The Institute for Christian Formation
Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter the Apostle: February 22
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5th or 6th Century
Location: Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mt. Sinai
February 22 is a special day on the Catholic Church’s Calendar. It is the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter the Apostle. Why do you think we would celebrate a Feast Day about a chair? Well, this chair symbolizes the authority and leadership of the papacy.
Saint Peter was one of Jesus’ apostles, and he was also the very first Pope. The Pope is the leader of all of the Catholics in the world. But what about the chair?
The ancient Latin word for the chair that important officials sat in is “cathedra.” This is the word the Catholic Church uses for the Bishop’s chair. The Pope is the Bishop of Rome. But every diocese has a bishop. And the church where the Bishop’s chair is located at in each diocese is called the “cathedral” church of that diocese, because of the bishop’s chair – the “cathedra.”
The Chair of Saint Peter the Apostle is a symbol of
the authority that Jesus gave to Saint Peter to lead the Church. Saint Peter is often pictured holding keys, another symbol of his leadership and authority. In the Bible (Matthew 16:18-19), Jesus says he is giving the keys of the kingdom of heaven to Peter.
Saint Peter was a martyr, dying for his faith. You can take a virtual pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint Peter here. When Saint Peter, who was the first Pope, died, the Church community chose a new Pope. And when that pope died, they chose yet another new pope. We have had 266 popes in our Church's history.
Below is a video about a unique art exhibit which brought together for the first time forty paintings on the life of Saint Peter, from museums all across the globe. The Vatican hoped the works featuring the first Pope served as inspiration for the Year of Faith.
Our current pope is Pope Francis. You can learn much more about him and his papacy from the Vatican’s web page about him. But you know from the news that our previous pope, Pope Benedict XVI resigned, or stepped down from being Pope, the last day of February 2013. This is a very important historical event. Most popes continue in their ministry of being the pope until they die. This was the first time in almost 600 years that a pope left office while still alive. There was a brief period of time when our Church did not have a pope, until the new pope, Pope Francis, was elected on March 13, 2013.
But let’s get back to the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter the Apostle. On the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter the Apostle we not only celebrate Saint Peter, but we celebrate the office of the papacy – the office of leadership of our Catholic Church.
The Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter the Apostle has been celebrated since the Fourth Century. In ancient Rome, between February 13 and February 22, people used to have a special celebration honoring their relatives who had died. At their celebration, they would leave a chair, or a “cathedra”, empty in honor of their deceased relatives. Since it is not known on exactly what date Saint Peter died, the people began honoring him in a special way on February 22. They were celebrating his leadership of the Church of Rome – our Roman Catholic Church!
So, is there really a chair that Saint Peter, who lived in the time of Jesus, sat in that still exists today? Or is it all symbolic? Well, at Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, in Rome, there is an altarpiece, designed by the artist Bernini in the 1600s, that is said to contain a relic of the Cathedra Petri, or the Chair of Peter. Find out more by viewing the video below. But this is no longer the chair, or cathedra, which the pope uses as the Bishop of Rome. The cathedral church in Rome is actually Saint John Lateran, and it is here that the cathedra, or bishop’s chair, is found. Here you can read the homily given by Pope Francis on April 7, 2013 at the “Mass of Possession of the Chair of the Bishop of Rome” celebrated at the Basilica of Saint John Lateran. There are also links for a video and photo gallery of this Mass.
You can learn more about Pope Francis from the video below:
We conclude our reflection on the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter the Apostle with this excellent video clip below, from February 2012.
Click on the image above to download our ICF “Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter the Apostle” handout for youth.
While there is only one cathedra, or bishop’s chair, in each diocese – at the cathedral church (remember that the cathedral church is called the “cathedral” because it is where the “cathedra” is located), each parish church also has a special chair. It is called the “presider’s chair.” Only the priest who is presiding, or leading, the liturgy sits in that chair.
The next time you are in your parish church, take a close look at the presider's chair. And arrange to take a tour of your diocesan cathedral, so you can see the cathedra, or bishop's chair. Have you been to any other cathedrals?