic Church. All Christian churches have differences over doctrine, but we all hold to the Christian faith’s vital truths. I am not anti-Catholic, and I do not criticise other churches.

Peter in Rome

The Apostle Peter likely ended his days in the city of Rome. In 1 Peter 5:13, he wrote, “She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings, and so does my son Mark.” “She” refers to the church. Babylon denotes the city of Rome from where Peter (and Silas and Mark) were writing the letter. Rome was often referred to as Babylon in the Jewish and Christian literature of the time. The Christians who stayed in Rome were greeting those who had fled for their lives under Nero’s persecution. Peter, Silas, and Mark were leading the church in Rome.

There is no mention in the Bible of Peter being Pope. There is no mention of Peter being Bishop of Rome until the middle to the late second century. The words Pope and pontiff do not appear in the Bible.

Peter died in Rome at about the same time as Paul. Peter was crucified as attested to by the apostle John in his gospel, “Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God” (John 21:18-19). Some church tradition teaches that Peter deemed himself to be unworthy to be crucified in the same way as Jesus, and so he asked to be hung on a cross upside down.

In the same year (68 AD), Linus was appointed overseer of the church in Rome (Linus is mentioned in 2 Tim 4:21) and was well known to Paul and Peter.

The Church’s Centre

The Christian church didn’t become centrally organised until it became “legal” under Constantine in 313. Nicene Christianity* then became the State Religion in the Roman empire with the Edict of Thessalonica in 380, under Emperor Theodosius I.

The first-century church was first based in Jerusalem and was led by James, the brother of Jesus (Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18). The Gentile church was centred in Antioch (Acts 13). While the church at Rome was significant in the first century, it didn’t become the church’s headquarters until much later. The first use of the title Pope was the middle of the tenth century. The first use of the name Roman Catholic was in 1208 and the Vatican was built in 1929. The word Catholic, wasn’t used until the early second century. Up to then, followers of Jesus were called Christians (Acts 11:26). Collectively, the church was called The Way (Acts 9:2).

Pope Peter?

So, what does it mean that Jesus gave Peter the Keys of the Kingdom? Simply that Peter would be the one who “unlocked” the truth of Jesus the Messiah first to the Jews (Acts 2), and then to the Gentiles (Acts 10).

Was Jesus declaring that Peter would be the Pope who would hand the keys down to each new Pope?

The events are recorded in Matthew 16:13-19. Jesus wanted to know who people thought he was. The disciples let him know: “Some say John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Jesus was using this question to discover what he really wanted to know, “who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” At this point, Jesus declared Peter blessed because the revelation came straight from the Father in heaven. “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build My church, and the forces of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven.”

In the Greek language, Jesus is using a play on the words “Peter” and “Rock” ~ “You are Petros, and on this petra, I will build My church.” Petros is a small stone or pebble, while Petra is an enormous mass of rock. It’s like Jesus was saying to Peter, “You’re a spot on a little stone. And on this massive rock of the revelation of who I am, I will build my church.” The church is built on the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God! Jesus is the foundation stone of the church (1 Cor. 3:11). The church is built on Jesus Christ, not on a succession of popes.


* Nicene Christianity is a set of Christian doctrinal traditions that reflect the Nicene Creed, formulated at the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325 and amended at the First Council of Constantinople in AD 381.

I want to say upfront that I LOVE Pope Francis. He is refreshing, honest, compassionate, caring and I have a feeling that he might just freak out the Roman Catholic hierarchy a bit.  You know, maybe keep them on their toes by doing things that previous Popes didn’t do – like walk around the streets chatting with people, catching a bus and paying for his own hotel room. The cheeky side of me kinda likes this.

So it was with interest this week that I read his interview with an old friend who was writing for the Argentine magazine Viva, in which he outlined 10 tips for a happy life.  We’d do well to embrace them:

1. Live and let live. He used an Italian expression that roughly translates as “move forward and let others do the same.”  It’s an echo of the Pope’s earlier remark on gays: “Who am I to judge?”  It’s what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.”

