The homily today focuses on the question that Jesus poses in the gospel. “But who do you say that I am?” This is arguably the most important question we can be asked by the Lord Jesus. Who do we say Jesus is? What are the implications for our life? And how does our answer to this question lead us to follow Jesus more closely?
The Comforting Chair of Saint Peter
Going Behind the Word
In Going Behind the Word we explore the history of this feast, the Chair of Saint Peter. Why do we celebrate the Chair of Saint Peter? What does it mean? And why is it so important for me to be aware of this feast? (The audio will be uploaded as soon as it is complete.)
What Does This Mean?
The most important promise by Christ is the protection of the Church. “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.” But the very next phrase shows us how we know that God will keep the process.
“I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” So the way in which Jesus protects the Church is by giving the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven to Peter.
An Authority Characterized by Service
So the Chair of Saint Peter represents “Christ’s choosing Peter to sit in his place as the servant-authority of the whole Church.” And this promise is continued through the choices of popes throughout the centuries. As such, the pope is meant to be the visible sign of the authority of Christ in the world. He does this, however, first and foremost by imitating Jesus who washed the feet of His disciples.
But this is not a simple human authority. Peter does not show forth his choice by Christ until the Holy Spirit comes upon him. Before he receives the Spirit, Peter, like the other apostles was frightened and afraid. After the tongues of fire descends upon the apostles (represented by the hat the bishop wears, called a miter) they are changed men. They speak out boldly and ultimately give their own lives for Christ.
It’s Not the Celebration of an Object of Furniture
It is, rather, the use of the word chair in a way that suggests leadership. A school board, corporation, and a non-profit, for example all have a board chair. In the senate there are chairs of select committees. And so what we celebrate today is more about the symbol of Peter’s authority, passed down to all popes.
Even a Saint is Not Perfect
Celebrating the Chair of Saint Peter is not the celebration of a perfect person. When Catholics teach that the pope is infallible, it is in a very limited way, and is usually expressed in only a very few number of words. Also, when the pope speaks in this way, it can only be about faith and morals. So if the pope is a Red Sox fan (a laudable choice) it does not make his choice to follow the Red Sox a choice without error.
Moreover, there have been popes that have not been good people. The promise about authority is given to the Church, to Peter, by Christ. It is in this gift that we celebrate when we celebrate the Chair of Saint Peter.
Even Peter sinned. And Peter sinned even after the descent of the Holy Spirit. When he hedges on following Jewish dietary laws to placate other Jews, Paul confronts him on his choice. And so even though Peter sinned, he sought forgiveness and remained faithful.
Peter’s Name Means Rock
One more thing. In English, we can lose the sense of what it is Jesus said. “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.” While we translate his name Peter, in other romance languages, and in the Greek, it would be better translated rock. Take the French for example. The word for Peter, Pierre, a name, is also the word for rock, un pierre. And so a better translation would be, “And so I say to you, you are Rock (Πέτρος, or petros) and upon this rock I will build my Church.”
So the Chair of Saint Peter is a celebration of the Rock upon which Jesus builds his Church. Most importantly in the way he confesses that Jesus is Lord. And just as Peter received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the Church receives the Holy Spirit as a fulfillment of the promise of Christ.