By Fr. Kevin Magner
In the apse of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is a magnificent work of art by Bernini depicting the Chair of St. Peter, which is the subject of today’s feast day, the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter the Apostle. Why celebrate a chair? Good question. Well, of course, it’s not the chair that we celebrate, but what the chair represents; which is the authority of the pope.
In every Catholic cathedral throughout the world there is the local bishop’s chair, or cathedra. The chair represents the spiritual authority of the bishop of that particular diocese, whether he is seated in the chair or not. This is a very old symbol of authority that goes back thousands of years. In the ancient world it was common for a teacher to be seated on a chair as he taught, with his students seated on the ground at his feet. This is the origin of the expression, “learning at the feet of the master.”
The current Bishop of Rome, of course, is Pope Francis. He also has his bishop’s cathedra, but it is not the one pictured above. That’s because the pope’s cathedral is actually the Church of St. John Lateran, not St. Peter’s Basilica.
The Chair of St. Peter, then, represents not only the authority of the current pope but the authority of the person of the pope as the Vicar of Christ on earth. Pope Benedict XVI described the chair as “a symbol of the special mission of Peter and his Successors to tend Christ’s flock, keeping it united in faith and in charity.” (Angelus, Feb. 19, 2012)
Interestingly, in St. Peter’s Basilica there is another depiction of the authority of St. Peter as the Vicar of Christ. It is a bronze statue of Peter seated in a chair and holding the keys to the kingdom of heaven. This is a reference to the words of Jesus as He named Peter as His first Vicar: “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.” (Matthew 16:18-19)
If you look closely at the statue you will notice that the right foot of St. Peter has been rubbed smooth by the many pilgrims throughout the centuries who have touched or kissed the foot as a sign of reverence to St. Peter. During my seminary days in Rome I was a tour guide in St. Peter’s Basilica. One of the legends we would tell concerning this statue was that so many people over the years have rubbed smooth the foot of St. Peter that his right foot has had to be replaced three times since the statue was created. That story, however, you may want to take with a grain of salt.
Have a blessed week, everyone!