The feast of the Chair of St. Peter has nothing to do with a piece of furniture.
The “chair” symbolizes the authority of St Peter and his successors who have served the Church of Jesus Christ as the Bishop of Rome (the Pope). As a matter of fact, in Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica, there is a chair, enshrined in the sumptuous Altar of the Chair of St. Peter by the great architect Bernini, but it is a symbol representing the 2,000-year-old papacy and unity the Pope continues to bring to Catholics around the world. Without such unity the Church would splinter into numerous sects and divisions.
So, every year on Feb. 22, the Church celebrates the continuing role of the Pope, the Vicar of Christ, beginning with St Peter. The use of the term chair in the feast day comes from the Latin term cathedra, meaning the seat of government. But how did such a feast day ever get started? We need to go back to the time of Jesus for the answer.
According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus asks the Twelve Apostles, “Who do you say that I am?” (16:15). The only response Jesus acknowledged was that of Peter, who said that Jesus was the son of the living God. Jesus in turn said to Peter, “Blessed art you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father” (v. 17). Peter’s answer is heavenly inspired, and from that point Peter is singled out among the apostles to be the rock of Christ’s Church on earth. According to Jesus, the Church will be so rock solid that “the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (v. 18).
Later, following the Resurrection, Jesus confirms Peter’s primacy over the other apostles as well as authority over His Church. He gives Peter the keys to the kingdom, telling him: to “Feed my lambs…. Feed my sheep” (see Jn 21:15-17). This authority, this responsibility given to Peter, is meant to be passed on to each of his successors. Jesus did not intend for the Church to end with Peter.
St. Peter quietly begins to take on the role assigned by Christ beginning in the Upper Room. Pope Benedict XVI writes in his book “Holiness is Always in Season” (Ignatius Press, 2011): “So what was the ‘Chair’ of St Peter? Chosen by Christ as the ‘rock’ on which to build the Church (cf. Mt 16:18), he began his ministry in Jerusalem, after the Ascension of the Lord and Pentecost. The Church’s first ‘seat’ was the Upper Room, and it is likely that a special place was reserved for Simon Peter in that room where Mary, Mother of Jesus, also prayed with the disciples” (p. 65).
Even before Pentecost, Peter orchestrated the selection of Matthias to replace Judas, which was the first apostolic succession (see Acts 1:15-26). Peter preached on that day of Pentecost and was so inspirational that 3,000 people were baptized after listening to him (Acts 2:41). He was the first apostle to be given the grace to perform a miracle; curing the lame man at “the Beautiful gate” (Acts 3:1-10). King Herod Agrippa had Peter arrested and shackled in prison between two guards, but an “angel of the Lord” saved him (Acts 12:1-10). Peter’s decisive speech at the Council of Jerusalem in A.D. 50 resolved the debate there (Acts 15:6-12). That he was singled out for a special role among all the apostles is undisputable.
Around A.D. 34, Peter went to Antioch and established there a seat, or chair, of government. Antioch was a major metropolitan city of the ancient world with a diverse population and was the place where Christ’s followers were first called Christians. Peter remained there for seven years, and the Church would acknowledge his work in Antioch by establishing the feast of St. Peter’s Chair in Antioch, celebrated on Feb. 22 every year. That feast remained on the Catholic liturgical calendar until the 20th century.
Next, Peter went to Rome, the center of the civilized world. Peter’s efforts there would identify him as the first Bishop of Rome. Gifted by God and respected by man, he would continue his role as leader of all the Church, and as a result was the first pope. In A.D. 68, he was crucified by Emperor Nero.
The Feast of the Chair
His feast day, originally called the feast of the Chair of St. Peter in Rome, began in the fourth century. It was held on Jan. 18, as that was believed to be the day when Peter gave his first homily in Rome. At some point before the 16th-century Protestant revolt, the feast was combined with the feast of St. Peter’s Chair in Antioch. When Martin Luther revolted from the Church, Protestant heretics made the absurd claim that Peter was never in Rome and thus he could not have been the Bishop of Rome.
Consequently, in their opinion, there could be no pope as claimed by Catholics.
In order to reject this false Protestant challenge, Pope Paul IV (r. 1555-1559) reinstituted the feast of the Chair of Peter in Rome in 1558. As a result, for 400 years the Church celebrated two feast days regarding the Chair of Peter. One feast reflected on Peter’s role in Antioch, the other on his role in Rome. In 1962, Pope John XXIII combined the two feasts into one, which is the feast of the Chair of St. Peter, held Feb. 22 each year.
On this feast day, the universal Church acknowledges that St. Peter was the first pope and that his mission continues through the Holy Father today. Simply stated, that mission is to care for the people of God; to carry on the customs, rituals, teachings and truths of Jesus; and to uphold the unity of His Church. Moreover, the Church proclaims that the authority given to St. Peter by Our Lord has been handed down to Peter’s successors for the past 2,000 years.
This day is not just about apostolic succession in respect to the pope and the bishops. Among the laity, it symbolizes an unspoken confidence that the Church of Jesus does not change from age to age; that the truths of the Gospel still form the basis of our faith; that these eternal truths are reflected in every Catholic parish and in every Mass. It is a confidence that the leader of our Church adheres to and will never deny the precepts and principles of the Church of Jesus. We firmly believe that we are part of the mystical body of Christ, a holy people, a holy priesthood.
In the late fourth century, St. Jerome wrote to Pope Damasus I: “I follow no leader but Christ and join in communion with none but Your Blessedness, that is, with the chair of Peter. I know that this is the rock on which the Church has been built. Whoever eats the Lamb outside this house is profane. Anyone who is not in the Ark of Noah will perish when the flood prevails.”
D.D. Emmons writes from Mount Joy, Pa.