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Saint Peter – first Bishop of Rome

February 22, 2013

22nd February 2013

The Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter the Apostle is celebrated today around the world. Don’t worry – we’re not worshipping old furniture. This very ancient feast day, which links us directly to the very earliest days of the Church, is very timely, given the imminent retirement of Pope Benedict XVI.

See what one of his predecessors from over 1.500 years ago had to say about the significance of the election of a new pope…..

[I preached today because our parish priest was attending the ordination by Archbishop Bernard Longley of  Fr. Frank Smith to the priesthood.]



We know from ancient documents that in both the Vatican Basilica and in an oratory build at the cemetery of Priscilla the early Christians in Rome had preserved the actual chairs (or cathedrae) used by Saint Peter during confirmations and baptisms. And we also know that from as early as 311AD at each location there were celebrations to mark Saint Peter becoming the Bishop of Rome – the one at the cemetery took place on the 18th of January and the one at the Vatican was on today’s date – the 22nd February. On these two days the actual chairs used by Saint Peter would be put on public display for veneration as relics of the first Pope.

Historians are convinced that the chair preserved in the Vatican is genuine and was the one used by Saint Peter during confirmations. It is a Roman style ‘carrying’ chair, with iron rings that were used for inserting wooden poles. Sadly, the other chair seems to have been destroyed during the invasions and pillaging of Rome that took place during the 400s and 500s when the Roman Empire was collapsing.

From the earliest days of the Church February 22nd has been considered to be the date on which Peter bore witness, by the Sea of Tiberias, to the Divinity of Christ and was also appointed by Christ to be the Rock of His Church.

 That remarkable Pope, Saint Leo the Great, was not only a great teacher but also a pope who protected the unity of the Church by firmly establishing the importance of the See of Rome. In the year 445 Pope Leo was responsible for the recognition given to the Papacy by the Decree of the Roman Emperor, Valentinian III – the decree which formally established in civil as well as Church law the primacy of the Bishop of Rome based on the Roman Pontiff being the direct successor of Saint Peter. You may not realise this, but technically we are not members of the Roman Catholic Church in Rome: we are instead members of the Church in this Archdiocese – we are members of the Church of Birmingham. Much the same as other people in early Church history were, for example, members of the Church of Ephesus or the Church of Corinth. Our link to the Universal Church is through our bishop, Archbishop Bernard. It is Archbishop Bernard who is formally ‘in communion’ all the other bishops worldwide through a common allegiance to the authority of the Bishop of Rome.

On the anniversary of his own election to the Chair of Saint Peter, Pope Leo the Great reflected on what it meant to be Saint Peter’s successor. Listen to what he has to say about today’s feast and the gospel we have just heard[1]:

“Out of the whole world one man, Peter, is chosen to preside at the calling of all nations, and to be set over all the apostles and all the fathers of the Church. Though there are in God’s people many shepherds, Peter is thus appointed to rule in his own person those whom Christ also rules as the original ruler. Beloved, how great and wonderful is this sharing of his power that God in his goodness has given to this man. Whatever Christ has willed to be shared in common by Peter and the other leaders of the Church, it is only through Peter that he has given to others what he has not refused to bestow on them.

The Lord now asks the apostles as a whole what men think of him. As long as they are recounting the uncertainty born of human ignorance, their reply is always the same. But when he presses the disciples to say what they think themselves, the first to confess his faith in the Lord is the one who is first in rank among the apostles.

Peter says: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replies: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona, for flesh and blood has not revealed it to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”

You are blessed, he means, because my Father has taught you. You have not been deceived by earthly opinion, but have been enlightened by inspiration from heaven. It was not flesh and blood that pointed me out to you, but the one whose only-begotten Son I am.

 He continues: And I say to you. In other words, as my Father has revealed to you my godhead, so I in my turn make known to you your pre-eminence. You are Peter: though I am the inviolable rock, the cornerstone that makes both one, the foundation apart from which no one can lay any other, yet you also are a rock, for you are given solidity by my strength, so that which is my very own because of my power is common between us through your participation.

And upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. On this strong foundation, he says, I will build an everlasting temple. The great height of my Church, which is to penetrate the heavens, shall rise on the firm foundation of this faith.

 The gates of hell shall not silence this confession of faith; the chains of death shall not bind it. Its words are the words of life. As they lift up to heaven those who profess them, so they send down to hell those who contradict them.

Blessed Peter is therefore told: To you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth is also bound in heaven. Whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed also in heaven.

The authority vested in this power passed also to the other apostles, and the institution established by this decree has been continued in all the leaders of the Church. But it is not without good reason that what is bestowed on all is entrusted to one. For Peter received it separately in trust because he is the prototype set before all the rulers of the Church.”

Today is the date on which the Church celebrates Saint Peter being chosen by Jesus as our first Pope. And, as we’ve heard from Pope Saint Leo the Great, his voice echoing down the centuries, it is an important feast for the Church, not least because in the 21st century, as we will be seeing over the next few weeks as a new Pope is elected in Rome, the Catholic Church proudly continues the ‘Petrine Ministry’ – the Papacy – preserving the authority and mission of our pope for the Universal Church. It is this ministry which means that after 2,000 years the Catholic Church founded by Jesus Christ remains a spiritual unity across the world, a feast that reminds us of the history of the office of the Pope, stretching all the way back to Jesus Christ’s appointment of Saint Peter.



[1] Ex sermonibus sancti Leonis Magni papae, s. 4 de Natali ipsius, 2-3)

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