Feast of the Chair of St. Peter 2014
S. Maria in Traspontina / Pilgrimage of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter
Archbishop J. Augustine Di Noia, O.P.
1 Peter 5:1-4 / Matthew 16:13-19
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ. According to tradition, the feast of the Chair of St. Peter marks the anniversary of the day when St. Peter, having borne witness to the divinity of Christ, was appointed by Our Lord to be the rock of his Church—quo electus est primus Petrus papa, as the very ancient Western liturgies have it. Peter is thus the first to be seated in the chair that then comes to symbolize the episcopal office of the pope as bishop of Rome.
The history of this feast—which dates from at least the fourth century—is both long and complex. Sparing you all the fascinating details, I will comment only on two things about it that shed light on the profound theological and spiritual significance of the role of St. Peter and his successors in the economy of salvation.
Note, first of all, that there were at one time two feasts of the chair of St. Peter. In the calendar in force until the reform of the liturgy after the Second Vatican Council, 18 January marked the feast of the Chair of St. Peter in Rome while 22 February that of the Chair of St. Peter in Antioch. The second thing to notice is that there is actually a chair in the picture. The chair in question is associated with St. Peter’s sojourn in Rome, and, in particular, with a chair venerated since ancient times as the cathedra Petri. Since the 17th century this wooden chair has been enclosed in the bronze of Bernini’s magnificent sculpture, enthroned above the Altar of the Chair in St. Peter’s Basilica and held aloft by the four Doctors of the Church (Ambrose, Augustine, Athanasius and Chrysostom).
The fact that there were at one time two feasts of the Chair of Peter reminds us that Christ consigned to Peter a munus, a ministry, that he exercised first in Jerusalem, and then at Antioch, and only ultimately at Rome. This recognition offsets the danger that the theology of the papal ministry can become, in effect, a theology of the primatial character of the see of Rome. Then we are tempted to concentrate on the history of the exercise of papal ministry by successive bishops of Rome, on the relationship of the bishop of Rome to the college of bishops, on the canonical dynamics of the bishop of Rome’s universal jurisdiction, on the relationship of the bishop of Rome to other patriarchal—and primatial—sees and implicitly to the leadership of other churches and ecclesial communities. Now don’t get me wrong: these are indeed important issues.
But the munus petrinum entrusted by Christ to Simon Bar Jonah is in fact both temporally and logically prior to its location in or its identification with the see of Rome. Before there was a primatial see at Rome, there was the divinely instituted ministry of Peter within the “college” of the Apostles. The primacy of the see of Rome was immediately recognized because it was the see from which Peter and his successors—in the exquisitely apt design of divine providence—would come to exercise their ministry. It could have been Jerusalem where Christ suffered and died under Pontius Pilate, or Antioch where his followers were first called “Christians.” The prominence of Rome—not only geopolitical and cultural, but specifically Christian as the place where the blood of the martyrs was shed and where the Apostles Peter and Paul sojourned and gave their lives for Christ—is naturally not to be overlooked. But the munus petrinum—the office of guiding and teaching and governing the Church—was bestowed upon Peter by Christ before ever he came to exercise it from the cathedra of the bishop of Rome.
And this brings us to the second fascinating thing about this feast: there is actually a chair in the picture, however obscure its history and provenance. An instance of the remarkable concreteness of Catholic sensibility, the association of an existing episcopal cathedra to be venerated spurs our faith and devotion as we contemplate the grace of the petrine ministry. Not for nothing is the chair of Peter considered a sacramental in Catholic theology and practice. Here we touch on the fundamental Catholic conviction that God uses the tangible and visible things of earthly existence both to signify and, uniquely in the sacraments, to bestow his spiritual gifts.
Above all, he uses consecrated persons as instruments of his grace. The Holy Father, the cardinals, the bishops, the priests, and the deacons of the Church: they are the instruments through whom God willed to pour out his grace on us in the Church through the preaching of the Word and the celebration of the Sacraments. In this way, God adapted himself to our human nature—by sending his only Son who in turn commissioned the Apostles and their successors—so that we might receive his word and his grace from other human beings. The hand of another human being blesses us, pours the water of Baptism on our foreheads, offers the body and blood of Christ to us in the Eucharist, and is raised in absolution unto the forgiveness of sins. Through these persons—St. Peter first among them—and through these actions and objects, God’s grace is bestowed on us.
Dear friends in Christ, your pilgrimage to Rome during these days recalls your recent journey into full communion with Peter. May Our Lady of Mt. Carmel—who is especially honored in this church and whose feast was first celebrated by the Whitefriars (as the Carmelites were known) of Cambridge in 1374—lead us into that spirit of prayer, contemplation and thanksgiving that has given so many great saints to the Church. Amen.