This is one of a series of extensive excerpts (with my occasional commentary) from The Catholic Controversy (1596): a classic of Catholic apologetics (originally a collection of pamphlets), written by St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622): a Doctor of the Church [see all the installments by searching “Salesian Apologetics #” on my blog sidebar search function]. Any comments of mine (apart from lists of related links) will be in blue. The rest is from the online, public domain text (3rd revised edition, New York: Benziger Brothers, 1909; translated by Henry Benedict Mackey, O.S.B.).
What I present is an edited abridgment, designed for modern readers: so I will dispense with the constant tedious use of ellipses (“. . .”). I will cite the section of the book used, so that anyone who desires it may consult the full text and/or particular contexts, patristic references (which I omit), etc. I will follow the custom of my paperback TAN Books edition: of italicizing scriptural passages.
Part II, Article VI: Chapter 1: Of the First Promise Made to St. Peter: “Upon This Rock I Will Build My Church”
When Our Lord imposes a name upon men he always bestows some particular grace according to the name which he gives them. If he changes the name of that great father of believers, and of Abram makes him Abraham, also of a high father he makes him father of many, giving the reason at the same time : Thou shalt he called Abraham ; because I have made thee the father of many nations [Gen 17:5]. And changing that of Sarai into Sara [Gen 17:15], of lady that she was in Abraham’s house, he makes her lady of the nations and peoples who were to be born of her [Gen 17:16]. If he changes Jacob into Israel, the reason is immediately given : For if thou hast been powerful against God, how much more shalt thou prevail against men [Gen 32:28]. So that God by the names which he imposes not only marks the things named, but teaches us something of their qualities and conditions.
Witness the angels, who have names only according to their offices, and S. John Baptist, who has the grace in his name which he announced in his preaching ; as is customary in that holy language of the Israelites. The imposition of the name in the case of S. Peter is no small argument of the particular excellence of his charge, according to the very reason which Our Lord appended : Thou art Peter, &c. But what name does he give him ? A name full of majesty, not common, not trivial, but one expressive of superiority and authority, like unto that of Abraham himself. For if Abraham was thus called because he was to be father of many nations, S. Peter has received this name because upon him as upon a firm rock was to be founded the multitude of Christians. And it is on account of this resemblance that S. Bernard calls the dignity of Peter “patriarchate of Abraham.”
When Isaias would exhort the Jews by the example of Abraham, the stock from which they sprang, he calls Abraham Peter : Look unto Abraham, unto the rock (petram) whence you are hewn ; . . . . look unto Abraham your father ; [Is 51:1-2] where he shows that this name of rock very properly refers to paternal authority. This name is one of Our Lord’s names ; for what name do we find more frequently attributed to the Messias than that of rock ? [Eph 2:20; Ps 117:21; 1 Cor 10:4] This changing and imposition of name is then very worthy of consideration. For the names that God gives are full of power and might. He communicates Peter’s name to him; he has therefore communicated to him some quality corresponding with the name. Our Lord himself is by excellence called the rock, because he is the foundation of the Church, and the corner-stone, the support, and the firmness, of this spiritual edifice : and he has declared that on S. Peter should his Church be built, and that he would establish him in the faith : Confirm thy brethren. [Lk 22:32]
I am well aware that he imposed a name upon the two brothers John and James, Boanerges, the sons of thunder [Mk 3:17]; but this name is not one of superiority or command, but rather of obedience, nor proper or special but common to two, nor, apparently, was it permanent, since they have never since been called by it : it was rather a title of honour, on account of the excellence of their preaching. But in the case of S. Peter he gives a name permanent, full of authority, and so peculiar to him that we may well say : to which of the others hath he said at any time, Thou art Peter ? — showing that S. Peter was superior to the others.
But I will remind you that Our Lord did not change S. Peter’s name, but only added a new name to his old one, perhaps in order that he might remember in his authority what he had been, what his stock was, and that the majesty of the second name might be tempered by the humility of the first, and that if the name of Peter made us recognise him as chief, the name of Simon might tell us that he was not absolute chief, but obeying and subaltern chief, and head-servant. S. Basil seems to have given support to what I am saying, when he said :
Peter denied thrice and was placed in the foundation. Peter had previously not denied, and had been pronounced blessed. He had said : Thou art the Son of the living God [Mt 16:16], and thereupon had heard that he was Peter. The Lord thus returned his praise, because although he was a rock, yet he was not the rock ; for Christ is truly the immovable rock, but Peter on account of the rock. Christ indeed gives his own prerogative to others, yet he gives them not losing them himself, he holds them none the less. He is a rock, and he made a rock ; what is his, he communicates to his servants ; this is the proof of opulence, namely, to have and to give to others.
