Commentary on the See of St Peter, Apostle
This feast has been kept at Rome since the 4th century. It is celebrated as a symbol of the unity of the Church. The principal diocese of the Catholic Church is Rome and the Pope is its bishop. His cathedral is not, as many may be inclined to think, St Peter’s Basilica but the Church of St John Lateran. The Bishop of Rome is not ranked above other bishops but is rather primus inter pares, first among equals. The special place of the Rome diocese is because of its links with St Peter, on whom Jesus said he would build his church, and hence the unity of the Church is expressed by the solidarity of each diocese with the diocese of Rome and with each other. And when the Pope speaks formally, it is the faith of the whole Church that he proclaims and not just his own understanding of it.
From the earliest times the Church at Rome celebrated on 18 January the memory of the day when Peter held his first service with the faithful of the Eternal City. The feast of the Chair of Saint Peter at Antioch, commemorating his foundation of the See of Antioch, has also been long celebrated at Rome, on 22 February. At each place a chair (cathedra) was venerated which the Apostle had used while presiding at the Eucharist.
The Roman Church, therefore, at an early date celebrated a first and a second assumption of the episcopal office in Rome by St. Peter. This double celebration was also held in two places, in the Vatican Basilica and in a cemetery (coemeterium) on the Via Salaria. At both places a chair (cathedra) was venerated which the Apostle had used as presiding officer of the assembly of the faithful. The first of these chairs stood in the Vatican Basilica, in the baptismal chapel built by Pope Damasus.
While therefore in the Vatican Basilica there stood a cathedra on which the pope sat amid the Roman clergy during the pontifical Mass, there was also in the same building a second cathedra from which the pope administered to the newly baptized the Sacrament of Confirmation. The Chair of St. Peter in the apse was made of marble and was built into the wall, while that of the baptistry was movable and could be carried. Ennodius calls the latter a sedes gestatoria. Throughout the Middle Ages it was always brought on 22 February from the above-mentioned consignatorium or place of confirmation to the high altar. That day the pope did not use the marble cathedra at the back of the apse but sat on this portable cathedra, which was, consequently, made of wood.* The importance of this feast was heightened by the fact that 22 February was considered the anniversary of the day when Peter bore witness, by the Sea of Tiberias, to the divinity of Christ and was again appointed by Christ to be the Rock of His Church (cf. John 21:15ff).
*The last pope to use this chair was Pope John XXIII. From the time of Pope Paul VI it was no longer used.
Readings: 1 Peter 5:1-4; Ps 22; Matthew 16:13-19
The Gospel from St Matthew records a dramatic moment in the relationship between Jesus and his disciples. They are at Caesarea Philippi, an area which significantly was home to both Jews and Gentiles, and Jesus begins by asking them what they heard people saying about him. They gave various answers, such as that he might be John the Baptist (returned from the dead after his beheading by Herod), or Elijah (who was expected to return to earth to herald the imminent coming of the Messiah), or Jeremiah or one of the other prophets. Jesus then asks them: “But who do you say I am?” It is Simon who speaks up: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” It was a very special moment for all of them. Up to this the man whom they had simply called ‘Rabbi’ or ‘Teacher’ was now acknowledged as no less than the Messiah, the Christ, the one anointed as the Saviour-King of Israel.
In reply, Jesus tells Simon that what he has said are not simply his own words but are a revelation of God to him. “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” There then comes the solemn mandate and promise. Simon is now given a new name. “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of the netherworld will not prevail against it.” There is a play on the words ‘Peter’ and ‘rock’. The word for ‘rock’ in Greek is petra (petra) and Peter is ‘Petros (petros). There is an irony in the name because it carries more than one meaning. For Peter is called to be the firm foundation of the new community but, before that happens he shows himself to be a stumbling block trying to frustrate the mission of his Master, showing himself to be one of the weakest of the disciples.
Nevertheless, Jesus gives him his mission: “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven (of God). Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven (i.e. by God); and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (i.e. by God).” After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, it is his community under the unifying leadership of Peter which will have the mandate to continue the work and mission of Jesus. They will be, literally, the voice of Jesus.
In the First Reading which is from the Second Letter of Peter (although almost certainly not written by him) we have advice on how Church authority is to be exercised. Peter speaks to community leaders as a “fellow presbyter (or elder)” and as one who was a personal witness of the sufferings of Jesus and hence looking forward to share in his risen glory. He tells them to take care of their flocks as good shepherds, drawing them but not forcing them and not pursuing their own personal gain but with enthusiasm for their well-being. “Do not lord it over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock.” Words applicable to every position of leadership in the Church be it pope, bishop, priest or lay leader. Then “when the chief Shepherd is revealed, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.”
So, the over all message of today’s feast is of generous and eager cooperation of all members of the Christian community in building up the Body of Christ as a sacrament of the Kingdom throughout the world.