FEAST OF THE CHAIR OF ST. PETER
Any time one visits St. Peter’s Basilica is a special time – time to look at over 500 years of Church history (the cornerstone was laid in 1506) and art and liturgy, time to ponder the sheer grandeur and magnificence of this house of worship, time to think about the first Pope, St. Peter, for whom this church is named and who is buried below – way below! – the main altar in an area excavated last century known as the scavi.
A visit is also time for reflection, for prayer, for sitting down in a quiet corner, perhaps the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, a side altar or one of the small chapels below the basilica, in the grotto area. It is also surely a time for Mass!
However, there are two days a year when visiting the Basilica of St. Peter becomes an ultra special occasion and today, February 22 is one of them! Today is the feast of the Cathedra or Chair of Peter, a recurrence dating back to the fourth century that honors and celebrates the primacy and authority of St. Pete
On this day – and it is really quite remarkable! – the famous statue of the first Pope, the one on the right side of the main aisle of the basilica whose right foot is worn shiny from the faithful touching it over the centuries, is adorned with lavish vestments, a papal ring and the triple tiara. A bouquet of several dozen red roses is usually placed at the foot of the column bearing the statue of a seated St. Peter and rope barriers are positioned just for this single day to keep the faithful from touching or kissing the statue.
Peter before he appears in finery –
By the way, the second day that St. Peter is dressed in all his finery is June 29, feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, Apostles.
I first visited the basilica on this feast day in 1991, the first year I was working at the Vatican Information Service. To learn the history and background of this celebration for a story I had to write for VIS, I interviewed several people in the Vatican, one of whom, Msgr. Michele Maccarrone, was an expert on the Chair of Peter. In fact, he gave me one of the few remaining copies of a 1985 issue of the Italian periodical, “Rivista di Storia della Chiesa in Italia,” (Review of Church History in Italy) entirely dedicated to “The Chair of Peter, From Symbol to Relic.” He wrote part of that article and the footnotes make reference to his other works on the Chair of Peter.
The word “cathedra” means seat or throne and is the root of the word cathedral, the church where a bishop has his throne and from whence he preaches. Another word for “cathedra” is “sede” (seat or see): the “see” is the place from which a bishop governs his diocese. Thus, for example, the Holy See (also called the See of Peter) is the see of the bishop of Rome, the Pope.
The Chair of Peter is actually a throne that Charles the Bald, the grandson of the Emperor Charlemagne, gave to Pope John VIII at the former’s coronation as emperor on Christmas Day 875. For many years, the chair was used at liturgical events by Pope John and his successors: it was ensconced in Bernini’s Altar of the Chair, where you view it today, in 1666.
A mixture of tradition, legend and belief held for many years that this was actually a double chair, parts of which dated back to the early days of Christianity and to St. Peter himself. This chair or cathedra has been studied over the centuries and the last time it was removed from its niche in the Bernini altar was a six-year period from 1968 to 1974 where studies pointed to a single chair whose oldest parts date to the sixth century. What appeared to be an outer or second chair was a covering that served both to protect the throne and to carry it in procession.
Some terrific photos by my EWTN colleague Daniel Ibanez –
We thus know that Pope St. Peter could not have used this chair but his successors have spoken of it as a symbol.
On Sunday, February 22, 2004, in reflections made during the Angelus, Pope John Paul remarked that, “the liturgical feast of the Chair of Peter underscores the singular mystery, entrusted by the Lord to the leader of the Apostles, of confirming and guiding the Church in the unity of faith. This is what the ‘ministerium petrinum’ is, that particular service that the Bishop of Rome is called to render to all Christians. An indispensable mission that is not based on human prerogatives but on Christ Himself as the cornerstone of the ecclesial community. Let us pray that the Church, in the variety of cultures, languages and traditions, will be unanimous in believing and professing the truth of faith and morals transmitted by the Apostles.”
In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI described the chair as “a symbol of the special mission of Peter and his Successors to tend Christ’s flock, keeping it united in faith and in charity.”
Last year, at his weekly general audience, Pope Francis spoke of this feast, saying, “Today we celebrate the feast of the Chair of St. Peter the Apostle, the day of the special communion of believers with the Successor of St Peter and the Holy See,” and he asked the faithful to pray for his Petrine ministry.