The Throne of St. Peter, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City.
Today is the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter.
Originally, there were two such observances, one on 18 January commemorating the chair of Peter at Rome, and this one on 22 February focused on his chair in Antioch. In the twentieth century, the two were merged and celebrated on this day, as of the 1962 calendar.
On this day we celebrate "the office of supreme pastor conferred by Christ upon St. Peter and continued in unbroken succession to the present" in the Bishops of Rome, the popes.
For more on the history of the feast, you should note: Old Catholic Encyclopedia: Chair of Peter
Today is a particular feast of note for members of the Confraternity of St. Peter: Confraternity of St. Peter
The picture above, from St. Peter's basilica, shows the splendid monument of the Chair of Peter by the master artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini, completed in 1666AD for Pope Alexander VII. The chair is held aloft by four doctors of the Church: two Greeks, St. Athanasius & St. John Chrysostom, and two Latins, St. Ambrose & St. Augustine. Cf., Vatican City State Site: Interior of the Basilica
Pope Benedict XVI, during a Wednesday audience in 2006, observed:
"Celebrating the "Chair" of Peter, therefore, as we are doing today, means attributing a strong spiritual significance to it and recognizing it as a privileged sign of the love of God, the eternal Good Shepherd, who wanted to gather his whole Church and lead her on the path of salvation.
Among the numerous testimonies of the Fathers, I would like to quote St Jerome's. It is an extract from one of his letters, addressed to the Bishop of Rome. It is especially interesting precisely because it makes an explicit reference to the "Chair" of Peter, presenting it as a safe harbour of truth and peace.
This is what Jerome wrote: "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 I 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" (cf. Le lettere I, 15, 1-2).
Further, the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes of the Pope:
"880 When Christ instituted the Twelve, 'he constituted [them] in the form of a college or permanent assembly, at the head of which he placed Peter, chosen from among them.'398 Just as 'by the Lord's institution, St. Peter and the rest of the apostles constitute a single apostolic college, so in like fashion the Roman Pontiff, Peter's successor, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are related with and united to one another.'399
881 The Lord made Simon alone, whom he named Peter, the 'rock' of his Church. He gave him the keys of his Church and instituted him shepherd of the whole flock.400 'The office of binding and loosing which was given to Peter was also assigned to the college of apostles united to its head.'401 This pastoral office of Peter and the other apostles belongs to the Church's very foundation and is continued by the bishops under the primacy of the Pope.
882 The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter's successor, 'is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful.'402 'For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.'403" [cf., Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 880-882. 398 Lumen Gentium 19, Lk 6:13; Jn 21:15-17. 399 LG 22; cf. CIC, can. 330. 400 Cf. Mt 16:18-19; Jn 21:15-17. 401 LG 22 § 2. 402 LG 23. 403 LG 22; cf. CD 2,9.]
It is worth noting, on this occasion, the nature and scope of that papal charism of infallibility. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting Vatican I, states:
"891 "The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful - who confirms his brethren in the faith [-] he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals. . . . The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter's successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium," above all in an Ecumenical Council.418 When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine "for belief as being divinely revealed,"419 and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions "must be adhered to with the obedience of faith."420 This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.421" [Cf., Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 891. 418 LG 25; cf. Vatican Council I:DS 3074. 419 DV 10 § 2. 420 LG 25 § 2. 421 Cf. LG 25.]
Not every statement or action of the pope, then, has the protection of infallibility, even if he is discussing a matter of faith and morals. Not how specific this charism is, as the pope only, "enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful...he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals." We need not feel compelled to defend every statement of a pope, or expect that every homily, interview, or decision will be the best it could be, or even free from error or scandal.
Pope Benedict XVI expressed the limits and purpose of the papal office rather well during the process of his inauguration as Roman pontiff: "The power of teaching in the Church involves a commitment to the service of obedience to the faith. The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law. On the contrary: the Pope's ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word. He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God's Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism." Homily on 7 May 2005 taking possession of the Chair of Peter at the Lateran.
Let us pray, then, for the current occupant of the chair, that he might be that source of unity for the Church, that he might preach the truth of Christ with clarity, and live the faith with love.