Feast of the Chair of St Peter – 22 February – Cathedra Petri), also known as the Throne of Saint Peter, is a relic conserved in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. The relic is a wooden throne that tradition claims the Apostle Saint Peter, the leader of the Early Christians in Rome and first Pope, used as Bishop of Rome. The relic is enclosed in a sculpted gilt bronze casing designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and executed between 1647 and 1653. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI described the chair as “a symbol of the special mission of Peter and his Successors to tend Christ’s flock, keeping it united in faith and in charity.”
The wooden throne was a gift from Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Bald to Pope John VIII in 875. It has been studied many times over the years, the last being from 1968 to 1974, when it was last removed from the Bernini altar. That study concluded that it was not a double, but rather a single, chair with a covering and that no part of the chair dated earlier than the sixth century. Below – The Pope’s throne in St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, last publicly exposed in 1867.
The Chair is the cathedra of St. Peter’s Basilica. Cathedra is Latin for “chair” or “throne”, and denominates the chair or seat of a bishop, hence “cathedral” denominates the Bishop’s church in an episcopal see. The Popes formerly used the Chair. It is distinct from the Papal Cathedra in St. John Lateran Archbasilica, also in Rome, which is the actual cathedral church of the Pope, because the Cathedra he currently and officially sits upon is in its apse.
“Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today, the Latin-rite liturgy celebrates the Feast of the Chair of St Peter. This is a very ancient tradition, proven to have existed in Rome since the fourth century. On it we give thanks to God for the mission he entrusted to the Apostle Peter and his Successors.
“Cathedra” literally means the established seat of the Bishop, placed in the mother church of a diocese which for this reason is known as a “cathedral”; it is the symbol of the Bishop’s authority and in particular, of his “magisterium”, that is, the evangelical teaching which, as a successor of the Apostles, he is called to safeguard and to transmit to the Christian Community.
When a Bishop takes possession of the particular Church that has been entrusted to him, wearing his mitre and holding the pastoral staff, he sits on the cathedra. From this seat, as teacher and pastor, he will guide the journey of the faithful in faith, hope and charity.
So what was the “Chair” of St Peter? Chosen by Christ as the “rock” on which to build the Church (cf. Mt 16: 18), he began his ministry in Jerusalem, after the Ascension of the Lord and Pentecost. The Church’s first “seat” was the Upper Room, and it is likely that a special place was reserved for Simon Peter in that room where Mary, Mother of Jesus, also prayed with the disciples. Therefore, we have the journey from Jerusalem, the newly born Church, to Antioch, the first centre of the Church formed from pagans and also still united with the Church that came from the Jews. Then Peter went to Rome, the centre of the Empire, the symbol of the “Orbis” – the “Urbs”, which expresses “Orbis”, the earth, where he ended his race at the service of the Gospel with martyrdom.
…This is testified by the most ancient Fathers of the Church, such as, for example, St Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, but who came from Asia Minor, who in his treatise Adversus Haereses, describes the Church of Rome as the “greatest and most ancient, known by all… founded and established in Rome by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul”; and he added: “The universal Church, that is, the faithful everywhere, must be in agreement with this Church because of her outstanding superiority” (III, 3, 2-3)….
Tertullian, a little later, said for his part: “How blessed is the Church of Rome, on which the Apostles poured forth all their doctrine along with their blood!” (De Praescriptione Hereticorum, 36).
Consequently, the Chair of the Bishop of Rome represents not only his service to the Roman community but also his mission as guide of the entire People of God.
Celebrating the “Chair” of Peter, therefore, as we are doing today, means attributing a strong spiritual significance to it and recognizing it as a privileged sign of the love of God, the eternal Good Shepherd, who wanted to gather his whole Church and lead her on the path of salvation.
Among the numerous testimonies of the Fathers, I would like to quote St Jerome’s. It is an extract from one of his letters, addressed to the Bishop of Rome. It is especially interesting precisely because it makes an explicit reference to the “Chair” of Peter, presenting it as a safe harbour of truth and peace.
This is what 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” (cf. Le lettere I, 15, 1-2).
Dear brothers and sisters, in the apse of St Peter’s Basilica, as you know, is the monument to the Chair of the Apostle, a mature work of Bernini. It is in the form of a great bronze throne supported by the statues of four Doctors of the Church: two from the West, St Augustine and St Ambrose and two from the East: St John Chrysostom and St Athanasius.
I invite you to pause before this evocative work which today can be admired, decorated with myriads of candles and to say a special prayer for the ministry that God has entrusted to me. Raise your eyes to the alabaster glass window located directly above the Chair and call upon the Holy Spirit, so that with his enlightenment and power, He will always sustain my daily service to the entire Church. For this, as for your devoted attention, I thank you from my heart.”…………….. Pope Benedict XVI Wednesday, 22 February 2006