Today’s feast places the Chair or “Cathedra” of Saint Peter at the center of our attention – or rather the specific mission Jesus entrusted to Peter. The feast dates back to the 3rd century and is to be distinguished from the day of Peter’s martyrdom celebrated on 29 June. The feast originated around the “cathedra” of Peter, the place where the Bishop of Rome resided and governed. The “cathedra”, was a fixed “seat” of the Bishop, placed in the mother church of the Diocese – hence the word “cathedral” – which was the symbol of the Bishop’s authority who, as a successor of the Apostles, is called to protect the flock and transmit the teaching of the Gospel to the Christian community. We can say that the first “cathedral” was the Upper Room where Jesus gathered His disciples for the Last Supper and where they, along with the Virgin Mary, received the gift of the Holy Spirit. Later, Peter moved to Antioch, the city evangelized by Barnabas and Paul, where Jesus’ disciples were first given the name “Christians” (cf. Acts 11:6). Peter was the first Bishop of Antioch which explains why they celebrated the Feast of the Chair of Peter on 22 February. Later, Peter arrived in Rome where his life ended in martyrdom. Precisely for this “glorious” death, it was decided to consider Rome as the official location of the “Cathedra” of Saint Peter, with a celebration fixed on 18 January. Pope John XXIII united these two feasts, abolishing the latter.
The pastoral and teaching authority conferred by Christ to the Apostle Peter, as recalled in the Gospel chosen for this liturgical feast, is at the heart of today’s feast. Two ancient texts help us understand its significance and value. Saint Jerome wrote: “I decided to consult the Chair of Peter, where that faith is found exalted by the lips of an Apostle; I now come to ask for nourishment for my soul there, where once I received the garment of Christ. I follow no leader save Christ, so I enter into communion with your beatitude, that is, with the Chair of Peter, for this I know is the rock upon which the Church is built”. And Saint Augustine wrote. “The institution of today’s solemnity took the name ‘Chair’ from our predecessors due to the fact that it is said that the first apostle, Peter, occupied this Episcopal Cathedra. It is right, therefore, that the Churches venerate the origins of this See, which the Apostle accepted for the good of the Churches”.
When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, 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.” (Mt. 16:13-19)
You are the Christ
After having first interrogated his disciples regarding who “the people” think He is, Jesus narrows the playing field and asks them: “Who do you say that I am?” It is a question that has echoed down the ages and underscores that faith in Jesus is faith in God, in the Lord Jesus Christ, which is bound to the role of Peter and his successors. Jesus, the Son of God, has been at the Church’s helm throughout its history. Thus, there is no storm that can ever cause it to be shipwrecked.
Sign of unity
Peter and his successors were chosen as the “visible and principal signs of unity”, a point of reference so as to embark on the journey of faith confidently and securely. The Feast of the “Chair” of Peter, therefore, is a recognition of the spiritual significance of Saint Peter and his successors, as well as a privileged manifestation of God’s love who is our good and eternal Shepherd who wants to gather His entire Church and guide it on the path of salvation.