In today’s Gospel, Jesus turns to Peter saying, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church…” On the Sea of Galilee, Peter is marked as the shepherd of the Church. He began as Simon son of Jonah, an unlikely character, a fisherman. Now he will be the leader of the followers of Christ. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “[Jesus] gave him the keys of his Church and instituted him shepherd of the whole flock.” We celebrate this sublime moment today on the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, praying in a special way for the pope—St. Peter’s successor—and also all clergy, bishops, priests, and deacons who continue to shepherd Christ’s flock.
Why celebrate a chair? The physical Chair of Peter is fixed in the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome, but it is a physical symbol that communicates a spiritual reality. Pope Emeritus Benedict gave a concise homily on its significance in 2006, explaining that each bishop sat on a cathedra (his established seat) when entrusted with a specific church. It was not only the place Peter would have sat as bishop, but also where he would have taught, preached, and carried out his priestly tasks. Peter once held a physical space, much like a solitary shepherd who stands with his staff and provides for the sheep he serves. And over time, the chair has been broken, worn, and recreated as a symbol of the apostle’s works. As Peter went from Simon to the rock, petra, the chair became cathedra, the bishop’s seat. Pope Benedict XVI continued in his homily, “the Chair of the Bishop of Rome represents not only his service to the Roman community but also his mission as guide of the entire People of God.” The Chair of St. Peter, therefore, points to the Eternal Good Shepherd: Christ himself.
Jesus instituted the papacy knowing of Peter and his future successors’ humanity. Peter was passionate, dramatic, foolish and courageous. He both loved and held a deep respect for Jesus, but would later betray his friend during his Passion. Yet Peter was also the first of the apostles to profess: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). It is for this reason that Jesus replied to him, “you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.” God works within the brokenness of our humanity and invites us to sanctity, just as he did with Peter. Peter went from a man who betrayed Christ to a martyr who died for him. As the first pope, he became a great leader and model despite his human imperfection.
In addition to the humanity of Peter, the Chair also reminds us of the call to holy leadership and is a sign of the grace given by God to those whom he calls, especially in the Sacrament of Holy Orders. The Catechism states, “Just as ‘by the Lord's institution, St. Peter and the rest of the apostles constitute a single apostolic college, so in like fashion the Roman Pontiff, Peter's successor, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are related with and united to one another." On this Feast, let us remember to pray for our pope and for all our church leaders!
How can celebrating the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter impact our own lives? Think of the physical and spiritual chairs that you sit in today and each day. Whether in an office, at home, in church, or outside, a chair enables us to perform our daily functions. In the same way, we hold offices in our lives. From being a young professional, mother or father, administrator, businesswoman or postman, we hold a place in this world as Christ’s followers. What chair is Christ asking you to fill in his Church?
In his homily on this Feast Day in 2016, Pope Francis challenged the Curia and all the Church to make Peter’s words their own. He said, “May our thought and our gaze be fixed on Jesus Christ, beginning and end of every action of the Church…Christ is the rock, on whose foundation Peter was also built…He is the ‘rock’ on which we must build.” As we celebrate the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, let us ask for St. Peter’s intercession as we strive to profess with faith, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Reflection Questions: What are the “holy offices” you hold in your own life? How do they reflect the great call of St. Peter as rock of the Church? Take time today to pray a prayer for priests in honor of St. Peter.