Today, February 22nd, is the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter.
A chair!? At first – and especially to outsiders – this feast might seem like the ultimate in Catholic esoterica. But when we drill into the meaning of this feast a bit, we see that it is, in fact, truly right and just that we celebrate it.
In the Church, the chair is the symbol of authority. In each diocese, in the cathedral, there is a special chair that only the bishop may occupy. When another priest celebrates Mass, he has to preside from a different chair in the sanctuary while the bishop’s chair remains empty. This chair has a special name, from which we get our word “cathedral”: cathedra. The cathedral is therefore where the bishop’s cathedra is.
When a bishop gives a homily, he may sit upon his cathedra to deliver it. This shows visibly that he possesses the fullness of teaching authority within his jurisdiction. What he says is authoritative. We should pay attention to what he says with an open heart and with religious submission. (Sadly, few bishops preach from the chair anymore – but we should still have those same attitudes that I described when we hear him preach.)
The bishop is the vicar of Christ in his diocese; this means: “personal representative of Christ”. He possesses the fullness of the sacrament of Holy Order and has been entrusted with the power to govern, to make laws, to judge, to sanctify, and so forth.
The pope is the bishop of Rome and the successor of St. Peter. By divine constitution – that is, by Christ’s design – the pope presides in charity over the entire Church. He is the vicar of Christ for all Catholics, not just those in Rome. As the Catechism teaches:
The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor…. by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.
This means – among other things – that every Catholic is directly subject both to his local bishop and to the pope.
The pope moreover has a particular charism, or divine gift, which is called infallibility. When the pope teaches solemnly on a matter of faith or morals “from the chair” (or, as we say in Latin, ex cathedra) – that is, when he solemnly defines a doctrine – we can be sure that it exactly corresponds with divine truth. Christ protects him from teaching error; therefore, whatever that teaching is – being a divine truth – is necessary for our salvation. These solemnly-defined truths are called dogmas.
Papal infallibility is a great gift that the Lord Jesus has given to the Church, to guarantee for us the content of the faith and ensure that we will not be led into error. You can read more about papal infallibility at this site. But, for your interest, I produce below the text of the definition of the dogma of papal infallibility, promulgated at the First Vatican Council in 1870:
Therefore, faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith…. we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable.
What are some examples of dogmas – i.e., things solemnly taught by popes, that must be held definitively by all? Here are just a few:
- The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
- The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven
- That Christ Has Both a Divine and a Human Nature
- The Intrinsically Evil Nature of Procured Abortion
When a pope canonizes someone, that is also an infallible act: it is a certain truth that the person who was canonized – i.e., the new saint – is in heaven. We might not have devotion to this or that particular saint, but we are required to believe that he or she is a saint.
There is a great deal more that can be said about this topic, along with many distinctions that could be made and so forth. I’ll just leave it here.
On the feast of the Chair of St. Peter we celebrate the gift of authority (and security) that the Lord has given to the Church – through the pope, the Vicar of Christ on earth. We thank God for his fidelity to the promise that he is “with us always, until the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20) and that the “gates of hell will not prevail” against the Church (Matthew 16:18).
On this feast day, it would be good to say the prayer that I translated in my previous post about Our Lady of Lourdes. Here it is (and here is a link to that post):
ACT OF FAITH
in the Dogma of Papal Infallibility.
Lord Jesus: cover, with the protection of your Sacred Heart, our Holy Father the Pope, in the infallibility in which we firmly believe.
“He who hears you hears me.” – St. Luke 10:16
St. Peter, pray for us.
St. Peter, pray for Pope Francis.