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.


The Chair of St Peter

The feast of the Chair of St Peter is a celebration of the unity of the Church under its teacher and pastor, the Apostle Peter. Historically, there are two feasts referred to as the Chair of St Peter, one from Rome and one from Antioch, but today most eyes will be turned towards modern Rome, where Benedict XVI is preparing to lay down his office and the cardinals are preparing to elect someone to take it up. Inevitably, the media are full of speculation, some of it so blatantly secular as to make one smile.

One point which seems to elude many is that the election of a pope is not like election to political office. It is not a question of satisfying a popular wish for a candidate to represent a particular ethnicity; nor is it a question of trying to eliminate anyone who might have any ‘scandal’ attached to his name. The Church has survived some amazingly bad popes, as she has survived some amazingly bad members generally. She is, after all, founded on Christ; and there is grace even in the worst of sinners. The electing cardinals do not have to meet any criteria other than being within the age limit currently in place; so all those calls to exclude Cardinal Brady or Cardinal Mahony on the grounds that their record on sex abuse cases is distinctly questionable are, in electoral terms, wide of the mark. I think I am right in saying that even cardinals who have been excommunicated cannot be excluded from the conclave.

That tells us something quite important about the Church and her self-understanding. We really do rely on God acting in and through weak and imperfect beings to bring about the realisation of his Kingdom on earth. We are apt to forget that amidst all our plans for mission and evangelisation. We rely on God and he, astonishingly, relies on us.