This week the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of the chair of Peter. Obviously, a chair is only a piece of furniture, and, at first glance, is hardly an appropriate centerpiece for a liturgical event.
Those more sophisticated in Catholic matters will readily note that the chair is a symbol of St. Peter’s and every diocesan bishop’s teaching authority.
Why else is the principal church in every diocese known as the cathedral? The Latin word for chair is cathedra, and the cathedral is the church where the bishop’s chair — the symbol of the teaching authority he exercises in his diocese — is situated, almost always on the Gospel side of the sanctuary.
One exception with which I became familiar was the chair’s location in St. Mary’s Cathedral in Saginaw, Mich. The previous bishop, the late Kenneth Untener (d. 2004), had moved his episcopal chair to the front of the pews, facing the lectern from which the Scripture readings were proclaimed and preached.
The positioning of the chair was to emphasize the bishop’s place as part of the worshipping community, a hearer of the Word of God along with the laity and religious.
I had the privilege of speaking in the Saginaw cathedral not long after Bishop Untener’s untimely death from cancer. His successor had not yet been named, and many were apprehensive because Kenneth Untener had been their beloved bishop for some 24 years, stretching back to 1980.
One could almost feel his presence in that empty episcopal chair. I found myself gesturing to it whenever I made reference to their late bishop.
A bishop’s chair, therefore, is more than a piece of furniture, and the feast of the chair of Peter on Friday, Feb. 22, is not to celebrate an inanimate object, but rather what the chair represents, namely, the pastoral authority — and especially the teaching authority — of St. Peter over both the primatial Diocese of Rome and the universal church.
Another quick diversion is in order here before focusing our attention on Peter’s central role in the church. Today’s feast, which was observed at least as early as the mid-fourth century, actually has its roots in the commemoration of deceased relatives and friends. It was celebrated in Rome between Feb. 13 and 22.
At this commemoration, a chair was left empty in honor of deceased individuals. Since the actual date of Peter’s death was unknown, it came to be commemorated on Feb. 22, and only later developed into an observance of his assuming pastoral responsibility for the local church of Rome and the universal church.
And so this feast day became a celebration not only of the triumph of Christ’s grace in the heart and soul of Peter (as is every saint’s feast day), but of Peter’s status as the primary pastor and teacher of the universal church.
According to the New Testament, Peter enjoyed a unique role within the original company of Apostles. He was the first disciple whom Jesus called (Matthew 4:18-19), served as spokesman for the others (Mark 8:29; Matthew 18:21; Luke 12:41; John 6:67-69), and along with Mary Magdalene was one of the two to whom the risen Lord first appeared.
Although Peter was the most frequently mentioned Apostle in the four Gospels, and was regularly listed first among the Twelve, at the council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), where the circumcision issue was debated and resolved, it was James, not Peter, who presided and issued the final ruling, namely that Gentile converts were not to be compelled to become Jews in order to become disciples of Jesus Christ.
In the Catholic tradition, the biblical basis for associating the primacy with Peter is embodied in three texts: Matthew 16:13-19 (… you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church. …”); Luke 22:31-32 (“… you must strengthen your brothers”); and John 22:31-32 (“Feed my lambs. … Tend my sheep. … Feed my sheep.”).
At the same time, Peter’s authority was neither exclusive nor absolute. In the Acts of the Apostles he is shown consulting with the other Apostles and even being sent by them (8:4), and he and John are portrayed as acting as a team (3:1-11; 4:1-22; 8:14).
Moreover, Paul confronts Peter for his inconsistency and hypocrisy in drawing back from table fellowship with Gentile Christians in Antioch because of pressure from some Jewish Christians who had arrived later from Jerusalem. Paul “opposed him to his face because he was clearly wrong” (Galatians 2:11, and also verses 12-14).
Nevertheless, there is a trajectory of Petrine images — fisherman, shepherd, elder, proclaimer and guardian of the faith, rock — that continued in the life of the church, and none more apt than “servant of the servants of God.”
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.