Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Feast of Saint Peter's Chair

The Altar of the Chair

Today, the 22nd of February, the Roman Martyrology announces: "The Chair of St Peter at Antioch, where the disciples were first called Christians". The earliest mention of a celebration of the See of St Peter on this day is in a calendar dating to 311. It is believed that on this day St Peter made his confession of faith, and accordingly an older Collect for the feast said that on this day the Lord gave St Peter to the Church to be its head, as Christ's Vicar on earth. Other ancient martyrologies also attest to 18 January as the day on which St Peter first celebrated Mass in Rome, hence a second celebration of the Chair of St Peter was held, and that was called "The Chair of St Peter the Apostle, who established the Holy See at Rome". In fact, the older of the two feasts is today's, and the oldest manuscripts assign it to Rome, and not to Antioch. According to Pius Parsch that attribution was only made in 1558 when both feasts were extended to the universal Calendar. In Rome itself, the Mass for the 22nd of February was always celebrated in the Vatican basilica, while that of the 18th of January was observed at the cemetery of Priscilla on the Via Salaria.

The photo above shows the familiar 'Cathedra Petri' reliquary by Bernini in the apse of St Peter's Basilica in Rome. In front of it is a new Altar of the Chair, installed in 2008. In 2006 on the occasion of today's feast, Pope Benedict XVI said:

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.

It is well that we pray for the Holy Father on today's great feast, and ask the Lord to confirm him in the faith of St Peter, so that he in turn may strengthen his brothers.

The video above, which I made for today's feast, is of Britten's 'Hymn to St Peter', which he wrote in 1955. It seems to me a fine example of a vernacular setting of the Gradual text, interwoven with Latin Gregorian chant.

Benedict XVI has also written an extended reflection on the 'Cathedra Petri', which is available online here, and I would commend it to you for prayerful reading today.

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