Today is the Feast of the “Cathedra” or Chair of St. Peter, a recurrence dating back to the fourth century that honors and celebrates the primacy and authority of St. Peter.
The word “cathedra” means seat or throne and is the root of the word cathedral, the church where a bishop has his throne and from whence he preaches. Another word for “cathedra” is “sede” (seat or see): the “see” is the place from which a bishop governs his diocese. Thus, for example, the Holy See is the see of the bishop of Rome, the Pope.
In 2004, on this day, in reflections made during the Angelus, Pope John Paul II remarked that “the liturgical feast of the Chair of Peter underscores the singular mystery, entrusted by the Lord to the leader of the Apostles, of confirming and guiding the Church in the unity of faith. This is what the ‘ministerium petrinum’ is, that particular service that the Bishop of Rome is called to render to all Christians. An indispensable mission that is not based on human prerogatives but on Christ Himself as the cornerstone of the ecclesial community. Let us pray that the Church, in the variety of cultures, languages and traditions, will be unanimous in believing and professing the truth of faith and morals transmitted by the Apostles.”
The Chair of St. Peter is actually a throne that Charles the Bald, the grandson of the Emperor Charlemagne, gave to Pope John VIII at the former’s coronation as emperor on Christmas Day 875. For many years the chair was used at liturgical events by Pope John and his successors: it was ensconced in Bernini’s Altar of the Chair in 1666.
A mixture of tradition, legend and belief held for many years that this was actually a double chair, parts of which dated back to the early days of Christianity and to St. Peter himself. This chair or cathedra has been studied over the centuries; the last time it was removed from its niche in the Bernini altar was a six-year period from 1968 to 1974 during which studies pointed to a single chair whose oldest parts date to the sixth century. What appeared to be an outer or second chair was a covering which served both to protect the throne and to carry it in procession.
Every year on this feast, the monumental altar housing the Chair of Peter is illuminated by scores of candles throughout the entire day. Numerous Masses are celebrated at this altar, from early morning to early evening, concluding with the Mass of the Canons of St. Peter.