The Feast of St. Peter’s Chair

Several years ago, as an eager Confirmation student, I remember paging through The Book of Saints. I attempted to get a snapshot of several Saints to help me determine who I wanted to pick for my Confirmation name. This was a responsibility I did not take lightly. I wanted to pick someone to whom I not only felt drawn, but also someone who was drawing me to them. I wanted my namesake to be someone I could place my confidence in to intercede for me. Someone in Heaven who would remain my spiritual warrior.

I found what I was hoping for in the Apostle Peter. He is the rock of our Church, and the man we celebrate today on this Feast of Saint Peter’s Chair.

Peter’s Humanity

As I learned more about St. Peter, I was in awe of his great humility. He made a few mistakes along the way and often ended up in some pretty embarrassing and regretful situations. For example, the doubt that caused him to sink when Jesus invited him to walk on water. Or maybe his naivete when Peter recommended to Jesus that they build three tents when Moses and Elijah appeared to them on the mountain. In his human weakness and yes, cowardice, he even denied knowing his friend, Jesus. He did this not once, but three times.

It wasn’t Peter’s mistakes that made me feel drawn to him. It was the fact that Jesus loved him in spite of his mistakes. What I admire in this great Saint is that, after all of his mistakes, he continued to repent and pursue virtue. His humility is the quality which I am most in awe of. The virtuous humility that grabbed my attention most was what took place right before his martyrdom.

Peter’s Humility

St. Peter did not think himself worthy of being killed in the same manner as His Lord. So instead of being crucified as Jesus was, he begged his persecutors to crucify him upside-down. Italian painter Caravaggio portrayed this scene so beautifully in his piece, The Crucifixion of Saint Peter. Here, Peter is portrayed with a sense of longing in his eyes, a longing to be reunited with his friend Jesus. He remains unshaken by the terror all around him. But rather, he was a symbol of what his name in Greek represents, Petros, or “rock.” Jesus said to him, “…you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18).

Despite all of Peter’s shortcomings, Jesus made him the rock upon which he built His Church. This is a great encouragement to me. If Peter can deny Christ, but later refuse to be crucified in the same manner as his Lord, I hope that Christ will redeem me in my own sinfulness, no matter the gravity of my sin, and approach the Lord with the same humility that Peter did.

Today, the obelisk that stands in the center of St. Peter’s Square in Rome is likely the very last thing that Peter laid his eyes on before dying. It stood in the Vatican Circus where he was martyred. The obelisk originally stood as a monument to draw people to watch persecutions. Now it stands as a beacon in St. Peter’s Square, where it draws people to the heart of the Church.

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The Altar of St. Peter’s Chair

Today, in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, you can visit the Altar of the Chair, in which you will see the beautiful alabaster Holy Spirit window. Here in this chapel is a twenty-three foot tall gilded bronze throne which was made by Bernini in the seventeenth century. Encased in this throne is an old wooden frame of what is believed to be St. Peter’s own chair (or “cathedra” which means the official throne of a bishop). It was later embellished with oak and ivory in order to help hold the chair together and to decorate it.

What the Chair Represents

This chair appears to be supported by four Doctors of the Church. There are two Western doctors, St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, and two Eastern doctors, St. John Chrysostom and St. Athanasius. These figures show the universality of the Church as well as how consistent the theologians’ teaching is with the doctrine of the Apostles.

Although the chair seems to be supported by the four Doctors, it is actually supported by the clouds which surround it.

The Clouds, the Angels, and the Mission

What I love about this image is that the clouds represent God’s glory. They show that the Church is dependent not on men, but on the Holy Spirit. The clouds which surround the chair show that although the Doctors support the Church by passing it on from generation to generation, it is through the Holy Spirit that the doctrine of the Church is passed on.

Above the chair are angels which bear a tiara and keys which symbolize the Pope’s teaching as well as his spiritual and moral authority. On the golden background of the altar is the Latin inscription: “O Pastor Ecclesiae, tu omnes Christi pascis agnos et over.” This means, “O Pastor of the Church, you feed all Christ’s lambs and sheep.”

Pointed to Prayer

On this Feast of St. Peter’s Chair we are reminded not only of our first pope and his humility, but also of his successors.

Today let us ask for St. Peter’s intercession as we pray for our priests so that they, like St. Peter, will be open to the movement and direction of the Holy Spirit in their lives to continue building up our Church.

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Susanna Parent is a regular contributor to the BIS blog. She serves as Evangelization Manager for the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis in the Office of Evangelization. She is a recent graduate of the Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry program with the School of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas. When she’s not reading and writing you can find her enjoying life with her new husband, brewing French press coffee in her kitchen, reading wine labels with friends in an effort to discover the perfect Pinot Noir and blogging about her travel adventures. You can find out more about her here.

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