In the Roman Church on February 22 we observe the Feast of the Chair of Peter. “Chair” refers to the cathedra, the technical name for a bishop’s chair which symbolises the teaching authority he has as a successor of the Apostles. The church in which you find the local bishop’s permanent, official chair is a cathedral. In ancient times, the cathedra would be in the curved apse at the “head” of the church.
Later it came to be placed along the liturgically northern wall of the sanctuary (on the left, as you face the sanctuary, that is, facing toward liturgical East – ad orientem). When the Successor of Peter, the pope, teaches definitively concerning faith and morals, he teaches ex cathedra, “from the chair”. Latin sedes gives us the word “see” (seat) which is used for a territory of jurisdiction. The Holy See is the seat of the Universal Church’s government. The See of Peter, or the Apostolic (Apostle’s = Peter’s) See, is the Diocese of Rome, which has precedence in the whole world, as Pope Gelasius (d 496) wrote: “Est ergo prima Petri apostoli sedes… Therefore, the first see is that of the Apostle Peter.”
Speaking of Peter’s see, what legend saw as Peter’s own chair is now preserved in the apse of St Peter’s Basilica. This ancient wooden chair really dates back to only 875, when it was given to Pope John VIII by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Bald. It is kept in probably the most magnificent reliquary ever made, that is, the enormous bronze throne made by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (d 1680). This bronze throne-shaped reliquary, photos of which you’ve seen a zillion times but probably never tire of, is held aloft by heroic bronze statues of two Eastern and two Western Doctors of the Church (thus, the “teaching” theme),
Ss John Chrysostom, Athanasius, Ambrose and, of course, Augustine. It is surmounted by the riotous baroque sunburst encircling the famous alabaster window depicting the Holy Spirit dove. When we observe the Feast of the Chair of Peter, we are not interested in furniture, per se. Before His Ascension into heaven, Our Lord furnished our Church, in His Apostles and their successors, with His own authority to teach. When Holy Church teaches in her chief shepherds the bishops in unity with Peter’s Successor, or when Peter alone teaches, we can be confident that we are hearing the Truth.
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