The Feast of the Chair of St. Peter

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Berninis Chair of Peter

One of the most vivid memories that I have of my first year of studies in Rome was going to St. Peter’s Basilica on this day and seeing the famous bronze sculpture of Gianlorenzo Bernini, with the chair and the two “Bishop-Doctors” of the Eastern Church and the Western Church covered with lit candles. The sculpture houses an ancient wooden chair that was said to belong to St. Peter himself. This day, in a particular way, proclaims the reality of the teaching or “chair” of St. Peter in Rome. To help explain this, I would cite this explanation from the Loose Leaf Lectionary for Mass, published by Liturgical Press of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. For this feast day we find “The idea of a feast called the Chair of St. Peter may sound a bit odd in our English language. One might wonder what is particularly to be celebrated about a chair. But if we frame the consideration by beginning with the Latin word for chair, cathedra, today’s feast seems not just sensible, but significant. The cathedra is found in the cathedral; both the chair and that particular church building house the bishop. And the bishop, who is the chief teacher, speaks authoritatively from that chair. Thus, the Chair of Peter suggests to us the unifying office of the Bishop of Rome, traditionally esteemed to be the successor of St. Peter the Apostle”

This particular explanation ends with some words which now have more significance and poignancy than ever, given the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. This commentary ends in this manner: “So, the pope, as the bishop of bishops, has as his greatest responsibility to unite all the local Churches by the building of bridges. Thus, he is to be, as we read in the first letter of Peter, an example to the flock. We pray always that our current pope may have the inspired vision of Peter the Apostle who, though not always strong or heroic in the Gospels, is the first to recognize that Jesus was more than an inspired teacher. His faith prompts him to profess ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ May our faith echo that of faithful Peter.”

St. Peter’s profession of Faith is found in St. Matthew’s Gospel for today’s Mass [Mt 16:13-19]. Peter’s confession of Faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God was the message that the apostles took to all parts of the world. Peter, as the first of the apostles, and the one who made that profession of Faith, took that to Rome from where he taught – his seat of teaching – and from where he was martyred and buried on the Vatican Hill. His most recent successor in our age, Pope Benedict XVI, has not ceased speaking of Him in his books, audiences and talks, and has taught us to do the same. This feast day of the Chair of St. Peter, with the candles that surround Bernini’s chair in the Basilica, give an eloquent testimony of the light of Christ through the teaching of the Bishop of Rome in every time, which will continue with the election of the new Bishop of Rome.

I would like to close this entry with some words of Pope Benedict XVI himself, on the occasion of his first homily as Pope. These words, it seems to me, reflect to us the light of all of those candles on the Chair of Peter today: “But in the mission of a fisher of men, the reverse is true. We are living in alienation, in the salt waters of suffering and death; in a sea of darkness without light. The net of the Gospel pulls us out of the waters of death and brings us into the splendor of God’s light, into true life. It is really true: as we follow Christ in this mission to be fishers of men, we must bring men and women out of the sea that is salted with so many forms of alienation and onto the land of life, into the light of God.”