The Chair of Peter
Today’s feast celebrates the establishment of the Catholic (Universal) Church when Christ said to Simon Bar-Jonah: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)
The feast of the Chair of Peter has been celebrated in Rome from the early days of Christianity on 18 January, in memory of the day St Peter first celebrated the Mass in Rome. On 22 February, we celebrate the feast of the Chair of Peter at Antioch, where he also founded an episcopal see. In Greek, chair is kathedra, which is why we have cathedrals, where our bishops sit and teach their flocks.
A New Family
The Chair of Peter correlates to the Chair of Moses (Matthew 23:2), the sign of teaching authority for the Jews of old. Today, we give thanks to God for the mission He entrusted to the Apostle Peter and his successors, the popes.
“Pope” comes from the word “Papa”, that is, Father – God founded a spiritual family in the Church, where we learn to live in loving community with our brothers and sisters in Christ. The Holy Father is the Vicar of Christ, acting as a general for the King’s army. In the early days, to become a pope was a death sentence: the first 33 popes were martyred.
A New Name
Simon, son of Jonah, was given a new name by Jesus along with his mission: Peter, meaning “Rock”. Jesus is the cornerstone (Acts 4:11) and rock of our faith; He is identified with the rock which accompanied the Israelites through the desert and, when cleft by Moses, provided living water (1 Corinthians 10:4). In giving the chief of the apostles his name, that is, his identity, Jesus was giving him a share in His earthly mission of salvation, which was to continue until the end of time.
Saint Peter’s Basilica, the apse, showing the Cathedra of St Peter supported by four Doctors of the Church, and the Glory, designed by Bernini.
Authority to Teach
Just as we have accredited teachers, who are trained to teach us about languages, sciences, mathematics, the arts and humanities, as well as physical education, home economics, design and technology and other skills, we have our clergy who go through many years of training to be our pastors (shepherds) and priests (who offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for us).
As teachers guide us through textbooks and workbooks, explaining the content to us and bringing it to life, so do priests guide us through Holy Scripture, particularly during the Mass, where we have readings from the Old and New Testaments side by side, showing us the pattern of salvation history.
It is because the Church has her teaching authority from Christ that she was able to canonise the books of the Bible. In the early days, various churches had different lists of scriptural texts. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Catholic Church decided which books were inspired by God and which were not, at the Council of Rome in AD 382, under the authority of Pope Damasus I. The same canon was reaffirmed at the Council of Hippo, Africa, in AD 393 at the Council of Carthage, AD 397; also at the ecumenical councils of Florence (1442), Trent (1546), Vatican I (1870), and Vatican II (1965).
When you quote the Bible as the Word of God, you accept the authority of the Catholic Church. Furthermore, the Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton (1207-1228) painstakingly numbered all the verses of the Bible. Anytime we mention a Bible verse like “John 3:16”, we are taking advantage of his great labour of love.
One to One
Philip the Apostle met an Ethiopian eunuch who was reading the prophet Isaiah, who is now known to have prophesied Jesus’ suffering and death. Philip asked if he understood what he was reading, to which the eunuch responded: “How can I, unless some man show me?” So Philip sat beside him and taught him about Jesus, after which he requested baptism. (Acts 8:27-39)
Hundreds of years later, when missionaries arrived in the area where the eunuch had travelled – modern-day Sudan – they found that the locals, though lacking much knowledge of Christianity as they had no priests to preserve and transmit the faith, knew how to make the Sign of the Cross.
Collect for the Feast of the Chair of Peter: