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VATICAN LETTER Feb-3-2006 (790 words) Backgrounder. With photo. xxxi

Chair of St. Peter: Bishop's teaching seat, not king's throne

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The 110 wax candles used once a year to light up a sculpture behind the main altar in St. Peter's Basilica have led some people to think the Vatican really has a feast day for a chair.

Not that it's just any chair, but the Feb. 22 feast of the Chair of St. Peter, Apostle has much more to do with the symbolism of a chair than with the chair itself.

The distinction, however, is lost on most tourists, who often are told that Gian Lorenzo Bernini's famous sculpture in the apse of St. Peter's Basilica hides the remains of a chair in which St. Peter himself sat.

An official guide to the basilica, edited by Daniele Pergolizzi of the office that oversees the care of the church, said the Vatican hired two archeologists to examine the chair in 1867, the last time it was displayed publicly. The lay archeologist determined that the acacia frame of the chair could date back to the time of St. Peter, but the oak, iron and ivory date to the ninth century. However, the Jesuit archeologist said the entire chair was from the ninth century.

The debate was not settled until Pope Paul VI set up a new commission in 1967 to study the chair. The commission members agreed with the Jesuit.

But the feast, Pergolizzi said, "has nothing to do with that chair."

"The institution of the feast clearly was not because Peter sat on that chair; rather the chair is a symbol of the fact that he sat here in Rome as bishop," said Father Diego Ravelli, an official in the Vatican almoner's office who is writing his thesis on the feast of the Chair of St. Peter.

Father Ravelli said that already in 354 the feast was listed in the "Chronographia Romana," a calendar of civic and religious observances.

Adapted from an ancient Roman memorial service honoring the head of an important family or clan, he said, for centuries the feast celebrated "the beginning of the episcopacy of St. Peter."

However, he said, as the temporal power of the pope grew and as the church suffered divisions, "the focus slowly transferred to the primacy, the authority of Peter" and, therefore, of the pope as his successor.

Father Ravelli said primacy and authority are naturally part of the idea of celebrating a chair, if the term is thought of like a chair at a university, held by a particularly intelligent and wise professor. But he said his research showed that the primary focus of the feast for centuries was on the role of St. Peter and his successors as the servants of the unity of the entire church.

The pope's role as servant is emphasized both in Bernini's sculpture and in prayers for the feast day liturgy written after the Second Vatican Council, Father Ravelli said.

While the Gospel reading for the Mass has remained the story of Jesus giving the "keys of the kingdom of heaven" to St. Peter, he said, the Vatican II prayers "focus on service, especially on serving the communion of the whole church."

"The tone does not underline primacy, which remains part of it, but service," he said.

Bernini's sculpture also contains both elements and can be interpreted according to one's point of view, he said.

The fact that it is a Baroque masterpiece exalting the chair on bronze clouds right below the Holy Spirit window can been seen as an expression of the royal, triumphant power of the papacy.

In that case, Father Ravelli said, the chair is obviously a throne.

But while Bernini depicted Jesus handing the keys to Peter on one side of the chair, the presentation is balanced by the scene of the washing of the feet on the other side.

The central scene, decorating the backrest, shows Jesus telling Peter that if he loves the Lord he will feed his sheep.

Bernini's placement of two saintly theologians from the East and two from the West at the feet of the chair also is open to interpretation focusing either on power or on service, Father Ravelli said.

While some would see the theologians in submission under the chair, he said, "the chair is not a weight on them, nor are they holding it up. They are drawn to it, gathered around it."

To Father Ravelli, the chair is a symbol that the bishop of Rome's key act of serving the church is service through teaching.

"The pope has an obligation to teach," he said. "Even for nonbelievers he is a point of reference on moral questions."

The 110 candles do not light up a king's throne, Father Ravelli said, but a teacher's chair.


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