2. Be open and generous. “Be giving to yourself and others” because “if you withdraw into yourself, you run the risk of becoming egocentric. And stagnant water becomes putrid.”  It’s like the Dead Sea; it’s dead because it only takes in and doesn’t give out!

3. Proceed calmly through life. The Pope quotes from a favourite novel by an early 20th-century Argentine writer, Ricardo Guiraldes, in which the novelist writes that in one’s youth, a person is “a rocky stream that runs over everything,” but as one gets older, one becomes “a running river, quietly peaceful.” How true!

4. Enjoy leisure. The Pope says that consumerism has brought with it unbearable anxieties. So play with your children. Take time off. And don’t spend all your time thinking about what you need to do next.  This needs to include switching off technology – including the TV – and enjoying time with family and friends. Social networking means that so often we are together alone! Get out the board games, enjoy great conversations and really get to know others!

5. Sunday is for families. Of course with the way our society is geared Sunday is a workday for many.  But the sentiment here is that once a week we should have a day that restores the mind, body and spirit and gives time to those who are most precious to us.

6. Find jobs for young people. When God created the first humans He gave them work to do. I’ve only experienced unemployment for a few weeks in my life but they were not happy weeks.  I love working as I find great satisfaction in what I do, especially helping others and hard work makes leisure time more meaningful. Pope Francis said, “We need to be creative with young people. If they have no opportunities they will get into drugs” and then be at a greater risk of suicide.

7. Take more care of nature. He said, “I think a question that we’re not asking ourselves is: isn’t humanity committing suicide with this indiscriminate and tyrannical use of nature.” As mentioned above, when God made people He gave them responsibility for creation.  We live on a finite planet that should be respected not just indiscriminately consumed!

8. Let go of negative thoughts quickly. He urged people not to be negative. “Needing to talk badly about others indicates low self-esteem. That means ‘I feel so low that instead of picking myself up I have to cut others down’.” The Bible condemns gossip and criticism and encourages us to deal well with conflict: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18).

9. Respect each other’s beliefs and not to try and convert others to our way of thinking.  He says, “The worst thing of all is religious proselytism, which paralyses: “I am talking with you in order to persuade you.” The church grows by attraction, not proselytizing.”  I almost agree with where he is coming from here.  I think it’s vital that we Christians respect the beliefs of others and that we are not guilty of loving people “with hooks,” that is, becoming their friend simply to see them convert to our faith.  But I’m also very aware of the Bible’s teaching on sharing the Good News with others in order to see them forgiven and brought into a relationship with God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

10. Work hard for peace. The Pope has preached this message from the beginning of his time as pontiff. He has gone to Jerusalem and worked to bring together Jews and Palestinians. He has prayed for peace and worked for peace. He has listened closely to Jesus, who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” He says, “The call for peace must be shouted. Peace sometimes gives the impression of being quiet, but it is never quiet, peace is always proactive.”

Author Jay Parini summarises Pope Francis’ teaching as follows: “[He] has, in this unlikely venue, given us his own Sermon on the Mount, his Ten Commandments for happiness and inner peace. One can only be grateful for his wisdom, which is rooted in a sincere faith, in hard-earned wisdom, and a very practical knowledge of human needs and potentials.”

When I heard the news that Pope Benedict had resigned I put a lighthearted comment on my social media pages: “There’s a vacancy in the Vatican. Thinking of applying. Your thoughts?” There were lots of comments, some suggesting I’d be better off running for Prime Minister! One person asked the question: “What would you do if you were made Pope, Rob?” It’s a good question that got me thinking. Here’s my answer

Putting theological differences aside (such as the veneration of Mary and praying to the saints; the doctrines of transubstantiation and purgatory), there are many things that I appreciate about the Catholic Church.

What’s good

Firstly, they believe in God as well as in Jesus’ death and resurrection. We certainly do have our doctrinal differences but having faith in God as well as in the finished work of Jesus to redeem humanity, have got to be the two most important things to believe. There are over one billion Roman Catholics in the world today (it’s the biggest Christian denomination in the world) ~ and each and every one of them is loved by God; and each and every one has faith in God and in His Son, Jesus.

