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.