-sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1657–1666, gilt bronze, St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, please click on the image for greater detail
Today, the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, an occasion that has been marked since approximately the fourth century. While a physical “Chair of Peter” remains in the Vatican, today’s feast commemorates more than a revered relic. As Pope Benedict XVI said during his papal audience on February 19, 2012:
The Chair of St Peter, represented in the apse of the Vatican Basilica is a monumental sculpture by Bernini. It is a symbol of the special mission of Peter and his Successors to tend Christ’s flock, keeping it united in faith and in charity…The Chair of Peter is therefore the sign of authority, but of Christ’s authority, based on faith and on love.
This feast today, then, calls each of us to reflect on the gift and mission of the papacy. Christ bestowed particular authority on Peter, the first pope, and this papal authority has continued to be passed down in an unbroken line. While some popes have harbored faults in their personal lives, through them, the Holy Spirit has continued to lead the Catholic Church. However, oftentimes, people forget about the sacred calling and mission of the pope. Many individuals try to use the pope to further their own agendas. They take the pontiff’s words and try to fit them into a particular box of ideals. Furthermore, if the pope says something about which they do not agree, these same people will disregard him and ignore the doctrine which he preaches. We can easily fail to recognize what a tremendous gift we have in the papacy. Too often, we become like “fair-weathered friends” and only appreciate the pope when his words are easy to accept.
However, on today’s feast, we can stop and think about the gift of the papacy. Christ’s representative is on Earth, leading us closer to God—is this not incredible? Jesus Christ specifically chose a pope in the early days of the Church, and ever since St. Peter, God has guided the Church in unity through the pope. What a great gift and blessing we have been granted! It is beautiful to see how throughout the centuries, the pope has been an instrument of unity. For example, in the Acts of the Apostles, we read about some of the challenges that the early Church faced. One of these occurred at the Council of Jerusalem, where the apostles were arguing about how Mosaic Law should or should not be implemented. As the Scriptures note, “After much debate had taken place, Peter got up and said to them…” (Acts 15:7). He then outlined the truth of God’s saving work, and when he was finished, “the whole assembly fell silent” (Acts 15:12). Then, St. James the Apostle exhorted those present to listen to and follow the words and example of St. Peter.
Even in the earliest days and trials of the Christians, the pope was working to bring them all together in unity and love. This same papal authority and work towards unity continue to this day. The papacy is a gift, by which God holds the faithful together, draws them closer to Himself, and guides them through the humble work of a mere man. The pope is not a celebrity, superstar, or mere figurehead; instead, he is Christ’s servant, known by the centuries-old title “servant of the servants of God.”
On this Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, let us pray for the pope, his work, and his intentions. Countless times, Pope Francis has asked people to pray for him—yet how often do we complete this simple task? As a humble servant-leader of the entire Church, the pope is continually faced with many tremendous tasks. He greatly needs our prayers, that he may be refreshed and full of God’s love as he serves. Furthermore, today, let us also thank God for the great gift of the papacy, by which He continues to lead us.
Celebrating the “Chair” of Peter, therefore, as we are doing today, means attributing a strong spiritual significance to it and recognizing it as a privileged sign of the love of God, the eternal Good Shepherd, who wanted to gather his whole Church and lead her on the path of salvation.
—Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience on February 22, 2006