Today, February 22, is the Feast of the Chair of Peter, Apostle.
This Feast doesn’t celebrate a piece of furniture. Rather, it celebrates the Office of the Papacy, the authority of the Bishop of Rome to teach, sanctify and govern the universal Church in the Name of Jesus Christ, Who ascended to heaven.
When David was King of Israel, he would sometimes have to leave Jerusalem for campaigns, diplomatic trips, or other reasons, as leaders sometimes do. When he was gone, in order for there not to be a vacuum of authority, he would place his authority, the keys of his kingdom, into the hands of the Master of the Palace, an official who enjoyed his complete trust. This official was responsible for running the kingdom in the king’s absence, until he returned.
Isaiah 22:15-24 recounts King David’s displeasure with Shebna, the Master of the Palace, over how he has exalted himself. David says that he will take Shebna’s authority and give it to Eliakim, son of Hilkiah. Speaking of Eliakim, David says:
“I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts, no one shall open” (Isaiah 22:22).
The key is the sign of authority, of opening and closing. We see this in Matthew 16:19 and in Revelation 3:7. Jesus is the One Who holds the key in Revelation, from His throne in the kingdom. But, here on Earth, Jesus, in response to Peter’s declaration of faith in Him as the Messiah, gives the keys to the kingdom to Peter, in what Catholics regard as the foundation of papal authority:
“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:17-20).
Jesus spoke these words to Peter at Caesarea Philippi, where there is a temple to the pagan shepherd god, Pan, that dates back to the third century BC and still stands today. The temple is built into the side of a large rock. It was against the backdrop of this pagan temple to the shepherd god built into a rock that Jesus proclaimed Peter the chief shepherd of His Church and the rock on which He would build His Church. It could not possibly be more clear. Not only was Jesus, in the tradition of the kings of Israel, passing on His authority, his keys, to Peter so to care for His Church in His absence. But, Jesus was contrasting the authority of the rock on which He would build His Church over against the authority of the pagan gods.
The authority of Peter as chief shepherd of the Church is even more clear when we turn to the Gospel According to John, chapter 21. Here, after the Resurrection, Jesus is walking on the beach with Peter. To counter his threefold denial of Jesus (John 18:15-17, 25-27), Jesus calls from him a threefold affirmation of his love. Each time Peter affirms his love for Jesus, Jesus places him in authority over his flock: “Feed my lamps;”Tend my sheep;” “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). At last, Jesus speaks to Peter of the kind of death Peter would suffer in imitation of His Lord, admonishing him finally to, “Follow me” (John 21;18-19).
Peter carried this authority, first to Antioch, and then to Rome, a church which credits its founding to Peter and Paul. It is the role of the bishop to teach, sanctify and govern. This authority over his diocese is extended to the universal Church in the case of the Bishop of Rome. Rome is the Eternal City. It is the place of martyrdom of Peter and Paul. In fulfillment of the prophecy Jesus announced in John 21, the story goes that Peter, fleeing the persecutions in Rome, was met by a vision of Jesus on the Via Appia Antica. Jesus was heading into Rome. “Domine, quo vadis?” “Lord, where are you going?” Peter asked. Jesus responded, “I am going to Rome to be crucified.” Then, Jesus disappeared. Peter turned around toward the city to meet his fate. Excavations of the tombs under St. Peter’s Basilica in the 1960s turned up a tomb with the bones of a man in his sixties and the inscription “Peter is within.” In 1968, based on the archeological evidence, Pope Paul VI declared that the tomb of St. Peter had been found.
The Feast of the Chair of Peter, Apostle is a feast of Christian unity. Under the sure hand of Christ’s Vicar, the Catholic faithful can know where the Church stands on matters of faith and morals and can stand with her. The Church is the instrument of God’s revelation in Christ (Eph. 3:8-12; 1 Tm. 3:15). Peter is the Chief Shepherd of that Church (Jn 21:115-17), and the Rock on which Christ’s Church is built (Mt 16:18a), a Church over which the gates of hell will never prevail (Mt. 16:18b). How foolish to let slip from our hands our hold on that Rock.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.