Today’s Feast of the Chair of St. Peter the Apostle calls us to understand the Papal Office, our lives as disciples, and Jesus’ enduring summons to Christian unity as inherently related and dependent on the Holy Spirit.
This feast actually began as two separate celebrations–one day marking Peter’s “chair” of apostolic ministry in Antioch, and another to mark his later apostolic ministry in Rome. Yes, there once was a literal piece of furniture (a chair) saved from the time of Peter, but this was destroyed relatively early on in Christian history. So, (sorry “Antiques Roadshow” fans) no historical furniture exists. But what’s more important than a physical chair is the idea of Peter’s seat–his office of apostolic ministry and leadership.
As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI preached while celebrating this feast in 2006, the first seat was not even in Rome or Antioch, but in the Upper Room, in Jerusalem on Pentecost. On this day, the Holy Spirit was sent in order that the Spirit might “continually sanctify the Church” (CCC §767). How? Special graces (called charisms) are poured out and enable believers to “undertake various tasks and offices for the renewal and building up of the Church” for the good of humanity and the world (CCC §798-9). All of us believers in the Body of Christ have different charisms in accord with the different special graces poured out upon us (CCC §2004).
Some particular graces are named “hierarchic,” literally meaning sacred order (CCC §768). These gifts of sacred order are exercised in a particular office or position in the Body of Christ. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, the Lord gave:
some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ (Eph 4:11-2).
Benedict XVI demonstrated the precise nature of hierarchic gifts concretely through his resignation in 2011 (the “greatest act of papal humility”). He stepped away from particular hierarchic gifts by leaving an office in the Body of Christ, a position of sacred order.
What was the purpose of this seat, this office first occupied by Peter? Most concretely, to keep Jesus Christ’s disciples unified in faith and in charity (Benedict XVI, 2012 homily). Bishops are successors to the apostles, and the Bishop of Rome in a particular way is a successor to Peter, receiving the hierarchical gift of serving the function of unity and charity in the Body of Christ. The title “pontiff” gives us a wonderful illustration. Pontiff comes from the French and Latin words for “bridge” (pons). (Or, think in English, of a “pontoon boat”–same root!] The Bishop of Rome, in his Papal Office serves as a bridge between all other bishops, guiding the flock of Jesus’ disciples in unity of faith and love.
Talking about the Pope the wrong way can sometimes come across as arrogant–i.e. I’m a Catholic. We have a Pope. Therefore we’re “better” than that non-denominational congregation down the street. It’s not about being better or superior. No. This feast celebrating Peter’s seat, his office inspires us to pray for the Pontiff as bridge, pray for unity and charity in the Body of Christ–a Body that extends beyond the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church (Decree on Ecumenism, §3).
In fact, this Feast of the Chair of St. Peter was formerly celebrated on January 18th, as the start to the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity (which ends on Jan 25th, the feast of the conversion of St. Paul). The Holy Spirit is one with God the Father. The God of Mercy who wills “that all may be one” (John 17:21). The Holy Spirit gives hierarchic gifts of the Spirit so that we (who as believers in Jesus Christ, are all uniquely given particular charisms for the good of the Body) can be one in faith and charity. Devoted to “the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42). This is the Spirit-filled vision of Peter’s chair–from Pentecost to the present day.
I recall being very blessed, three years ago, to bring my first child to his first Mass on this day. What did we see? A weekday reception of a fellow brother in Christ into full communion and a surprise choral post-communion hymn from his enthusiastic friends and family. What an outpouring of the Spirit, a reminder that even during Lent, we’re a Pentecostal church for sure! 🙂