Crazy Catholics Celebrate Chair!

Today, February 22nd, is the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter.

In the foreground, the famous 13th-century bronze statue of St. Peter Enthroned, so dear to pilgrims who visit St. Peter’s Basilica. In the background, Bernini’s famous Holy Spirit window, beneath which is an elaborate baroque monument containing the reputed relics of the real chair of St. Peter. See if you can spot the ex votos in this photograph!
Photographed by Fr. Bryan Jerabek on June 17, 2012.

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.

The pope’s cathedra in the back of the sanctuary of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, which is his proper cathedral.
Photographed by Fr. Bryan Jerabek on May 22, 2006.

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).

Christ gives the keys of the kingdom to St. Peter. Illuminated letter from a late-14th century prayer book.

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.

A screenshot that I took from this morning’s Consistory, showing the great monument of the Chair of St. Peter, decorated with candles in honor of today’s feast.

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8 Responses to Crazy Catholics Celebrate Chair!

  1. mikeldodd says:

    I’m a Protestant, but I also love Church History. And this stuff is just cool. 🙂 I’ve never understood though, if the Bishop of Rome was always Pre-Eminent, why did Paul have to write Romans?

    • I don’t think anyone claims that he *had* to write to the Romans, but the fact is that he did.

    • Tony says:

      I think St. Paul gives us a clue in the letter itself. Romans 15:20 – “And thus I aspired to preach the gospel, not where Christ was already named, so that I would not build on another man’s foundation…” [NASB]

      From the historical context, this seems to indicate his deference to St. Peter, the “other man” who already presided as the shepherd the Roman flock.

      Paul being an itinerant evangelist was basically writing to them & teaching them as a guest, not as the “church planter.”

  2. Lorrie says:

    Thanks, Father. The terms dogma (vs. doctrine), ex cathedra, and infallibility came up in my faith-sharing group just this past week, so your discussion is a timely clarification.

  3. Analda Anglin says:

    Ah! I have seen my Bishop give a homily while seated, and I did not understand why he did that. Even though I know what “ex cathedra” means, I had not made the connection between the phrase and the action during the Mass. Thank you for the explanation.

  4. Brian E. Breslin says:

    Well done, Father. Thank you very much.

  5. Tony says:

    Wonderful reflection, Father. Thank you!

Comments are closed.