As we celebrate the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter the Apostle on February 22nd, many may ask, why are we celebrating a chair? Certainly this feast in the liturgical calendar of celebrations in our Catholic faith is about much more than a piece of furniture. But at the same time it really is a chair that we celebrate. The physical chair is located under the Holy Spirit window in the Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican. While the visible chair is ornate and symbolic it encloses an actual wooden chair with ancient roots.
The Chair of Saint Peter speaks of ancient tradition and faith which truly does reach back twenty centuries to the days of Simon the fisherman who became Peter the fisher of men and the first pope in the Church which Jesus Christ established. The chair that is at the heart of this feast is a reminder that the apostles were real men who walked this earth, stumbled in sin, celebrated redemption in Jesus and even sat in chairs.
The importance of the symbol of the chair speaks of the authority that Jesus Christ shared with Simon Peter as the first among the original twelve apostles. Closely tied to the image of the chair with regard to Peter is the image of the crossed keys. The chair and the keys speak to the spiritual authority that Christ gave to Peter in the Gospel according to Matthew. “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:18-19). Notice that a chair is not mentioned but the keys are, both speak to the essential authority of the Petrine Office which is meant to guard and unify the Catholic Church through the ages.
The collect prayer for the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter the Apostle in the Roman Missal, the official book that guides the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice of the Holy Mass, says “Grant, we pray, almighty God that no tempests may disturb us, for you have set us fast on the rock of the Apostle Peter’s confession of faith.”
As is often the case the prayers of the liturgy not only focus us in prayer as we approach the Eucharistic Altar but they also catechize. This collect prayer makes it very clear what the rock, the chair and the keys of Peter represent; they represent Peter’s confession of faith.
This brings us to the heart of the reason the Church celebrates this feast and why the Petrine Office is essential to the life of the Church which Christ established. It takes us back to the earlier verses in Matthew when Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). Peter’s statement of the faith is the foundation of the Church and the Petrine Office through the ages. The binding and loosing work of popes through the ages combined with Sacred Scripture, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and magisterial documents are now expressed as the Deposit of Faith which every bishop promises to guard at his ordination.
All of this helps to answer the question, why do we celebrate a chair? Our answer: because this chair represents the office of the papacy established by Jesus Christ as a unifying and guiding principle for his Church. Pope Francis is the 266th occupant of the Petrine Office of the Catholic Church and he bears the tremendous responsibility of guarding and proclaiming the faith of Saint Peter in the 21st century.
We pray for Pope Francis as we have prayed for every pope since Peter. The tempests that have ravaged the Church through the ages and in our time at times seem about to overpower the barque of Peter, the Church. But we rely on Christ’s promise that “the gates of the netherworld (hell) shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18). We pray for every occupant of the Chair of Saint Peter to stay strong in faith and share the good news of Jesus Christ with the world. Like Peter every pope is just a man but the Lord’s authority and truth is his strength. Let us all pray for a more profound confession of faith for the whole Church.
Cover Image: The Chair of St. Peter in St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome.