Daily Reflection
February 22nd, 2006

Eileen Burke-Sullivan

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Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter
1 Peter 5:1-4
Psalm 23:1-3a, 4, 5, 6
Matthew 16:13-19

“The Chair of Peter? Do you mean that we are honoring a piece of furniture?” a friend of mine exclaimed several days ago when I mentioned that I was pondering this feast for today’s reflection.

Yes, indeed! The Catholic Church challenges us in today’s liturgy to meditate on the piece of furniture that the Apostle Peter sat on in his ministry as “shepherd” of the Church of Rome. Such meditation invites us to recognize here several important gifts of grace for the whole Church. The readings and the feast focus our attention on the chair to take us beyond it to the gift of the Petrine Ministry for the Church. This is the task that the Bishop of Rome must labor under to help realize the Spirit’s gift of unity in the larger Church. The history of the feast in the Church illustrates a close link between the ministry of the Pope and the gift and importance of the sacraments of initiation for the Church.

A feast honoring St. Peter’s chair shows up in ecclesial practice and prayer as early as the middle of the fourth Century in Rome in two distinct traditions. It is evident from the historical references that the practice was long and well established before 354 A.D., however, even prior to the Edict of Toleration (313) by Constantine that began to free the Church from persecution. There is some historical evidence that after he came to Rome – possibly as early as the decade of the 50’s in the first Century, Peter used a chair in the home of Prisca and Aquila outside Rome, as the location of his ministry when he presided over the sealing of the baptisms of the neophytes from the various house churches with the oil of anointing – thus unifying them with the larger Church. This chair was wooden and moveable and there is some evidence that by the mid 4th Century this same chair was placed in a Chapel over Peter’s tomb and it was honored as the seat of installation for the early successors of Peter as bishops over the assembly of house churches in the city of Rome as well as the seat from which the Bishop of Rome continued to confirmed the Baptized in their Christian Initiation. Seemingly the early installations of Roman bishops took place on January 18 – which was the date upon which this feast was held for many centuries. But early in the 2nd or 3rd C. the original house of Prisca and Aquila was rebuilt into a small Basilica and dedicated (with the original chair within it) on February 22. With the reformation of the Church Year following Vatican II there was more historical evidence for the feast’s celebration on February 22.

But what does all this seeming trivia of history have to do with celebrating a Feast honoring a piece of furniture, one might pragmatically ask in 2006. Clearly the Catholic Church is profoundly sacramental in its outlook, and any material mediation, yes, even a piece of furniture, serves to enable us to “touch” the hand of God. The chair obviously is honored for the one(s) who sat there to preside over the sacred act of Initiation – or “Church making” – yes the Church is made and remade by God through the new members who are brought to life from her body. Furthermore, since the chair was the locus for the anointing (confirmation) it is clear that this act is a sacramental act of unifying. To be confirmed, then, is clearly a sign of being in union with the whole Church.

Peter and his successors have been given the task of proclaiming the Good News of salvation in such a way that that Gospel lures broken and lost humanity into the safety of the “flock” of God (Ps 23 – responsorial today). Furthermore, while every bishop’s primary task is confirming and holding the brothers and sisters together in unity within the local diocese, it is the task of the Bishop of Rome to hold all the bishops and all the baptized they serve in the universal unity.

In today’s first reading the author in Peter’s name asserts that to do this these leaders must witness to the sufferings of Christ, and they must NOT lord it over their “flock” but serve as humble examples. In this they will receive their reward.

In today’s Gospel we are reminded that Peter was chosen by Jesus to carry this burden of unifying the flock. He made the choice of Peter because the Spirit pointed to Peter by giving him the gift of insight about the role and mission of Jesus as Christ and Son of God. It has long been the tradition of the Church that the Spirit has a hand in selecting Peter’s successor. It is also the Spirit who empowers him with the gifts he needs to fulfill this critical mission of unity. For this reason it is perhaps one of the greatest tragedies of Christian history that some of those exercising the authority of the Chair of Peter have contributed significantly to the Church’s divisions rather than unity. They are men, after all, who are subject to weakness, sinfulness and even betrayal – as was Peter himself after Jesus chose him for this important ministry.

It is absolutely incumbent upon all of us, the baptized, who are the beneficiaries of the ministry of the ordained to pray for our leaders, that each one does not allow his sin to block the gifts of the Spirit he needs to be a good shepherd. Most especially, as this feast challenges us, we must pray constantly for the Pope, the one called to exercise this tremendous challenge of unifying the Church without oppressing or uniformizing it, that God’s Spirit of humility, fearlessness, and wisdom will guide him in guiding us.

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