Pope Benedict XVI met with more than 8,000 pilgrims in the Paul VI Hall for his general audience on Feb. 22. As usual, the Holy Father met beforehand with more than 6,000 people in St. Peter’s Basilica since the audience hall is not large enough to accommodate all those who wish to attend. Since the audience took place on the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, Pope Benedict spoke about the importance of the occasion.
The Holy Father explained that the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter is ancient, dating back to the fourth century. It gives thanks to God for the mission entrusted to the Apostle Peter and to his successors. He recalled that the first “seat” (or “see”) of the Church was in the Upper Room where, in all probability, there was a special place reserved for Peter. From there, the “seat” of Peter moved to Antioch when he became its first bishop. Peter then went to Rome, where his service to the Church was crowned with martyrdom. “For this reason,” Pope Benedict noted, “the see of Rome, which had received this great honor, was also the recipient of the obligation that Christ entrusted to Peter to serve all the local churches in order to build up and unite the entire People of God.”
“Celebrating the ‘chair’ of Peter, as we do today, means, therefore, attaching a deep spiritual significance to it and recognizing in it a special sign of the love of God, the good and eternal Shepherd, who wishes to gather together his whole Church and guide her along the path of salvation,” the Holy Father noted.
The Pope concluded his catechesis with an invitation to prayer.
He said, “Ask the Holy Spirit to always sustain my daily service to the entire Church with his light and strength.”
Dear Brothers and Sisters!
Today the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter is celebrated in the Latin liturgy. It is a very ancient tradition, confirmed as having been celebrated in Rome from the fourth century, whereby we thank God for the mission he entrusted to the Apostle Peter and his successors. The Latin word cathedra literally means “seat”; it refers to the bishop’s chair located permanently in the mother church of the diocese which for this reason is called the “cathedral.” It is the symbol of the bishop’s authority, especially his “magisterium” — that is, his teaching on the Gospel — that he, as a successor of the apostles, is called to defend and hand on to the Christian community. When the bishop takes possession of the local church entrusted to him, he sits on this chair wearing the miter and holding the shepherd’s crosier. From this seat (or “see”), as teacher and shepherd, he guides the journey of the faithful in faith, hope and charity.
Next, Antioch, a city situated on the Orontes River in Syria (today it is in Turkey), became Peter’s “seat” (or “see”). At the time, Antioch was the third most important city in the Roman Empire after Rome and Alexandria in Egypt. Peter was the first bishop of that city, which was evangelized by Barnabas and Paul and where “the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26) and so where our name as Christians was born. In fact, before the liturgical calendar was reformed, the Roman Martyrology even made provision for a special celebration of the Chair of Peter at Antioch.
From there, God in his providence led Peter to Rome. Thus, we have the journey from Jerusalem, the birthplace of the Church, to Antioch, the first center of the Church formed by pagans yet still united with the Church that originated among the Jews. Afterwards, Peter went to Rome, the center of the Roman Empire, a symbol of the orbis (world) — the urbs (city) that is an expression of the orbis — where his journey in service to the Gospel was crowned with his martyrdom. For this reason, the see of Rome, which had received this great honor, was also the recipient of the obligation that Christ entrusted to Peter to serve all the local Churches in order to build up and unite the entire People of God.
When St. Peter’s journeys ended, the see of Rome came to be recognized as the seat of the Successor of Peter, and the cathedra of its bishop represented the cathedra of the apostle to whom Christ entrusted the task of feeding his entire flock. The earliest Fathers of the Church attest to this fact, like, for example, St. Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyon (though he was from Asia Minor), who, in his treatise Against the Heresies, describes the Church of Rome as “the greatest and the oldest, known by all … that the two glorious Apostles Peter and Paul founded and established in Rome.” He goes on to say that, “Because of her eminent superiority, the universal Church — that is, the faithful everywhere — must be in agreement with this Church” (III, 3, 2-3).
Shortly afterwards, Tertullian affirmed: “How blessed is this Church of Rome! The apostles themselves poured out upon her with their blood all of doctrine in its entirety” (La prescrizione degli eretici, 36). The chair of the Bishop of Rome represents, therefore, not only his service to the community of Rome, but also his mission of guiding the entire People of God.
A Sign of God’s Love
Celebrating the “chair” of Peter, as we are doing today, means, therefore, attaching a deep spiritual significance to it and recognizing in it a special sign of the love of God, the good and eternal Shepherd, who wishes to gather together his whole Church and guide her along the path of salvation. Among the many testimonies of the Fathers of the Church, I would like to refer to one by St. Jerome, from one of his letters to the Bishop of Rome, which is particularly interesting because he explicitly refers to the “chair” of Peter, which he presents as the safe harbor of truth and peace. This is what Jerome wrote: “I have decided to consult the chair of Peter, where that faith is found exalted by the lips of an apostle. I come at this time to ask for nourishment for my soul, to the place where, at one time, you received the garment of Christ. I follow no primacy save Christ’s; so I join in communion with your beatitude, that is, with the chair of Peter, for this I know is the rock upon which the Church is built” (Le lettere, I, 15,1-2).
Dear brothers and sisters, as you know there is a monument to the chair of the apostle in the apse of St. Peter’s Basilica — Hone of Bernini’s later works in the shape of a large bronze throne that is supported by the statues of four doctors of the Church: two from the West, St. Augustine and St. Ambrose, and two from the East, St. John Chrysostom and St. Athanasius. I invite you to linger in front of this thought-provoking work — which you can admire today decorated with many candles — and pray in a special way for the ministry that God has entrusted to me. Looking up at the alabaster glass window that opens right above the chair, ask the Holy Spirit to always sustain my daily service to the entire Church with his light and strength. I thank you from my heart for this and for your devoted attention.
of the Feb. 22 catechesis.
- March 12-18, 2006