After nearly two thousand years of existence, the Papacy is the oldest continuing absolute monarchy in the world. To countless millions, the Pope is the Vicar of Christ on earth, the infallible interpreter of divine revelation. To millions more, he is the fulfilment of the Biblical prophecies of Antichrist. What cannot be denied is that the Roman Catholic Church, of which he is the head, is as old as Christianity itself; all other Christian religions - and there are more than 22,000 of them - are offshoots or deviants from it. It all started, according to the generally accepted view, with St Peter. To most of us he is a familiar figure. We see his portrait in a thousand churches - painted, frescoed or chiselled in stone: curly grey hair, close-cropped beard, his keys dangling from the waist. Sometimes he stands beside, sometimes opposite, the black-bearded, balding St Paul, armed with book and sword. Together they represent the Church's joint mission - Peter to the Jews of the diaspora, Paul to the Gentiles. Peter's original name was Simon, or perhaps Symeon. (Oddly enough, the two names are unrelated: the first is Greek, the second Hebrew, but both languages were current in Bethsaida in Galilee where he was born.) Profession: fisherman, and quite a successful one. He and his brother Andrew were in partnership with James and John, the sons of Zebedee; he seems to have had his own boat, and he could certainly afford to employ a number of assistants. His brother Andrew is described by St John as having been a disciple of John the Baptist, and it may well have been through the Baptist that Simon first met Jesus. At any rate he soon became the first of the disciples, and then of the twelve Apostles whom Christ selected from them - seeing them, perhaps, as a symbol of the twelve tribes of Israel; and he had already reached this position of preeminence when, at Caesarea Philippi, St Matthew (xvi, 18-19) reports Jesus as saying to him: "Thou art Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.... I will give unto thee the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven." On those few words - the Latin version of which is inscribed around the base of the dome of St Peter's - rests the entire structure of the Roman Catholic Church.
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