Some years ago I walked into a Christian bookstore and a fascinating poster caught my eye. From a distance, it looked like an image of the holy face of Jesus, but as I drew closer I could see that the face was actually a composite of tiny faces that made up the contours and complexion of the whole. The image was a mosaic containing the recognizable faces of people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King as well as those of many other anonymous people, male and female, young and old. Each little face was unique, and I understood the message of “One in Christ” without having to read the caption. The artist who had the idea to create a portrait of Jesus using so many other smaller images was a true genius.
Our First Pope
I was reminded of that poster the day I noticed something about the name of our first Pope. There is only one man in the Bible named Peter, but as we know, his given name was Simon. The amazing irony here is that we would be hard-pressed to find a name that appears with greater frequency in Scripture than the name of Simon. Jesus changed the fisherman’s name to Peter when He conferred the keys of the Kingdom upon him at Caesarea Philippi (cf. Matthew 16:18-20), and if we look at that incident more closely we might imagine the larger Peter portrait as a mosaic of many smaller Simon images.
If we count Simon Peter and the Simon who is the cousin of Jesus (we know nothing about him but his name, cf. Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3), there are twelve Simons sprinkled throughout the Bible from Genesis to Acts. Hmmm. A dozen Simons. Could the number 12 be symbolic of anything? Anyway, these Simons are starkly different from each other, but their overarching presence in the pages of Scripture forms a sort of composite profile of the papal office and its duty of pastoral leadership. The Hebrew name, Shi-mon, means “hearkening” or “listening”, a quality that serves the Papacy well in every age whether it be attendance to the voice of the Lord or a hearkening to the needs of the sheep that have been entrusted to his care (cf. John 21:15-19). Let’s look briefly at ten of these Simons of Scripture to see what they have to tell us about the Papacy.
Simeon the Patriarch
(Genesis 29:33; 34; 42:24; 46:10) -This is the first appearance of the name Simon in Scripture. He was the son of Jacob and Leah and gave his name to one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Simeon was virtue-challenged at times: he participated in the plot to sell his brother Joseph into slavery and later rained down violent retribution on an entire city.
Profile Point: The popes through the ages have not always been virtuous, but it is important to realize that popes are not chosen for their personal virtue. They can be venal and even corrupt, but they are foundation stones of the Church, like Simeon the patriarch of Israel.
(1 Maccabees 13 and 14) – This Simon was the son of the priest Mattathias and the brother of Judas and Jonathan of the Maccabean revolt. He attempted to save Jonathan from death but failed; he did, however, conquer all of Israel’s enemies, purify the Temple and provide for his people. He became the first prince of the ruling Hasmonean Dynasty and was called their “leader and high priest forever, until a true prophet arises” (14:41).
Profile Point: Every pope is leader and high priest of the Church. Many popes fight valiantly for righteous causes but are not always successful in their quests. Nevertheless, the office of high priest in the Church requires the leadership skills, courage, wisdom, and perseverance of Simon Maccabeus in order to provide for the Church and bear witness to the true Prophet of God, Jesus Christ.
Simon the Villain
(2 Maccabees 3 and 4) – I’ll bet you didn’t know there is a totally wicked Simon in the Bible. He was a Jewish priest, the superintendent of the Temple under the High Priest Onias, but he wanted the top job. This Simon was a traitor and quarrelsome (3:4); he was an impious calumniator (3:11), a false witness and a slanderer (4:1-2); he suborned murder and plotted destruction (4:3-4); his wickedness and folly (4:6) caused great damage to the people of Israel.
Profile Point: Has Church history known its share of rotten popes? It sure has. Personal wickedness does not nullify the Office of Peter, which is of divine origin, but it does cause scandal and diminish the effectiveness of the Church’s witness to Jesus. Yet, the presence of bad popes also serves to highlight the good and saintly popes throughout history; and the wicked ones remind us of the need to pray for our leaders.
Simeon the Pious
(Luke 2:25–35) – The “just and devout” old man of Jerusalem met Mary and Joseph as they entered the Temple with the Child Jesus. Simeon was led there by the Holy Spirit and prophesied that Christ would be a “sign of contradiction” to His people. He also predicted that a sword of sorrow would pierce Mary’s heart.
Profile Point: Holy Simeon reminds us that there is an abiding holiness in the Office of Peter itself, a holiness that is made more fruitful by the personal sanctity of the man who holds the office. This Simon represents all the popes who have been saintly men and devoted sons of the holy Mother of God.
