We all know about St. Peter and the pearly gates. No one gets past those gates unless Peter gives the okay.
The tradition may have started as a literal image for the fact that Jesus gave Peter the “keys to the kingdom of heaven” and the power to use them.
“I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19).
From this commission comes the church teaching on the power of the keys (clavis potentioe) — giving Peter and all his successors (the popes) supreme authority in the church. Feb. 22 is the feast of the Chair of Peter, which celebrates this supreme authority of the prince of the apostles.
When we talk about the power of the keys, we are really speaking about a power that is ultimately Christ’s power — Peter is Christ’s vicar on earth, but Christ remains the “key of David,” just as he is the sheep gate (Jn 10:7) by which all enter the kingdom.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the power of the keys as the “authority to absolve sins, to pronounce doctrinal judgments, and to make disciplinary decisions in the church. Jesus entrusted this authority to the church through the ministry of the apostles and in particular through the ministry of Peter, the only one to whom he specifically entrusted the keys of the kingdom” (n. 553).
While each new pope is not handed a set of keys when he takes office, the keys can be seen in many places: on the papal coat of arms, the papal crest, the papal flag, the Vatican City crest, the Vatican City flag and its coat of arms. The famous statue of St. Peter in the Vatican Square holds two keys in one hand.
In art and tradition, Peter always has two keys. If you’ve ever seen the papal flag, you know that the two keys cross each other to form an X-shaped cross. One key is gold and the other is silver.
According to the Vatican News Service, the papal keys’ symbol dates back to the 14th century as “the official insignia of the Holy See. The gold one, on the right, alludes to the power in the kingdom of the heavens, the silver one, on the left, indicates the spiritual authority of the papacy on earth. The mechanisms are turned up towards heaven and the grips turned down, in other words into the hands of the Vicar of Christ.”
Peter’s keys also appear in earlier art, dating back to the catacombs. According to “The Catholic Encyclopedia,” the keys of Peter first appeared in art around the fifth century on sarcophagi in the catacombs. The oldest art bearing the keys seems to be a fresco of Peter receiving the keys that can be found in the crypt of Ss. Felix and Adauctus, who were martyred in the early fourth century.
In explaining the two keys, theologians and Scripture scholars often refer to the role of steward in the ancient kingdom of David.
For example, Fr. Edward Steiner, a Scripture commentator for Our Sunday Visitor, explains how the keys relate to stewards in royal households: “Keys had long been used as symbols of authority. Specifically, a key was the symbol of the steward of a household. (A steward could be a free person, a servant or a slave.) The key also symbolized a position of trust with the master of the household, as the steward had access to everything in the household. The master of the house entrusted the steward with the great responsibility of caring for everything and everyone in the household.”
In Scripture, the prime example was the bad royal steward Shebna who became arrogant and took credit for things that belonged to God. He was replaced by God, through the prophet Isaiah, by the good steward, Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah, the high priest.
Eliakim was then responsible for, well just about everything. In the same way, the pope is responsible to Christ for everything in the church and everyone in God’s household — which is technically everyone.
This is what God said about his new steward, Eliakim: “I will clothe him with your robe, gird him with your sash, confer on him your authority. He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah. I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; what he opens, no one will shut; what he shuts, no one will open. I will fix him as a peg in a firm place, a seat of honor for his ancestral house; on him shall hang all the glory of his ancestral house” (Is 22:22-24).
Sounds very similar to what we think about when we think of the authority of the pope, the successor of Peter. And in its way, it’s also a bit reminiscent of the gates to heaven being opened or shut by the steward.
Sources: Catechism of the Catholic Church; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; osv.com; and the Vatican News Service at vatican.va.