The first time I went to Rome, I thought I was going in order to see St. Peter's Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, the Colosseum, the catacombs…
I did feast my eyes on all of those, and I'm glad I did. But it was the sight of a chair that ended up moving me the most. And I'm not even into furniture, much less antiques.
As we drew near to this particular chair, our tour guide began explaining its historical high points. That was when the tears began running down my cheeks. For there it was, just 50 feet away, sitting alone in a roped-off spot of its own: the chair of Peter, Christ's representative on earth.
We were, of course, in the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the church of the bishop of Rome.
And this was his chair, the one the Holy Father sits in when he comes here to say Mass. The chair that so many successors of St. Peter have likewise sat in. Taking it all in, I tried to contain my emotions. I didn't do very well with that, so I separated myself from the rest of the group.
You see, to me, that chair represented the center of the spiritual universe. I had been seeking it my whole life, without realizing what, exactly, I was looking for.
After a couple of minutes, when our little group moved on, I followed. But the next day I was back, by myself, alone with the chair. I needed more time at its side. I knelt there a long while, praying and reflecting near the rope.
On my knees seemed like the appropriate position. I wanted to get closer to the chair, to touch it and hold it, though I knew there was no chance of that. Most people just walked by, many of them probably not even knowing what it was.
St. John Lateran was built in the early fourth century. It was the residence of the popes until after their return from Avignon, whereupon their home moved to the Vatican. It was the center of Christian life in the city. It is still the cathedral of Rome and, indeed, is called the “mother of all churches.” St. Peter's is where the Pope says Mass most often, but the Lateran is where the Pope would come if he needed to make an ex cathedra (from the chair) pronouncement.
I'll re-live my visit to the chair Nov. 9. And this time I won't be alone: That's the feast of the dedication of St. John Lateran Basilica.
Maybe being a convert has something to do with the chair being so important to me. I'm not sure. In any case, until I became a Catholic, the pieces of the puzzle of life never quite fit. For many years, I had hoped to find the answers somewhere. But in the non-Catholic world, there are parts of Scripture that just can't be reconciled with others, and there is no authority that can make definitive statements on theology or life or ethics or practically anything. The result was that I was confused on a number of issues. No, it was worse than that: I was beginning to conclude that God was confused, too. I had only a slight hope that somehow, somewhere this side of heaven, God's revelation was being held sure and clear.
I look back now on how I knelt there at the chair, thanking God for his revelation to man through the Church, and for establishing and protecting an apostolic authority that we can trust absolutely. I recall how I thanked him for the font of wisdom that flowed from this chair to the ends of the earth.
And I thank him once again for the faithful Catholics who, down through the ages, have lived the truth so it might be passed on to people like me.
Bob Horning writes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.
- November 7-13, 2004