Today, Tuesday 22 February 2022, Feast of the Chair of Peter, puts Peter’s Chair as the centre of our prayer. The Chair reminds us of the particular mission Jesus gave to Peter.
Historically this Feast goes back to the 3rd century, extending back to the original cathedra of Peter. This is the privileged place from where the Bishop of Rome both resided and governed. This fixed “seat” of the Bishop, which was put in the mother church of the Diocese, that is why it is called a “cathedral”, shows the Bishop’s authority as stemming from the apostolic succession whose mission is to safeguard the flock and impart the Gospel teaching to the Christian Community. Theologically, the first “cathedral” was the Upper Room, wherein Jesus was with His disciples celebrating not just the Jewish Passover but, and most importantly, His Last Supper with them. It was in the Upper Room that they, together with Mary, received the gift of the Holy Spirit.
When Peter the Apostle went to Antioch, the city in which Jesus’ disciples were given the name of “Christians” (Cf. Acts 11:6), and of which Peter became the first Bishop, and where the Feast of the Chair of Peter in Antioch was celebrated on 22nd of February. Peter went to Rome and ended as his life as a martyr for Christ. Due to his “glorious” death, it was wisely decided that Rome had to be the official place of St Peter’s “Cathedra”. In the past this feast was also celebrated on January 18th (for the see of Antioch). It was Pope John XXIII who unified these two feast into one, thus annulling the latter.
Around the Feast of the Chair of St Peter revolve the pastoral and teaching authority given by Christ to the Prince of the Apostles. The Gospel which is read for this liturgical feast says it all.
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).
Moreover, there are some patristic texts which give due prominence to this feast since they shed an important light on its theological and pastoral meaning and value. The first one is taken from Letter 15 of St Jerome to Pope Saint Damasus, which he wrote in 376. It says:
Since the East, shattered as it is by the long-standing feuds, subsisting between its peoples, is bit by bit tearing into shreds the seamless vest of the Lord…. I think it my duty to consult the chair of Peter…. My words are spoken to the successor of the fisherman, to the disciple of the cross. As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none but your blessedness, that is with the chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the rock on which the church is built! This is the house where alone the paschal lamb can be rightly eaten. This is the ark of Noah, and he who is not found in it shall perish when the flood prevails…. He that gathers not with you scatters…. If you think fit enact a decree; and then I shall not hesitate to speak of three hypostases. Order a new creed to supersede the Nicene; and then, whether we are Arians or orthodox, one confession will do for us all…. I beg you also to signify with whom I am to communicate at Antioch. Not, I hope, with the Campenses; for they — with their allies the heretics of Tarsus — only desire communion with you to preach with greater authority their traditional doctrine of three hypostases.
The other important patristic text which highlights more and more this feast is that which comes from St Augustine:
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.
Another interesting patristic text entitled, De Schismate Donatistarum, which powerfully shows the basis for this feast is that of Saint Optatus, written between the years 384 and 387. In it we find also the apostolic succession which followed the Apostle St Peter.
But you cannot deny that you know that the episcopal seat was established first in the city of Rome by Peter and that in it sat Peter, the head of all the apostles, wherefore he is called Cephas, the one chair in which unity is maintained by all. Neither do other Apostles proceed individually on their own; and anyone who would set up another chair in opposition to that single chair would, by that very fact, be a schismatic and a sinner. It was Peter, then, who first occupied that chair, the foremost of his endowed gifts. He was succeeded by Linus, Linus was succeeded by Clement, Clement by Anencletus, Anencletus by Evaristus, Evaristus by Eleutherus, Eleutherus by Xystus, Xystus by Telesphorus, Telesphorus by Hyginus, Hyginus by Anicetus, Anicetus by Pius, Pius by Soter, Soter by Alexander, Alexander by Victor, Victor by Zephyrinus, Zephyrinus by Callistus, Callistus by Urban, Urban by Pontianus, Pontianus by Anterus, Anterus by Fabian, Fabian by Cornelius, Cornelius by Lucius, Lucius by Stephen, Stephen by Xystus, Xystus by Dionysius, Dionysius by Felix, Felix by Marcellinus, Marcellinus by Eusebius, Eusebius by Melchiades, Melchiades by Sylvester, Sylvester by Mark, Mark by Julius, Julius by Liberius, Liberius by Damasus, Damasus by Siricius, our present incumbent. I but ask you to recall the origins of your chair, you who wish to claim for yourselves the title of holy Church.
Grant, we pray, almighty God, that no tempests may disturb us, for you have set us fast on the rock of the Apostle Peter’s confession of faith. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.