Secondly, the Catholic Church does a lot of amazing work in education, health and social justice. Catholic education in Australia began in the 19th century and has grown to be the second biggest sector after government schools with more than 650,000 students and around 21% of all secondary school enrolments. The 75 hospitals and 550 residential and community aged care services operated by the Catholic Church in Australia comprise the nation’s largest non-government health provider. In 2010 our then two-year-old daughter, Trinity, was critically ill with pneumonia. It was at a Catholic hospital Cabrini, that she got the most amazing care and treatment. We will never forget the kindness and attention of the staff. Christie and I are deeply appreciative that our precious little girl made a full recovery.

Thirdly, the Catholic youth movement continues to reach hundreds of thousands of youth and young adults around the world. The annual World Youth Day, established by Pope John Paul II in 1984 has attendances between 400,000 and five million people. The theme song for the 23rd World Youth Day was “Receive the Power”, written by Guy Sebastian (winner of the first Australian Idol contest in 2003) and Gary Pinto. It was built around the theme chosen by Pope Benedict XVI: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). The lyrics ( are amazing and it’s a song that our congregation has enjoyed singing over the past few years.

Other things I appreciate about the Catholic Church ~ their reverence for God; their observance of milestones and pathways of faith such as First Communion; the great sacrifice made by priests and nuns (and many other church workers and volunteers) in making a difference for good amongst the poor and marginalised; and the strong ethical and moral foundation that is taught to children.

I have found that Catholics also tend to have a strong theology of suffering that draws people to God during tough times. A theology of suffering is often sadly lacking in the contemporary church so that, when people inevitably go through difficult times, they are tempted to blame God and even walk away from their faith. I have found the opposite to be true of Catholics that I have known. They realise that suffering is part of life and draw closer to God in order to receive strength. Like the apostle Paul we need to pray, “That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death” (Phil 3:10).

So, they are the things I wouldn’t change if I were Pope.

But there would be some things I would change.

What needs to change

Firstly, I’d allow priests and nuns to marry if they wanted to. Forbidding people to marry is strictly forbidden in Scripture (1 Timothy 4:3) and was not adopted as church practice until the First Lateran Council of 1123 (however, Pope Alexander VI (1492- 1503) is known to have fathered nine illegitimate children and openly kept a mistress in the Vatican). And that’s the problem. Denying someone’s right to a life-partner can sometimes lead to unhealthy expressions of sexuality including pedophilia. And on that subject, if I were Pope I would totally cooperate with the authorities over the child abuse scandals and remove all priests and church workers who were guilty of such crimes. There also needs to be adequate care of and compensation to those whose lives have been affected – or even ruined – by such horrendous acts of abuse.

If I were Pope I would allow ordination of women priests. I believe women bring a wonderful balance of care, compassion, discernment and insight into the church. To deny them the right to minister ~ and to deny the church of their ministry ~ is simply wrong. In Bible times women played a key role in the spread of the Gospel, being the first to report the news of the risen Christ as well as teaching and preaching in the first century church. I’ll say more on this in a future blog.

If I were Pope I’d remove the ban on the use of contraceptives that often leads to increased poverty because of large families. Nowhere does the Bible forbid contraception. In fact it implies otherwise by admonishing us to take good care of our families emotionally, physically and spiritually. This can hardly be done properly when parents are having more children than they can provide for. A person’s decision as to how many children they have is a personal one – not a matter for the church to legislate on.

Finally, if I were Pope I would encourage all Catholics to take the next step in their faith from simply believing in God and Jesus to accepting Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. The Bible says “all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). If I’m sick and the doctor gives me medicine just believing the medicine will make me better won’t be enough. I have to receive the medicine and then I will recover. It’s the same with Jesus. Just believing in Him may not change our lives ~ receiving Him will.

If that describes you why don’t you pray this prayer now?

“Father God, I thank you for the gift of your Son Jesus. I believe that Jesus died on a cross to pay the price for everything I’ve done wrong. I believe Jesus rose again so that I can be fully pardoned and completely saved. I receive you Jesus as my Lord and Saviour. Come into my life, forgive me and fill me with your Spirit. From this day on I will live my life in relationship with you. Amen”