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St Peter and His Chair

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This week, on Tuesday 22 February, we celebrated a feast with an unusual and intriguing name, The Chair of Saint Peter.  However, whatever it may sound like this has nothing to do with a piece of furniture, even though there is a physical object with the same name.  More anon!

We all know who St Peter is, of course, the rock on whom Jesus built the church.  In the Roman Catholic Church, the pope has the power of divine institution because he is the Vicar of Christ and the successor of Peter to whom Christ entrusted the duty of perpetuating his Word “until the end of time.”

The Chosen Disciple

Originally named Symeon, or Simon in Greek, he was a native of Bethsaida, a village on the Sea of Galilee, son of Jonas, and with his brother, Matthew was a fisherman. According to the Synoptic Gospels, it was by the Sea of Galilee that Jesus summoned the two brothers, with James and John, to follow him. All four Gospels agree, with minor differences of emphasis, that from now onwards Simon was leader and spokesman of the group, recognized as such by the Lord.

He is mentioned with conspicuous frequency, appears first in all the lists of the twelve, and belonged to the inner group present at such significant events as the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the Transfiguration, and the Agony in the Garden.

According to Matt. 16:13-20, when Jesus asked the disciples whom they took him to be, Simon answered that he was the Messiah, the Son of the living God; in reply, Jesus pronounced him blessed because of his inspired insight, bestowed upon him the Aramaic name Cephas( rock), rendered Peter in Greek, and declared that he would build his indestructible church on ‘this rock’, and would give him ‘the keys of the kingdom of heaven’ and the powers of ‘binding and loosing’.

At the Last Supper Jesus charged him to strengthen his brothers (Luke 22:32). Warm-hearted and impetuous, he was rebuked by Jesus because, after confessing his messiahship, he refused to accept the necessity of his rejection and death (Mark 8: 31-3).

When Jesus was arrested Peter’s, courage failed him, and he denied three times that he even knew him. In spite of this, he was the first disciple to enter the empty tomb, and the first disciple to whom the risen Lord appeared. In a later scene, recorded only by St John (21: 15-17), Peter thrice received from the Lord the pastoral charge to feed, i.e., be shepherd of, his sheep. `

Post Resurrection

It was Peter who orchestrated the selection of Matthias to replace Judas, which was the first apostolic succession (Acts 1: 15-26). Peter preached on the day of that Pentecost and was so successful that 3,000 people were baptized after hearing him speak (Acts 2:41).

He was the first apostle to be given the grace to perform a miracle; curing the lame man at “the Beautiful gate” (Acts 3:1-10). King Herod Agrippa had Peter arrested and shackled in prison between two guards, but an “angel of the Lord” saved him (Acts 12: 1-10).

Around A.D. 34, Peter went to Antioch and established there a seat, or chair of government. Antioch was a major metropolitan city of the ancient world with a diverse population and was the place where Christ’s followers were first called Christians. Peter remained there for seven years, and the Church would acknowledge his work in Antioch by establishing the feast of St Peter’s Chair.

Peter left Antioch for Rome, the centre of the civilized world.  His efforts there would identify him as the first Bishop of Rome. Gifted by God and respected by the people, he would continue his role as leader of all the Church, and as a result, was the first pope. In A.D. 68, he died by crucifixion in Nero’s cruel Circus, which was located on the site of the present-day Vatican City.

The Symbol of the Chair

Today in the Vatican located in the apse of St Peter’s Basilica is the ancient, ornamented Cathedra Petri (Latin, “Chair of Peter”).  The chair was enshrined in the Altar by the great architect Bernini.

The use of the term chair in the feast day comes from this Latin word and means the seat of government.  The “chair” symbolizes the authority of St Peter and his successors who have served the Church of Christ as the Bishop of Rome. The title “Pope” was originally bestowed on all bishops, but since the 5th century it has been reserved exclusively for the Bishop of Rome.

On the feast day of The Chair of St Peter, the universal Church acknowledges that St Peter was the first pope and that his mission continues through the Holy Father today. Simply stated, that mission is to care for the people of God; to carry on the customs, rituals, teachings, and truths of Jesus; and to uphold the unity of His Church.

Whether or not St Peter ever actually sat in the chair is less important than what it symbolizes spiritually.  In the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict,

“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 [ General Audience, Feb. 22, 2006].

Written by Marie – Therese Cryan

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