Simon the Zealot
(Matthew 10:4; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13) – This Simon is described as a member of the fanatical Zealot party that violently opposed the Roman occupation of the Jewish homeland; he was chosen by Jesus as one of the twelve apostles perhaps because of that very “zeal”. Tradition has it that he evangelized Egypt with St. Jude Thaddeus and died a martyr by being sawed in two.
Profile Point: Simon the Zealot proves that a holy enthusiasm for the Kingdom of God is a characteristic of many of the faithful popes throughout the history of the Church. His early history of fanaticism also shows that it is possible for a pope to be converted from misguided zeal to an apostolic life that is spiritually fruitful for the Kingdom.
Simon the Pharisee
(Luke 7:36-50) – This Simon is described as “a certain Pharisee” and later named by Jesus (cf. Luke 7:40) when he invited Jesus to dine at his house. When a penitent woman washed the Lord’s feet with her tears, Jesus used the Pharisee as a bad example of hospitality and hard-heartedness to make a point about divine mercy and repentance.
Profile Point: Some popes in the Church’s long and storied history have been cold-hearted, merciless bureaucrats, clinging to their prerogatives and neglecting the sheep of Christ’s flock. We should not be surprised to find hypocrites and functionaries in the papal office, but we must nonetheless listen to the teachings of Christ that come through their ministry.
Simon the Leper
(Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9) – We know little of Simon the Leper other than that he was from Bethany and was Jesus’s friend. The Lord stayed at his house when He visited Jerusalem.
Profile Point: History records no papal lepers, but there have been plenty of popes who have been friends of Jesus through their association with the lowly and their care for the poor, the sick and the needy. Many popes have experienced alienation and ostracism – like lepers – because of their preaching of the Gospel and defense of the Church against secular powers.
Simon of Cyrene
(Matthew 27:32; Mark 15:21-22; Luke 23:26) – The Cyrenian (modern-day Libya) who was unexpectedly recruited to carry Jesus’ Cross on the way to Calvary is mentioned in all the Synoptic Gospels and in Mark he is called “the father of Alexander and Rufus” (Mark 15:21). Tradition has it that his sons later became Christian missionaries (cf. Romans 16:13).
Profile Point: This Simon represents all the suffering popes in history, from the martyrdom of the first ten popes to the sacrificial labors of our modern pontiffs. The Papacy itself carries the agonies of mankind along the sorrowful way of human history through a proclamation of Christ Crucified. Popes also hand on the Apostolic Tradition as Simon handed on his experience of Christ to his own sons.
(Acts 8:9-24) – Simon the Magician was a sorcerer from Samaria who was baptized by the Apostle Philip. He was insufficiently converted and later attempted to “purchase” spiritual power from the apostles. Because of this, the name simony is applied to the sin of buying and selling positions, influence, and sacred things in the Church. He was severely rebuked by St. Peter but also repented (v. 24).
Profile Point: It is hard to imagine a more common papal failing throughout history than the sin of simony; yet, this Simon repented of his sin and represents all the popes who have experienced and preached the transforming power of Christ’s forgiveness. St. Peter himself was the first to hear the merciful words of Christ after his sin: “If you love me, feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17).
Simon the Tanner
(Acts 10) – We know nothing of this Simon except that he was a tanner of leather and that he hosted St. Peter “for a considerable length of time” (Acts 9:43). It was in his home that Peter had a vision in which God instructed him to open the doors of the Church to the Gentiles. The Roman centurion Cornelius was then told by an angel to send emissaries to find Peter at the tanner’s house.
Profile Point: Very few popes receive mystical visions as Peter did, but all popes preserve the sacred doctrine of Christ, much as Simon the tanner preserved leather as a profession. The sanctuary of Simon’s house led to the conversion of the Gentiles; it is from the sanctuary of the Church that the popes open wide the spiritual riches of Christ to the world.
The incredible variety of Simons forms quite a picture, doesn’t it? But are they a biblical composite of the one Petrine office? I think so.
When our first Pope was acting out of his human weakness, Jesus often called him by his given name: “Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift you like wheat” (Luke 22:31). Many of the man’s faults have been captured in the pages of Scripture for future ages of Christians to lament: impetuousness, pettiness, timidity, even betrayal.
Simon Became Peter
So it seems that Simon became Peter only when he transcended his weakness and put his own desires behind him in order to embrace the duties of his office. When Simon finally hearkened to Christ’s wishes alone he became Peter. It was this man who rebounded from his personal failings to shepherd the sheep of Christ’s flock and ultimately to die on a cross for Him.
Patriarch, sinner, leader, hypocrite, holy man, leper or apostle: they’re all part of the composite picture of a fallible man who was given an infallible office. But we must not get caught up in the fallible Simon part. There is only one Peter. Upon that Rock Christ built His Church – and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.