The Feast of the Chair of St Peter

Chair of St Peter by Bernini
Chair of St Peter by Bernini

This feast is one that often confuses people or makes them mutter darkly about the ‘strange tendencies of Catholics’. The historically-minded may be tempted to give a little lecture about the two feasts, one associated with Antioch, the other with Rome, and the ninth-century cathedra or episcopal chair which is contained within Bernini’s magnificent reliquary pictured above. The point of the feast, however, is this: not the physical chair but the appointment of Peter as vicar of Christ. Some of the ancient Western liturgies spell this out in detail, and there is an adequate summary here. What interests me is what the feast means to us today. What are we celebrating?

It is no longer fashionable to celebrate the triumph of Christianity over paganism — a triumph that, in any case, looks more and more uncertain in the West. It is no longer fashionable to celebrate the majesty of the papal office which, to many, looks more and more anachronistic as kings and emperors fade into the mists of time. Relics with questionable histories no longer appeal as they once did; so we are left with a chair, a symbol of the teaching office of the papacy. It is worth thinking about that.

Pope Francis, like Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and his predecessors, has undertaken to lead and guide the Church in accordance with what Catholics believe to be the commission given to St Peter. Each is reckoned the immediate successor of Peter, and each speaks with the authority of Peter himself. Our present pope’s emphasis may be different from that of other popes, but his teaching is accepted (or should be) as what the Church needs to hear and act on now. Our role in that is to pray for the pope and to listen attentively to what he says — what the pope actually says, not what the media allege, which may be very different!

As we pray for Pope Francis, let us also pray for the nineteen men, among them Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, who will be made cardinals at today’s consistory. The papal office is a lonely one; good and honest advisers are essential. This feast gives us opportunity and motive to pray for them all.

Note on the Illustration
Used under the Creative Commons Licence.


7 thoughts on “The Feast of the Chair of St Peter”

  1. I suspect that many of us who’ve moved away from Rome in our theology retain a respect for Pope Francis and the Papal Office, and accept that in terms of Episcopal succession the Pope does represent Christianity in a unique way and that listening carefully to what he actually says has implications for us in how we conduct our lives and how we treat all of those in the Universal Church, which certainly Anglicans understand themselves to be part off.

    So, it’s always good to learn a little bit more of the historic meaning of the feast day, but how we look to such a feast day in our times is equally important.

    Our Bishops as leaders and pastors of their flock claim to be part of that succession, and I believe that they too have a public representative role as disciples and followers of Christ, my prayer is more for unity than separation, that one day the Universal Church will become one again in Jesus Christ – and if the feast day can help in prayer for that, than it’s worth celebrating.

  2. So true that we must listen to the pope not what others say he has said. The anachronisms (I have to admit to recognising some strange tendencies ) are sometimes used as an excuse to dismiss the work of the Church. The mission is a continuation of a process that started when Jesus gave the task to St Peter. I am amazed that people were so angry/surprised that Pope Francis (and more recently Archbishop Nichols ) should place such emphasis on the poor and the Church’s role. Care for those on the margins or in need is not an optional extra to Christianity. Arguments about the Church will continue but we must never lose sight of the fact we are all supposed to be following the teaching/example of Jesus. I pray that the Pope and the cardinals, bishops and priests are strong enough to carry on leading the Church in the direction it must go to fulfil the mission. It is a challenge in our modern world.

  3. As a Catholic, I celebrate today’s feast thanking God for appointing a succession of Popes through the years to lead us, teaching with an authoritative human voice and interpreting our faith through changing times. False doctrines abound in society not to mention the countless golden calves created to tempt our faith. I pray that today’s blog post helps quieten those uninformed voices who mutter darkly about “strange tendencies of Catholics.” I’m reminded of Cardinal Newman’s quotation “From shadows and images into the truth”.

  4. Thank you for this — and the illustration.
    My much-loved bishop, who has been transferred and will have to leave us soon, was ordained bishop on this feast, and today, in saying goodbye, took part of his homily to give us a mini-lesson in ecclesiology, with a wonderful verbal picture of Bernini’s shrine of the chair. The representatives of the Shepherd, the Bridegroom, come and go, but the bond between Christ and his church endures. In regarding Peter’s chair, or any bishop’s, we think not just of one individual, but all who faithfully carry the responsibility for a time, who need the love and support of the flock.

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