What does he [Christ] say ? three things ; but we must consider them one after the other : Thou art Peter ; and upon this rock I will build my church ; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it [Mt 16:18]: he says that Peter was a stone or rock, and that on this rock or this stone he would build his Church.
But here we are in a difficulty : for it is granted that Our Lord has spoken to S. Peter, and of S. Peter as far as this — and upon this rock — but, it is said that in these words he no longer speaks of S. Peter. Now I ask you : — What likelihood is there that Our Lord would have made this grand preface : Blessed art thou Simon Bar-jona ; because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven: and I say to thee, &c. [Mt 16:17], in order to say no more than : Thou art Peter, — and then suddenly have changed his subject and gone on to speak of something else ? And again, when he says : And on this rock I will build my church [Mt 16:18], — do you not see that he evidently speaks of the rock of which he had previously spoken ? and of what other rock had he spoken but Simon, to whom he had said : Thou art Peter ? But this is the ambiguity which may be causing hesitation in your mind ; you perhaps think that as Peter is now the proper name of a man, it was so then, and that so we transfer the signification of Peter to rock by equivocation of masculine and feminine.
But we do not equivocate here ; for it is but one same word, and taken in the same sense, when Our Lord said to Simon : Thou art Peter, and when he said : and on this rock I will build my church. And this name of Peter was not a proper name of a man, but was only [then] appropriated to Simon Bar-jona. This you will much better understand, if you take it in the language in which Our Lord said it; he spoke not Latin but Syriac. He therefore called him not Peter but Cephas, thus : Thou art Cephas, and on this Cephas I will build : as if one said in Latin : “Thou art saxum, and on this saxum” ; or in French : “Thou art rocher, and on this rocher I will build my church.” Now what doubt remains that it is the same person of whom he says : Thou art Rock, and of whom he says : And on this Rock ? Certainly there is no other Cephas spoken of in all this chapter but Simon.
You will say : — Yes, but the Latin says : Thou art “Petrus”, and not : Thou art “Petra”. But it does not come out so well in Latin as in Greek, because in Latin “Petrus” does not mean exactly the same as “petra”. I have only to add, on this interpretation, that nobody doubts that Our Lord called S. Peter Cephas (for S. John records it most explicitly, and S. Paul, to the Galatians), or that Cephas means a stone or a rock, as S. Jerome says.
In fine, to prove to you that it is really S. Peter of whom it is said : And on this rock, — I bring forward the words that follow. For it is all one to promise him the keys of the kingdom of heaven [Mt 16:19], and to say to him : Upon this rock ; now we cannot doubt that it is S. Peter to whom he promises the keys of the kingdom of heaven, since he says clearly : And to thee will I give the keys of the kingdom of heaven : if therefore we do not wish to disconnect this piece of the Gospel from the preceding and the following words in order to place it elsewhere at our fancy, we cannot believe but that all this is said to S. Peter and of S. Peter : Thou art Peter, and on this rock I will ‘build my church. And this the Catholic Church, when, even according to the admission of the ministers, she was true and pure, has confessed loudly and clearly in the assembly of 630 Bishops at the Council of Chalcedon [in 451].
Let us now see what these words are worth and what they import, (1.) We know that what the head is to a living body, the root to a tree, that the foundation is to a building. Our Lord then, who is comparing his Church to a building, when he says that he will build it on S. Peter, shows that S. Peter will be its foundation-stone, the root of this precious tree, the head of this excellent body. The French call both the building and the family, house, on this principle, that as a house is simply a collection of stones and other materials arranged with order, correspondence and measure, so a family is simply a collection of persons with order and interdependence. It is after this likeness that Our Lord calls his Church a building, and when he makes S. Peter its foundation, he makes him head and superior of this family.
(2.) By these words Our Lord shows the perpetuity and immovableness of this foundation. The stone on which one raises the building is the first, the others rest on it. Other stones may be removed without overthrowing the edifice, but he who takes away the foundation, knocks down the house. If then the gates of hell can in no wise prevail against the Church, they can in no wise prevail against its foundation and head, which they cannot take away and overturn without entirely overturning the whole edifice.
He shows one of the differences there are between S. Peter and himself. For Our Lord is foundation and founder, foundation and builder ; – but S. Peter is only foundation. Our Lord is its Master and Lord in perpetuity ; S. Peter has only the management of it, as we shall explain by and by.
(3.) By these words Our Lord shows that the stones which are not placed and fixed on this foundation are not in the Church, and form no part thereof.
Photo credit: St. Francis de Sales [Bosco Austalasia / Salesian Journeying with the young]