Today, February 22, is the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter.
Why do Catholics celebrate a chair? Why have a feast day for a chair?
Well, the feast is really a celebration of St. Peter’s authority as the first pope, and the authority of the popes who have succeeded him over the centuries.
The authority of St. Peter was given to him by our Lord when, in response to St. Peter being the first to identify Him as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Jesus said:
“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 16:17-19)
Prior to this, St. Peter was known as “Simon.” Jesus changed his name to “Peter” (“Cephas” in Aramaic, both mean “rock”), which is a common occurrence in the Scriptures when someone enters into a unique relationship with God or is given a mission by God (consider both Abram/Abraham and Saul/Paul).
St. Peter was given the mission to lead the Church Jesus founded. He and his confession of faith is the rock on which the Church is built. It would be St. Peter’s mission, and that of all the popes who have followed him from Pope St. Linus to Pope Francis, to guard the teachings of Christ, to be a unifying office for the universal Church, and to be chief shepherd of the Apostles and their successors (John 12:15-19).
Jesus extended to the other Apostles, as well, the authority to bind and loose (Matthew 18:18). But only to St. Peter did he give the keys of the kingdom of God. In ancient Israel, during the monarchy, the holder of the keys to the kingdom stood second to the king. In the king’s absence, the holder of the keys, who literally held them around his neck as sign of his office, would speak and act for the king until the king’s return. So it is in the Church today. Until the King returns, the Bishop of Rome holds the keys to the kingdom, and acts and speaks in the name of the King.
The bishop’s chair is called a cathedra, from which the word “cathedral” is derived. The cathedral is the church in which the bishop’s cathedra sits, and it is from the cathedra that the bishop teaches. Hence, when the pope, the Bishop of Rome, exercises his unique charism to teach infallibly on some matter of faith and morals, he is said to teach ex cathedra, that is, with the full authority of his office.
So, today is the day that Catholics celebrate the office and authority of St. Peter, the first pope, and that of all popes who have succeeded him. Glory be to God for the gift of the papacy, for the guidance and unity the pope provides for the Church in the name of Christ Jesus, our Lord. With that office, we have confidence that the authentic faith has been handed down to us over the centuries whole and intact for the sake of our salvation.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.