Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter
Liturgical Color: White
The Pope’s authority is a gift, serving order and truth in the Church
It’s kind of funny to have a feast day for a chair. When we think of a chair, perhaps we think of a soft recliner into which our body lowers itself as if into a warm bath. Or our mind turns to a classroom chair, a chair in a waiting room, or one at a restaurant. But the chair the Church commemorates today is more like the heroic-sized marble chair which holds the giant body of President Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial. We commemorate today a chair like the judge’s in a courtroom or that unique high-backed chair called a throne. These are not ordinary chairs. They are seats of authority and judgment. They hold power more than people. We stand before them while their occupants sit. Judges and kings retire or die, but chairs and thrones remain to hold their successors. The Nicene Creed even describes Jesus as “seated” at God’s right hand. The fuller, symbolic meaning of the word “chair” is what today’s feast commemorates.
Against the farthest wall of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome is not a statue of Saint Peter, as one might imagine, but a gorgeous heroic-sized sculpture with a chair as its focus. To celebrate the Chair of St. Peter is to celebrate the unity of the Church. The chair is a symbol of Saint Peter’s authority, and that authority is not meant for conquest like military power. Ecclesiastical authority is directed toward unity. Jesus Christ could have gathered an unorganized group of disciples united only by their common love of Him. He didn’t. He could have written the Bible Himself, handed it to His followers, and said, “Obey this text.” He didn’t. Jesus called to Himself, by name, twelve men. He endowed them with the same powers He possessed and left this organized band of brothers as an identifiable, priestly fraternity specifically commissioned to baptize and to preach. In North Africa at the time of Saint Augustine, twelve co-consecrating bishops were canonically required at the ordination of a bishop, mirroring “The Twelve” called by Christ. What a profound liturgical custom! Today the Church requires only three co-consecrators.
What is even more striking about Christ’s establishment of an orderly Church structure is its double organizing principle. The Twelve’s headship over the many is itself subjected to the internal headship of Saint Peter. He is the keeper of the keys, the rock upon which the Lord built His Church. This all makes sense. What good would a constitution be without a Supreme Court to adjudicate disputes over its interpretation? Any authoritative text needs a living organ to stand outside and above it to arbitrate, interpret, and define, with authority equal to the text itself, any and all misinterpretations, confusions, or honest disputes. Just as a constitution needs a court, the Bible needs a Magisterium. And that Magisterium needs a head as well.
The authority of the papal office, doctrinally, is a negative charism preserving the Church from teaching error. It is not a guarantee that the pope will teach, explain, or live the faith perfectly. Christ himself guaranteed that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church. That’s a negative promise. But isn’t this promise also a prophecy that the Church, and the office of Peter, will be a lightning rod absorbing every strike from the forces of evil? That this Church, and no other, will be the target of the darkest of powers? A real Church has real enemies.
There was never an office of Saint Paul in the Church. When the person of Paul disappeared, his specific role did too. But the office of Peter continues, along with the office of all the Apostles, despite their deaths. In other words, the Church has not just a foundation but a structure built on that foundation. And authority in that structure is not transmitted personally, from father to son or from one family to the next. Authority attaches to the Office of St. Peter and endows its occupant with the charisms promised by Christ to Saint Peter. And this charism will endure until the sun sets for the last time. As long as there is a Church, it will teach objective truth, and objective truth requires objective leadership. And that objective leadership, symbolized in the Chair of St. Peter, is directed toward unity. One Lord. One faith. One Shepherd. One flock. The united fabric of the Church, so fought for, so torn, so necessary, is worth honoring in the liturgy of the Church.
God in Heaven, we thank You for the ordered community of faith we enjoy in the Catholic Church. Your chosen vicar, Saint Peter, guided the early Church and guides Her still, ensuring that we remain one, holy, catholic, and apostolic until the end of time. Continue to grace Your Church with the unity so necessary to accomplish Her mission on earth.