Feb 21, 2011

A Chair of ancient value - February 22nd

The altar of the Chair of St. Peter - Vatican Basilica

Mt. 16: 13-19

When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi
he asked his disciples,
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah,
still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Simon Peter said in reply,
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.
for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.
And so I say to you, you are Peter,
and upon this rock I will build my Church,
and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
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.”

This Tuesday we mark an ancient feast of the Church titled: The Chair of St. Peter. Since at least the fourth century, Christians have noted this day as a time to recognize the unity we all share through and in the person of Peter – the rock upon whom Christ built his Church. But what is this chair? Peter’s chair? Why would we possibly raise the memory of Peter’s chair to the level of a Feast? One needs to know a bit about Cathedrals and in particular the “chair” upon which the Bishop sits during liturgical celebrations.

Every (Arch) Diocese has a Cathedral Church which symbolizes essentially two things: the “mother” Church of the local Catholic community; a symbol of all the various parish Churches spread throughout the local Diocese. Therefore, the Cathedral is not exactly a particular parish because it is the parish Church of all Catholics in a local Diocese.

The second point is that the Cathedral is the Church of the local Bishop. It symbolizes his authority and position as Chief Shepherd of his Diocese and within that Cathedral Church is a large, more obvious “chair” in the sanctuary which is a sign of his teaching authority over the local Church. Thus, the Pope as Bishop of Rome, also has a chair in the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome which is his alone as the local Bishop. Also at St. Peter Basilica at the Vatican the Pope uses a particular chair as a sign of his authority as the universal Pastor of the Catholic Church. When you’re the Pope you have several symbolic chairs as you do a lot of sitting and teaching.

His Holiness Benedict XVI

On one level it may all feel a bit triumphal to our American democratic sensibilities.  But, today is a day of rich symbolic value.  It is ultimately about Christ himself who is Head of the Church but entrusted its care to fallible human beings - with his promise of protection by the Holy Spirit.

In fact, an ancient chair sits high above an enormous altar in St. Peter’s Basilica on the back wall of that massive Church. (See picture above). That chair is believed to be one that St. Peter himself may have used but more likely is a later piece. Nonetheless, it was enshrined in the Basilica built by Constantine in the 4th century which stood for 1200 years before it was destroyed and the present St. Peter’s was begun under Pope Julius II in the early 1500's. That’s some chair! Much talk about symbolic furniture today.

So, today we mark the unity of the entire Church with the See (sedes or seat) of Peter and his successors. The point of all this is that we are deeply fortunate to have the Papacy as the rock upon which the unity of the Church, although shaky at times, has maintained the Catholic Church as One.

Now, lest we forget not all Popes have been paragons of virtue. Take a look at the Medici family of Florence, Italy and the rise of several from that family to the Papacy in the 16th century. Their personal immorality would be a feast for newshounds today and a scandal to the world if our Popes of the 20th/21st century lived as they did in this modern instantaneous information age. But, in the end, despite human sin and vice – virtue prevailed and the Church, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, remains united around Peter’s “chair.”

Let us remember our present Holy Father Benedict XVI today as we pray:

All powerful Father
You have built your Church
On the rock of St. Peter’s confession of faith.
May nothing divide or weaken
Our unity in faith and love.