Q — The late Fr. Francis Sullivan, dean of the Faculty of Theology at the Gregorian University from 1964-70, in his book From Apostles to Bishops: The Development of the Episcopacy in the Early Church, wrote that “I have expressed agreement with the consensus of scholars that the available evidence indicates that the church in Rome was led by a college of presbyters, rather than by a single bishop, for at least several decades of the second century.” Since St. Peter died between 62-67 AD, how can it be claimed that he was Bishop of Rome since Rome had no bishop during Peter’s lifetime?

A — It is always not only good but very satisfying to find people interested in the history of the church, particularly the fascinating first few centuries. Well done! As you will undoubtedly know from your researches, we are simply unable to “connect the dots” about so much in the early church. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, writing to the Roman Christians says “I do not command you as Peter and Paul did,” implying that he believed that Peter and Paul had been leaders of the Roman Christian community, leaders who could have “commanded” them. A couple of generations later, Irenaeus bishop of Lyons, wrote that the church had been “founded and organized at Rome by the two glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul.” In the strictest sense, however, neither Peter nor Paul “founded” the church of Rome. Paul’s Letter to the Romans was written to the Christian community before he arrived in the city. What about St. Peter in Rome? The great patristic scholar, John N. D. Kelly, writes: “It seems certain that St. Peter spent his closing years in Rome. Although the New Testament is silent about such a stay, it is supported by 1 Peter 5:13, where “Babylon” is a code-name for Rome, and by the strong case for linking the Gospel of Mark, who as Peter’s companion (1 Peter 5:13) is said to have derived its substance from him.” (J. N. D. Kelly, The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, p. 6). The tradition is so strong that both Peter and Paul lived for a time and met their deaths in Rome that serious church historians do not question it. Let us add to Kelly’s statement from Eamon Duffy, emeritus professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Cambridge. “To begin with, there was no ‘pope’ no bishop as such, for the church in Rome was slow to develop the office of chief presbyter, or bishop. By the end of the first century the loose pattern of Christian authority of the first generation of believers was giving way in many places to the more organized rule of a single bishop for each city, supported by a college of elders.” (Eamon Duffy, Saints and Sinners, p. 10). Although the title/office of “pope” did not exist as such in the first century, there can be little or no doubt that, given the fact of St. Peter’s leadership of the Twelve in the Gospels and Acts, he would have been the de facto leader of the Roman Christians during his time there. I have just finished reading the last book of the New Testament scholar Martin Hengel, St. Peter, The Underestimated Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in researching St. Peter, and especially his time in Rome. Keep up the good work!