Week of 2/18/2018
This Thursday, February 22, the Church celebrates the feast of the Chair of
St. Peter. This feast dates back to the second century, celebrating the institution of the papacy by Jesus Christ. In St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome there is a bronze chair suspended above the back altar that contains a wooden chair said to have been used by St. Peter himself. Above it is the famous window of the Holy Spirit. This chair represents the remarkable authority given to Peter and his successors.
Christ gives the keys of the Kingdom to Peter, which to the Jews would have signified enormous authority. Anyone given the key to the household was given authority second only to the Master of the House. Peter is then charged continually to support and lead the other Apostles; this despite his betrayal of Christ. Peter’s name is changed from Simon to Peter, something that happened only to great figures of the Old Testament such as Abram to Abraham and Jacob to Israel. When God changes a name, that person becomes a huge father figure in the plan of salvation. Hence “Pope” is a derivative of the Greek for father. In Italian the word “papa” with an accent on the second syllable is for dad, while the same word with an accent on the first syllable is only used for the Pope.
The history of the papacy is incredible. Tradition tells us that over 30 of the first popes were all martyred. What organization could ever survive such bloody attrition? None, if they are human based. But the Catholic Church is rooted in Christ, and as He declared to Peter, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Hence we are given a remarkable unbroken line of 265 popes. What is beautiful about the history of the popes is that, while mainstream media and some history books love to highlight several Popes with immoral reputations, in fact the vast majority of Popes have been men intensely dedicated to the Gospel. Most popes took their office and faith very seriously. And, no doctrine of the Church has ever changed; the Truths remain the same. Pope Gregory the Great widely used the phrase, “servus servorum Dei,”servant of the servants of God; the best popes clearly embraced this wholeheartedly.
The institution of the papacy becomes a crucial event in salvation history. First, as seen above, the Godman Jesus Christ institutes it Himself. Secondly, in the early Church the successor of Peter as the leader of the Church is always the bishop of Rome, not one of the surviving Apostles. John the Apostle lived into the 90’s and was never pope. Hence, we see clear recognition among the early local churches for the preeminence of the bishop of Rome. Pope Clement I, pope during the 90’s, was asked by some Christians to resolve a dispute there that the local bishop clearly could not. This indicates his recognized authority over the Church. Later on, St. Ambrose would say “where there is Peter, there is the Church.” Even before the Orthodox churches broke from Rome, they recognized the Pope as having a preeminence as well.
The papacy ultimately becomes a consolation, as we believe firmly that we can turn to an authority here on earth for continuing an unbroken line of doctrinal teaching. If there is no final authority, then everyone becomes a minipope, interpreting the Bible however they want. This would lead to chaos. Instead, Our Lord wishes to protect us by giving us a sign of union and point of authority. Union and authority not only lead to clarity, but also peace and consolation of the heart: that Jesus still teaches through the popes how to love as He does.
God love you,
Fr. Brian Gannon