Thursday, February 22, 2007

Chairman of the Barque

Hopefully nobody gets liturgical whiplash or anything, but the calendar veers from the reflective to the festive with today's observance of the Chair of Peter.

This year, Lent's second day is overtaken by one of the church's more politically-inspired feasts, one which only spread from Rome to the wider church as the authority of Peter's successors took root as a prerogative beyond first among equals.

There is no functional Chair, of course -- new Popes don't hop a cherry-picker to be seated in Bernini's "Chair of St Peter" sculpture at the back of Vatican basilica (shown at right). And, aside from the dedication-feasts of the Roman basilicas, this is the only day the general calendar dedicates to an object, as opposed to a person.

That's all very interesting, of course, but what does it mean? Luckily, to celebrate his first 22 February as Pope, B16 dedicated his General Audience catechesis to the subject of Peter's Chair. As the Holy See doesn't translate the audience talks, an English rendering was prepared for these pages.

Just in case anyone could use it, here it goes again.

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Dear Brothers and Sisters!

The Latin liturgy celebrates today the feast of the Chair of St. Peter. It comes from a very ancient tradition, chronicled at Rome from the end of the 4th century, which renders thanks to God for the mission entrusted to the Apostle Peter and to his successors. The "cathedra," literally, is the fixed seat of the Bishop, found in the mother church in a diocese, which for this reason is called "cathedral," and is the symbol of the authority of the Bishop and, in particular, of his "magisterium," the evangelical teaching which he, as a successor of the Apostles, is called to maintain and pass on to the Christian community. When the Bishop takes possession of the particular Church entrusted to him, he, wearing the mitre and carrying the pastoral staff, is seated in the cathedra. From that seat he will guide, as teacher and pastor, the path of the faithful in faith, in hope and in love.

What was, then, the "cathedra" of St. Peter? He, chosen by Christ as the "rock" on which the Church was built, began his ministry in Jerusalem, after the Ascension of the Lord and Pentecost. The first "see" of the Church was the Cenacle, and it's likely that in that room, where also Mary, the mother of Jesus, prayed together with the disciples, a special place was reserved for Simon Peter. Successively, the see of Peter became Antioch, a city situated on the Oronte River, in Syria, today in Turkey, in that time the third metropolis of the Roman empire after Rome and Alexandria in Egypt. From that city, evangalized by Barnabas and Paul, where "for the first time the disciples were called Christians" (Acts 11:26), where the name Christian was born for us, Peter was the first bishop, so that the Roman Martyrology, before the reform of the calendar, also provided for a specific celebration of the Chair of Peter at Antioch. From there, Providence brought Peter to Rome. Therefore we have the road from Jerusalem, the newborn Church, to Antioch, the first center of the Church recounted by the Pagans and still united with the Church which proceeded from the Jews. Then Peter came to Rome, center of the Empire, symbol of the "Orbis" -- the "Urbs" [city] which expresses the "Orbis" [world] of the earth -- where he concluded with his martyrdom his course in the service of the Gospel. For this, the see of Rome, which received the greatest honor, is also accorded the honors entrusted by Christ to Peter to be at the service of all the particular Churches for the building up and the unity of the entire People of God.

The see of Rome, after this movement of St. Peter, became recognized as that of the successor of Peter, and the "cathedra" of its bishop represented that of the Apostle charged by Christ to feed his flock. This is attested to by the most ancient Fathers of the Church, for example St. Iraneus, bishop of Lyon, but living in Asia Minor, who in his treatise Against heresies described the Church of Rome as "the greatest and most ancient, known of all;... founded and built at Rome by the two most glorious apostles Peter and Paul"; and then: "With this Church, for its outstanding superiority, must be accorded to it the Church universal, the faithful in every place" (III, 3, 2-3). Tertullian, a little later, for his part, affirms: "How blessed is this Church of Rome! For it the apostles poured out, with their blood, the whole of doctrine." The chair of the Bishop of Rome represents, therefore, not only its service to the Roman community, but its mission of watching over the entire People of God.

To celebrate the "Cathedra" of Peter, as we do today, means, then, to attribute to it a strong spiritual significance and to recognize it as a privileged sign of the love of God, the good and eternal Shepherd, who wishes to gather the entire Church and guide it along the way of salvation. Among the many testimonies of the Fathers, I'd like to report that of St. Jerome, who wrote in a letter of his to the Bishop of Rome, particularly interesting because it makes an explicit reference to the "chair" of Peter, presented it as the sure grounding of truth and of peace. As Jerome wrote: "I decided to consult the chair of Peter, where is found that faith which the mouth of an Apostle exalted; I come then to ask nourishment for my soul, where once was received the garment of Christ. I don't follow a primate other than Christ; for this reason, I place myself in communion with your blessedness, that is, with the chair of Peter. I know that on this rock is built the Church" (Letters I, 15, 1-2).

Dear Brothers and Sisters, in the apse of St. Peter's Basilica, as you know, can be found the monument to the Chair of the Apostle, Bernini's eldest work, realized in the form of a great bronze throne, held up by statues of four Doctors of the Church, two of the west, St. Augustine and St. Ambrose, two of the east, St. John Chrysostom and St. Athanasius. I invite you to stand in front of this suggested work, which today is probably decorated admirably by many candles, and pray in a particular way for the ministry which God has entrusted to me. Raising our gaze to the alabaster window which opens over the Chair, invoking the Holy Spirit, may he always sustain with his light and strength my daily service to all the Church. [Applause] For this, and for your devoted attention, I thank you from my heart.

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On a final news-note, at the close of the audience cited above, Benedict emphasized the Petrine authority by calling his first consistory and announcing the names of 15 cardinals-designate. The nominees were given the red hat a month later, on 24 March, and received their rings the following day.

While the late amato Giovanni Paolo II allowed the membership of the "Papal Senate" to fluctuate precipitously over three-year consistory cycles, Benedict -- the first cardinal-dean elected Pope in centuries -- has stated that he intends to call consistories with a greater frequency. The stance reflects the frustrations of many cardinals, voiced during the 2005 interregnum, that they didn't know each other well enough going into the intense period.

Between superannuations and deaths, the number of cardinal-electors currently stands at 108, 12 short of the full complement of 120 fixed by Paul VI (and flouted by Wojtyla). Between now and May's end, four more electors reach their 80th birthdays, thus losing their conclave rights.

As things stand, smart money would place the next consistory on 29 June's Solemnity of Ss. Peter and Paul. Not only is Rome's patronal feast a traditional favorite for cardinal-making, but this year's observance of it has a particular significance for Joseph Ratzinger -- the 30th anniversary of his own red hat.