'The Chair And The Men'
On Feb. 22, the church celebrates a feast that has been held in Rome for the past 16 centuries: the Chair of Saint Peter. According to the Daily Roman Missal, “This feast commemorates the office of supreme pastor conferred by Christ upon St. Peter and continued in unbroken succession to the present. It celebrates the unity of the church, which is founded upon the Apostle, and reinforces assent to the teaching office (Magisterium) of the Roman Pontiff.”
Also on Feb. 22, the church is holding in Rome, as it has for the past couple of days, a meeting of the presidents of the Episcopal Conferences from around the whole world on “The Protection of Minors in the Church.” It’s a meeting that recalls the grave failures of some of the successors of the apostles. The contrast between the two events is stark. Wrestling in prayer with these realities, a memory of St. Peter’s Basilica came to mind.
As one enters into the basilica and looks down the central nave, the brilliance of a large stained-glass window with yellow and gold rays shining forth from the image of a pure, white dove, representing the Holy Spirit, is seen through the columns of the baldachino, or large canopy, above the Papal Altar. Just below the window is the Altar of the Chair of St. Peter, containing a gigantic, gilded bronze throne, over 20 feet tall, supported by four Doctors of the Church.
A little ways up the nave, on the last large column before reaching the tomb of St. Peter, stands an ancient bronze statue of the Apostle himself, sitting on a throne, with one hand holding the keys and the other raised in blessing. The statue is attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio and believed to date back to the 13th century. It is traditional for pilgrims to touch the foot of St. Peter, and—needless to say—the right foot has been worn down to little more than a stub after 700 hundred years and countless millions of pilgrims.
When reflecting about the papacy, one can be tempted to think that, over the centuries, St. Peter’s chair must be both pretty worn down by sin and polished by sanctity; but the chair itself has never changed, as it is linked to God’s unchanging promise. Moreover, it is men down through the ages, sitting on the chair, who either do or do not age so gracefully; that is, so full of grace.
The eyes of the Apostle, of whom the statue with the worn foot is a mere likeness, have now seen 73 popes come and go since Arnolfo di Cambio applied his final touches. In the statue’s lifetime, St. Catherine of Siena even had to go to Avignon to urge a pope to return to Rome. And, if statues could speak, I’m sure that the bronze lips would have quickly parted to have had more than a few words with a couple antipopes who passed within its shadow. Thankfully, it would have had many more occasions to look down and smile and impart a word of blessing upon a good and faithful servant.
In his book, “Pope Fiction,” Patrick Madrid beautifully sums up what I have strived to express. He writes, “There have been many kinds of men who have sat on the Chair of Peter. Many were saints, a few were wicked and scandalous, the great majority have been good and holy men. But all of them have been human and imperfect—men, but men protected by the Holy Spirit to carry out a pivotal mission in the life of His Church. Some did extremely well in fulfilling this mission; and others, just a few actually, failed miserably in their personal lives and as leaders, while never managing to breach that shield of grace that prevented them from leading the Church astray. […] Christ Himself has been ever faithful to His promise to Simon: ‘You are rock, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.’”
On this feast of the Chair of St. Peter, let us join our prayer to that of the collect of today’s Mass: “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.”