In the popular imagination, the head of the apostles has been typecast as a sort of bouncer at the doors of a celestial supper club - Saint Peter at the pearly gates. Though this picture may make for a few good jokes, it does not fit his actual job description.
Jesus Christ, in fact, is the only one who can judge who will live with him forever. The unique mission that Jesus entrusted to "Simon son of Jonah" when he renamed him Peter (in Greek, "stone," or "boulder") pertains to the earthly expression of that kingdom, the Church (see Matthew 16:18). As a sign of Peter's authority, Jesus gives him the keys of the kingdom of heaven" (verse 19).
Keys are a symbol of power. (Just ask any teenager who obtains the keys to the family car!) Peter's keys, though, signify a supreme authority to govern God's house, the Church.
Jesus confers the keys on Peter alone, then follows up with an amazing promise mad to all 12 apostles: "to bind or loose" in heaven - to back up with his own authority - whatever the "bind or loose" on earth (verse 19; see also 18.18). In union with Peter, the Church's main shepherd on earth, the Eleven have divine backing for the authority they, too, are called to exercise.
As with every aspect of God's dealings with us, Peter's special commissioning reveals the divine willingness to take risks. Impetuous, inconstant, and slow to understand, Peter would not have been a modern headhunter's first choice for a CEO. Yet Peter is the apostle that Jesus commissioned to be his chief personal representative. "Strengthen your brothers." he charged him. "Feed my sheep" (Luke 22:32; John 21:17). Filled with the Spirit at Pentecost, Peter rose to the challenge.
Peter's successors have not always responded as he did. Many popes have been saintly, but others were unscrupulous. Through good times and bad, though, Christ's promised Church perseveres. Precarious though it may appear, the Church built on Pewter prevails even over the powers of death because its true foundation and cornerstone is Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11; 1 Peter 2:4-8).