The feast of the Chair of Saint Peter commemorates the day when Saint Peter held his first service of worship in Rome. The magnificent marble cathedra (throne) fashioned by Gian Lorenzo Bernini for St. Peter's basilica in Rome (c.1650) surrounds a small wooden chair that tradition holds was that of Peter himself.
Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it - not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away.
When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."
The early Christians in Rome celebrated the memory of the day when the Apostle held his first service with the faithful of the Eternal City, under the title "Cathedra Petri in Roma" (the Chair of Peter in Rome)" The earlier tradition was to celebrate this on 18 January. By the ninth century the feast of the Chair of St Peter had been moved to 22 February, and its celebration was held in two places, in the Vatican Basilica and in a cemetery on the Via Salaria. In both places a chair (cathedra) was venerated symbolising that which the Apostle had used as presiding officer of the assembly of the faithful.
New Testament scholars not how the report in Matthew 16 can be, and has often been, over-used as a Gospel basis for inflated claims to worldwide jurisdiction and absolute monarchy, concepts far removed from the mind of Christ and indeed from that of Peter himself, as is well seen in the first reading, where Peter calls himself a "sym-presbyteros" a fellow-elder, and clearly prefers the role of subsidiary shepherd under Christ the chief shepherd, to that of lawgiver, oracle or pontiff. The Matthean texts about Peter must be read in light of other texts in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, to get a rounded picture of the kind of ministry which Peter exercised and passed on.
The significance of the feast today is to link the origins of the papal ministry with the apostolic task of the successor of St Peter as visible head of our worldwide Catholic Church. We pray today for divine guidance to our present pope and for the Church of God, that we may be led in an inspirational spirit of hopefulness, mirroring the beautiful ideal expressed by St Peter in today's reading.
(summarised from a sermon on the catholic online website, by Fr Randy Sly, Washington D.C.)
Later in the year we have the Feast of St. John Lateran, a feast focused upon a building. Today's feast of the Chair of St. Peter, is not merely about a piece of furniture. We are celebrating the unity we have together as we are in communion with our Holy Father, the Vicar of Christ.
In the Protestant and Catholic divide, there has been a lot written and spoken about the words, "You are Peter and upon this Rock I will build my Church." To the confessional churches, this rock cannot be a man but the message only. Yet, God has always built on a person not simply a principle. In the Office of Readings for this feast, St. Leo the Great expounds on this declaration: "You are Peter": though I am the inviolable rock, the cornerstone that makes both one, the foundation apart from which no one can lay any other, yet you also are a rock, for you are given solidity by my strength, so that which is my very own because of my power is common between us through your participation. "And upon this rock I will build my Church": On this strong foundation, he says, I will build an everlasting temple. The great height of my Church, which is to penetrate the heavens, shall rise on the firm foundation of this faith.
Peter's presence, and that of his successors, stand as a testimony and representative of the Rock of Ages, Jesus Christ Himself. In communion with the Chair of St. Peter puts us in communion with the One who established the man seated as his vicar on earth. The Chair, or "Cathedra" takes on a special meaning beyond just being a fancy piece of furniture. In fact, the issue of its design and substance is not the focus of the feast.
The Chair of St Peter is represented in the apse of the Vatican Basilica by a monumental sculpture by Bernini. It is a symbol of the special mission of Peter and his Successors to tend Christ's flock, keeping it united in faith and in charity. In the Bernini piece, there is a stained glass window above the chair with rays of light and the image of a dove at the center, symbolizing the Holy Spirit. The rays are divided into twelve sections, one for each of the apostles.
Today's Feast sheds light on the special ministry of strengthening and guiding the Church in the unity of the faith which the Lord entrusted to the Head of the Apostles. It consists in this "ministerium petrinum" (Petrine ministry), the particular service that the Bishop of Rome is called to render to the entire Christian people. It is an indispensable mission that is not built on human prerogatives but on Christ himself, the cornerstone of the Ecclesial Community. Let us pray that the Church in the different cultures, languages and traditions will be united in believing and professing the truths of faith and morals passed down by the Apostles.