Why Do We Care So Much About St. Peter’s Chair?

The Feast of the Chair of Peter is celebrated Feb. 22

Hortense Haudebourt-Lescot, “The Kissing of the Feet in St. Peter’s Basilica,” 1812
Hortense Haudebourt-Lescot, “The Kissing of the Feet in St. Peter’s Basilica,” 1812 (photo: Public Domain / Public Domain)

On Feb. 22, Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Chair of Peter. “A feast for a chair?” you ask. 

Yep. You see, Peter wasn’t just any old apostle. Oh, sure, he made a lot of mistakes. (Pretending not to know Jesus, when approached by that woman at the fire after Jesus’ arrest, was a big mistake!) He was impulsive and blustering and given to bouts of cowardice—at least, before the Holy Spirit got hold of him at Pentecost and set him on fire for the gospel.

But what the pre-Pentecost Simon Peter lacked in courage, he made up for in faith. Remember Matthew 16, when Jesus asked the apostles, “Who do you say that I am?” And Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Now, here’s the really important part. Jesus said to him in reply:

“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.” 

Ba-da-boom, ba-da-bing!

It was the custom of the time to give someone a new name on an important occasion—when establishing a covenant, for example. Jesus renamed Simon, called him “Peter” (the “Rock”), because this was a most important day: the day on which Jesus explained to the apostles the leadership role which Peter would take in the Church. Peter understood this, as did the other apostles—and from that time forward, he was a leader among leaders.

As for the Chair itself—well, let me draw from Pope Benedict XVI’s General Audience on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2006, when he said:

Today, the Latin-rite liturgy celebrates the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter. This is a very ancient tradition, proven to have existed in Rome since the fourth century. On it we give thanks to God for the mission he entrusted to the Apostle Peter and his Successors.

“Cathedra” literally means the established seat of the Bishop, placed in the mother church of a diocese which for this reason is known as a “cathedral”; it is the symbol of the Bishop’s authority and in particular, of his “magisterium,” that is, the evangelical teaching which, as a successor of the Apostles, he is called to safeguard and to transmit to the Christian Community.

When a Bishop takes possession of the particular Church that has been entrusted to him, wearing his mitre and holding the pastoral staff, he sits on the cathedra. From this seat, as teacher and pastor, he will guide the journey of the faithful in faith, hope and charity.

The Pope continues to explain the rich history of the Church, following the “Chair” from the Upper Room to Antioch, then on to Rome. He continues:

Consequently, the Chair of the Bishop of Rome represents not only his service to the Roman community but also his mission as guide of the entire People of God.

Celebrating the “Chair” of Peter, therefore, as we are doing today, means attributing a strong spiritual significance to it and recognizing it as a privileged sign of the love of God, the eternal Good Shepherd, who wanted to gather his whole Church and lead her on the path of salvation.

You can read the whole address at the Vatican website.


That's not what Jesus meant, you say?

Some might say that Jesus did not intend for Peter to be the foundation of the Church—that He meant something else. A glance at the writings of the early Church Fathers, though, shows that the early Church understood this perfectly well. For example, Tertullian wrote in A.D. 220:

“The Lord said to Peter, ‘On this rock I will build my Church, I have given you the keys of the kingdom of heaven [and] whatever you shall have bound or loosed on earth will be bound or loosed in heaven’ [Matt. 16:18–19]. . . . What kind of man are you, subverting and changing what was the manifest intent of the Lord when he conferred this personally upon Peter? Upon you, he says, I will build my Church; and I will give to you the keys” (Modesty 21:9–10 [A.D. 220]).

And from Origen in A.D. 248:

“Look at [Peter], the great foundation of the Church, that most solid of rocks, upon whom Christ built the Church [Matt. 16:18]. And what does our Lord say to him? ‘Oh you of little faith,’ he says, ‘why do you doubt?’ [Matthew 14:31]” (Homilies on Exodus 5:4 [A.D. 248]).

Cyprian of Carthage wrote:

“The Lord says to Peter: ‘I say to you,’ he says, ‘that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it. And to you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven . . . ’ [Matthew 16:18–19]. On him [Peter] he builds the Church, and to him he gives the command to feed the sheep [John 21:17], and although he assigns a like power to all the apostles, yet he founded a single chair [cathedra], and he established by his own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity. Indeed, the others were that also which Peter was [i.e., apostles], but a primacy is given to Peter, whereby it is made clear that there is but one Church and one chair. . . . If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he [should] desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?” (The Unity of the Catholic Church 4; First edition [A.D. 251]).

“There is one God and one Christ, and one Church, and one chair founded on Peter by the word of the Lord. It is not possible to set up another altar or for there to be another priesthood besides that one altar and that one priesthood. Whoever has gathered elsewhere is scattering” (Letters 43[40]:5 [A.D. 253]).

“There [John 6:68–69] speaks Peter, upon whom the Church would be built, teaching in the name of the Church and showing that even if a stubborn and proud multitude withdraws because it does not wish to obey, yet the Church does not withdraw from Christ. The people joined to the priest and the flock clinging to their shepherd are the Church. You ought to know, then, that the bishop is in the Church and the Church in the bishop, and if someone is not with the bishop, he is not in the Church. They vainly flatter themselves who creep up, not having peace with the priests of God, believing that they are secretly [i.e., invisibly] in communion with certain individuals. For the Church, which is one and Catholic, is not split nor divided, but it is indeed united and joined by the cement of priests who adhere one to another” (ibid., 66[69]:8).

But please, don’t take my word for it! Catholic Answers has a brief article which cites not just three, but 17 different writers in the ancient world, Fathers of the early Church, all of whom make the case for the papacy of Peter and his successors. You can read the full report at their website.

Peter’s First Letter, written just a few years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, was sent to various churches in Asia Minor suffering religious persecution. In it, Peter offers advice and encouragement for priests (presbyters). From this letter is drawn the first reading at Mass on the Feast of the Chair of Peter.

So I exhort the presbyters among you, as a fellow presbyter and witness to the sufferings of Christ and one who has a share in the glory to be revealed. Tend the flock of God in your midst, (overseeing) not by constraint but willingly, as God would have it, not for shameful profit but eagerly. Do not lord it over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd is revealed, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.