What’s all this about the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter? What’s so special about a literal chair, is it really a chair, why are we venerating a chair?
First, there really is a chair, at least remnants of one, purported to have been sat on by St. Peter. It is encased in bronze and gold and located in the apse of St. Peter’s Basilica. But the feast of the Chair of Peter is really about what the chair spiritually represents, and that’s the office.
According to Pope Benedict XIV, from his general audience Feb 22, 2006:
Today, the Latin-rite liturgy celebrates the Feast of the Chair of St Peter. This is a very ancient tradition, proven to have existed in Rome since the fourth century. On it we give thanks to God for the mission he entrusted to the Apostle Peter and his Successors.
“Cathedra” literally means the established seat of the Bishop, placed in the mother church of a diocese which for this reason is known as a “cathedral”; it is the symbol of the Bishop’s authority and in particular, of his “magisterium”, that is, the evangelical teaching which, as a successor of the Apostles, he is called to safeguard and to transmit to the Christian Community.
When a Bishop takes possession of the particular Church that has been entrusted to him, wearing his mitre and holding the pastoral staff, he sits on the cathedra. From this seat, as teacher and pastor, he will guide the journey of the faithful in faith, hope and charity.
So what was the “Chair” of St Peter? Chosen by Christ as the “rock” on which to build the Church (cf. Mt 16: 18), he began his ministry in Jerusalem, after the Ascension of the Lord and Pentecost. The Church’s first “seat” was the Upper Room, and it is likely that a special place was reserved for Simon Peter in that room where Mary, Mother of Jesus, also prayed with the disciples.
Subsequently, the See of Peter was Antioch, a city located on the Oronte River in Syria, today Turkey, which at the time was the third metropolis of the Roman Empire after Rome and Alexandria in Egypt. Peter was the first Bishop of that city, which was evangelized by Barnabas and Paul, where “the disciples were for the first time called Christians” (Acts 11: 26), and consequently where our name “Christians” came into being. In fact, the Roman Martyrology, prior to the reform of the calendar, also established a specific celebration of the Chair of Peter in Antioch.
From there, Providence led Peter to Rome. Therefore, we have the journey from Jerusalem, the newly born Church, to Antioch, the first centre of the Church formed from pagans and also still united with the Church that came from the Jews. Then Peter went to Rome, the centre of the Empire, the symbol of the “Orbis” – the “Urbs”, which expresses “Orbis”, the earth, where he ended his race at the service of the Gospel with martyrdom.
So it is that the See of Rome, which had received the greatest of honours, also has the honour that Christ entrusted to Peter of being at the service of all the particular Churches for the edification and unity of the entire People of God.
The See of Rome, after St Peter’s travels, thus came to be recognized as the See of the Successor of Peter, and its Bishop’s “cathedra” represented the mission entrusted to him by Christ to tend his entire flock.
This is testified by the most ancient Fathers of the Church, such as, for example, St Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, but who came from Asia Minor, who in his treatise Adversus Haereses, describes the Church of Rome as the “greatest and most ancient, known by all… founded and established in Rome by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul”; and he added: “The universal Church, that is, the faithful everywhere, must be in agreement with this Church because of her outstanding superiority” (III, 3, 2-3).
Tertullian, a little later, said for his part: “How blessed is the Church of Rome, on which the Apostles poured forth all their doctrine along with their blood!” (De Praescriptione Hereticorum, 36). Consequently, the Chair of the Bishop of Rome represents not only his service to the Roman community but also his mission as guide of the entire People of God.
Celebrating the “Chair” of Peter, therefore, as we are doing today, means attributing a strong spiritual significance to it and recognizing it as a privileged sign of the love of God, the eternal Good Shepherd, who wanted to gather his whole Church and lead her on the path of salvation.
Among the numerous testimonies of the Fathers, I would like to quote St Jerome’s. It is an extract from one of his letters, addressed to the Bishop of Rome. It is especially interesting precisely because it makes an explicit reference to the “Chair” of Peter, presenting it as a safe harbour of truth and peace.
This is what Jerome wrote: “I decided to consult the Chair of Peter, where that faith is found exalted by the lips of an Apostle; I now come to ask for nourishment for my soul there, where once I received the garment of Christ. I follow no leader save Christ, so I enter into communion with your beatitude, that is, with the Chair of Peter, for this I know is the rock upon which the Church is built” (cf. Le lettere I, 15, 1-2).
Dear brothers and sisters, in the apse of St Peter’s Basilica, as you know, is the monument to the Chair of the Apostle, a mature work of Bernini. It is in the form of a great bronze throne supported by the statues of four Doctors of the Church: two from the West, St Augustine and St Ambrose, and two from the East: St John Chrysostom and St Athanasius.
I invite you to pause before this evocative work which today can be admired, decorated with myriads of candles, and to say a special prayer for the ministry that God has entrusted to me. Raise your eyes to the alabaster glass window located directly above the Chair and call upon the Holy Spirit, so that with his enlightenment and power, he will always sustain my daily service to the entire Church. For this, as for your devoted attention, I thank you from my heart.