The Feast of the Chair of St Peter has been celebrated since at least the 4th Century, and perhaps as early as the 2nd Century. In fact, until 1969, there were two feasts; one in January, and one in February.
The Feast commerates Christ choosing Peter as his Vizier for the Church. This commission was given when Jesus gave Peter the keys to the Kingdom, but didn’t come into its own until after the Resurrection. In between, Peter tried to talk Jesus out of going to Jerusalem, denied knowing Jesus, and spent a weekend of pain, doubt, and torment. Then came the morning in the garden, when the impossible, wonderful truth began to dawn on them. In the weeks that followed, Jesus renewed Peter’s commission – feed my sheep; feed my lambs. And at Pentecost, he began the task set before him, acting as spokesman for the twelve, healing the sick, baptising thousands. He led the Church in Jerusalem for a time, then in Antioch, and finally in Rome, where he died.
Second-century Christians built a small memorial over his burial spot. In the fourth century, the Emperor Constantine built a basilica, which was replaced in the 16th century.
Down through time, the celebration of this feast has reminded us that it is the see of Peter that units us. It reminds us that our unity is the unity of all Catholic bishops in the world, as successors of the apostles, with the Bishop of Rome as their servant-leader. “Where Peter is,” the saying goes, “there is the Church.” This doesn’t mean that all bishops, or even all Popes, have been worthy of their role. Like the first Bishop of Rome, they are human. They’ve made mistakes; they’ve acted out of ignorance or malice; some of them have been notorious sinners. But the Church endures. It has been through crisis after crisis in the last 2000 years; scandal after scandal, and it keeps being regenerated and revitalised.
It is the saints, of course, who do the work of the Holy Spirit in renewing the Church. But it is the bishops, and in particular the Bishop of Rome, who provide the nucleus around which the Church reforms.
To celebrate the “Chair” of Peter, as we do today, means, therefore, to attribute to it a strong spiritual significance and to recognize in it a privileged sign of the love of God, good and eternal Shepherd, who wants to gather the whole of his Church and guide her along the way of salvation.
Among so many testimonies of the Fathers, I would like to refer to that of St. Jerome, taken from a letter of his to the Bishop of Rome, particularly interesting because he makes explicit reference in fact to the “chair” of Peter, presenting it as the safe harbor of truth and peace. Jerome writes thus: “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 you 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! (“Le Lettere,” I, 15,1-2).
Dear Brothers and Sisters, in the apse of St. Peter’s Basilica, as you know, is found the monument to the Chair of the Apostle, a mature work of Bernini, made in the shape 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 that evocative work, which today it is possible to admire decorated with so many candles, and pray in a particular way for the ministry that God has entrusted to me. Raising one’s gaze to the alabaster glass window that opens precisely above the chair, invoke the Holy Spirit, so that he will always sustain with his light and strength my daily service to the whole Church. For this, as for your devoted attention, I thank you from my heart.