What Does the Chair of St. Peter Symbolize?

What Does the Chair of St. Peter Symbolize?

Written by Grace Babineau, a Catholic blogger at www.gracefuljournal.com

To the right of the altar in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, an ancient statue of St. Peter sits with his right hand raised in blessing while his left hand holds fast to the keys of heaven. Worn thin from the constant veneration of pilgrims, the statue's right foot bears the weathering of centuries of devotion. Kissing or touching his right foot, pious pilgrims began the tradition of begging St. Peter to grant them entry to heaven upon their death, especially during times when the chances of their surviving a long, dangerous pilgrimage to Rome were far less likely than they are today.

St. Peter’s Authority

Devotion to St. Peter manifested through the impressive grandeur of St. Peter’s Basilica points to the significance of this saint within the life of the church. While Saints Peter and Paul both share a feast day commemorating their martyrdom by Emperor Nero, the feast of the Chair of St. Peter celebrates St. Peter’s call as the rock of Christ and the first pope of the Catholic Church. When we recite the Nicene creed at Mass on Sundays, we confess our belief in “one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church.” The apostolic nature of our faith is directly correspondent to St. Peter, whom Christ chose to become the head of the Church on earth. When Christ asks His apostles in Matthew 16:15, “But whom do you say that I am?” Peter responds, “Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God,” demonstrating divinely inspired wisdom. It is after this profound confession that Christ proceeds to choose Peter as the first pope, laying the foundation for His Church.

Throughout the New Testament, we see Peter’s leadership, especially after the Ascension, when he leads the apostles in baptizing thousands at Pentecost. Peter’s role as the first leader of the church is no mere formality, but a part of Christ’s design to maintain clear unity and order within the Church. This is where the Catholic Church gains the authority that defines and separates it from all other religions. From Peter, who received direct commission from Christ, we can trace the authority of every pope, down to our current vicar, Pope Francis. Within each Pope we find a leader who acts in persona Christi, in the person of Christ,  shepherding the faithful, and directing them on the path to holiness. 

The Chair and the Church

The Feast of the Chair of St. Peter thus does not commemorate any special throne or seat but refers rather to the authority of St. Peter. The word “chair” originally stems from the Latin word “cathedra,” meaning seat of government. Thus, this unique feast day celebrates not only the initial authority of St. Peter, but the authority of each pope passed down through the ages.

Though there will always be confusion, schism, and heresy that seek to divide the flock of Christ and lead many astray from the fold, we can find peace in Christ’s promise to His apostles regarding the Church in Matthew 16:18: “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” This promise assures us that no matter what storms may come, He will not allow His Church to be overcome by the evil one. The Papacy, while divinely instituted by Christ, by no means escapes the weakness of sin, and throughout the centuries, we find many sinful and corrupt popes. Peter himself denied Christ three times, deserting Him at the hour of his death, though he repented soon after and continued to follow Him. The weakness of the man does not undermine the authority of the Christ-appointed position.

On this Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, let us reflect on the wisdom of Christ’s design for the Church. Under the authority of Christ, which He passed on to His apostles, there is a safety and order which comes from the Church’s obedience. While obedience in our modern culture is often despised as restrictive and binding, when directed towards the proper authority, it bears nothing but harmony in our lives. By practicing obedience to those who bear proper authority over us, whether parents, pastors, or the Pope, we honor Christ’s authority and glorify Him greatly. In honor of the Chair of St. Peter, let us also pray especially for Pope Francis, that he might emulate St. Peter in his humility, piety, and great love for the flock of Christ.

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