Fr Billy Swan
The feast of St Peter’s chair is a celebration that gives thanks to God for the unique authority that Christ gave to St Peter and his successors in order to maintain harmony and communion in the universal Church. Symbolized by a chair, the office of Peter is a recognized authority that co-ordinates debates, helps solve problems in local Churches and preserves unity and the order of charity in the Church around the world. Establishing unity among people is tricky at the best of times but a unity based on a coalition of opinion is doomed to failure. Division and schism will be the inevitable outcome. The only firm foundation of unity in the family of the Church around the world is faith in Christ and the truth of his Word. The chair of Peter is Christ’s gift to his Church. It is an office that exhorts us to fidelity to his Word and teaching, the fruit of which is unity.
It is estimated that in the global body of over two billion Christians, there are over 45,000 denominations. Perhaps unsurprising is how Christianity diversified as it spread out from Jerusalem into all the cultures and nations of the world to be the global religion that it is today. But what is surprising and indeed problematic is the incredible number of Christian denominations in existence, each with their own interpretation of what the Christian life is about. Is this explosion in the number of Christian denominations consistent with Christ’s will that ‘they all be one’? (John 17:21). Hardly. Therefore, for Catholicism, it is all the more reason to give thanks to God for the chair of Peter to keep us united and to avoid fundamental truths of our faith being reduced to mere opinion or personal interpretation.
The chair of Peter’s authority is based on his unique place within the twelve apostles and the authority that Christ bestowed upon him in his Church: ‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. I have given you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you loose on earth shall be loosened in heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven’ (Matt.16:18-19)’. Even Peter’s sin and three-fold denial of Christ did not reverse Christ’s choice of him as the rock on which to build his Church. For Christ, to be a rock did not mean to be perfect. All that Christ needed from Peter was his love and his faith that he would bring into his ministry of leadership and care of the people of God: ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these others do? Yes, Lord, you know that I love you’. Jesus said to him: ‘feed my lambs’ (John 21:15).
This primacy of Peter was accepted by the early Fathers. St Augustine informs us of how much this was taken for granted in the earth fifth century: ‘Who can fail to know that the most blessed Peter was the first of the apostles?’ (Tractates on John, 56, 1)
This primacy extended beyond Peter to his successors. As early as 432 at the Council of Ephesus, the authority of Peter and his successors was invoked by the Fathers present – an authority that was needed to solve a doctrinal dispute that had arisen about whether or not Mary should be honored with the title of ‘Mother of God’.
‘There is no doubt, and in fact it has been known in all ages, that the holy and most blessed Peter, prince and head of the apostles, pillar of the faith and foundation of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ…and that to him was given the power of loosing and binding sins: who down even to today and forever both lives and judges in his successors’ (Session, 3).
From as early as the mid-third century, the symbol of this authority given to Peter and his successors was the chair or cathedra from which comes the word ‘Cathedral’ – the place of the bishop’s chair. In 251, St Cyprian of Carthage wrote about how Christ ‘founded a single chair [cathedra] as a source and reason for unity…Primacy is given to Peter by which it is made clear that there is one Church and one chair’ (Unity of the Catholic Church, 4). Writing later in the context of disunity, St Optatus of Milevis explains how through Peter’s chair ‘unity should be preserved by all’ (Schism of the Donatists 2, 2).
One of Peter’s most worthy successors, Leo the Great, understood that the ‘the care of the universal Church should converge towards Peter’s one chair and nowhere should be separated from its head’ (Letters 14, 12). Here is the foundation of what the Second Vatican Council would teach and that Catholics hold to be true to this day - namely, that the Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor is the ‘perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful’ (Lumen Gentium, 23; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 882). It is an office given by Christ to his Church for all time, given to safeguard the truth of Christ’s Word and the unity of the faithful.
In the light of today’s feast day, two events come to mind - one from the past and another currently in progress. The event from the past is the biggest funeral I ever attended and one of the biggest in history. I speak of the funeral of Pope John Paul II in April 2005. All his life, and especially since he became Pope, John Paul II dedicated himself to the work of reaching out to countries and other religions in order to further the cause of peace and reconciliation. At his funeral Mass in St. Peter’s Square in Rome that year, I remember seeing heads of State from countries all over the world, seated together in St. Peter’s Square and united in mourning. Many of them represented countries that enjoyed good relations with the Pope but not with each other. Yet here they were together in the same space, united in mutual admiration and respect for the same man in whose honor they had come. If only for a few hours, we caught a glimpse of the dream for which Jesus had lived, suffered and died: ‘May they all be one, just as Father, you are in me and I am in you’ (John 17:21). Through his servant John Paul II, God renewed our hope of unity and peace, not just in the Church but in all humankind. On that day, the gift and importance of Peter’s chair was visible for all to see.
The second event now in progress is the invitation by Pope Francis for the Church to follow a synodal pathway. It is an invitation by the one occupying Peter’s chair for Christians to walk together in closer proximity towards the Father’s house. While this way of being Church presents us with challenges and opportunities, what is clear is that the gift of Peter’s chair will be needed and called upon to serve the cause of preserving unity in the family of the Church while enabling Christians to grow in communion, participation and mission.
May the gift of Peter’s chair, the authority given to him and his successors, continue to serve the cause of unity in the Church so that the world might believe in the One who loved Peter, forgave and sent.