Catholic Classroom: The Chair of Saint Peter
The Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter is observed on February 22nd every year. In part, the feast celebrates the physical chair of Saint Peter, which is preserved as a relic behind the altar at Saint Peter’s Basilica. More importantly though, the feast celebrates the spiritual authority that the chair represents.
Of the chair and its feast day, Pope Benedict XVI said; “It is a symbol of the special mission of Peter and his Successors to tend Christ’s flock, keeping it united in faith and in charity.”
We celebrate Christ’s appointment of Peter as earthly shepherd of the Church and, subsequently, the establishment of the papacy. We can read Biblical evidence of this in Matthew 16:15-19:
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “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, 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.”
Two important things need to be noted from this passage: first, there is only one other instance in Scripture when someone is addressed, “Blessed are you.” That instance is when Elizabeth greets Mary and says, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:42-43). Just before Jesus declares Peter to be the rock upon which He will build His Church, he draws special attention to Peter by greeting him in the same way His mother had been greeted.
The second thing we can observe from this passage is that Jesus establishes a new spiritual authority in place of the previous teaching authority of the Pharisees and Sadducees. This authority is given to Peter when Jesus says that whatever he binds and looses on earth will be bound and loosened in Heaven.
Now you may be wondering, what teaching authority were the Pharisees and Sadducees standing upon? The answer can be traced back to Moses but is explicitly stated by Jesus himself when he says; “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses,” (Matthew 23:2). This confirms the idea of spiritual authority being represented by a chair, but also the idea of the papacy, which is built upon the belief that spiritual authority can be passed down.
Furthermore, 1 Peter 5:1-4 says;
So I exhort the presbyters among you, as a fellow presbyter and witness to the sufferings of Christ and one who has a share in the glory to be revealed. Tend the flock of God in your midst, [overseeing] not by constraint but willingly, as God would have it, not for shameful profit but eagerly. Do not lord it over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd is revealed, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
This passage places emphasis on the idea of spiritual shepherds to guide the people, but also cautions against taking that position with pride. Christ is ultimately both the example and the true shepherd in charge.
While some may say that there is no scriptural evidence for the establishment of the pope or the spiritual authority of the Chair of Saint Peter, these are not the only passages that prove otherwise. Saint Peter was the first pope, and the line of spiritual authority can be traced from Pope Francis all the way back to him. For Catholics, this authority is a reminder that the Church is not some haphazard institution that was thrown together; rather, it’s a living body built upon hundreds of years of Tradition which Christ has promised will continue to triumph over all that tries to overcome it.
*photo by Ricardo André Frantz under CC BY-SA 3.0