The feast of the Chair of Peter has been celebrated from the earliest times by the church at Rome, first on January 18 in recognition of the day when Peter is said to have held his first service with the Roman faithful, and since the Middle Ages, on February 22—traditionally considered the anniversary of Peter’s proclamation of Jesus as Messiah.
The feast recalls Peter’s authority as the head of the apostles, as well as the authority of all those who succeed Peter. In early Christian times, bishops had official chairs on which they sat as they preached and taught their people. Over time, the chair of a bishop came to be viewed as a symbol of his authority and has been regarded with great respect.
Jesus told Peter that he was the “rock” upon which he would build his church, and that Peter would be given “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:18-19). Consequently, to Peter and his successors is accorded a primacy over the church. The Chair of St. Peter has come to represent the pope’s special calling to teach and serve the people of God.
Why did Jesus choose Peter over his other disciples to become the “rock” on which to build his church? After all, while Peter often did make bold statements of faith, he also contradicted himself— even shortly afterwards. Following his proclamation of Jesus as Messiah, for instance, Peter pleaded with Jesus not to go to Jerusalem. Because of his lack of understanding of what was to occur on the cross, Peter was rebuked by Jesus (Matthew 16:21-23). Then, at the Last Supper, Peter assured Jesus that he would rather die than deny him; yet that very night Peter denied him (Mark 14:29-31,66-72).
Was Peter’s leadership given to him because of his great performance? Evidently not. What Jesus recognized in Peter was his faith. Yes, Peter’s passionate attachment to Jesus led him to make promises he could not keep, but he was determined to believe. After every failing, he ran back to Jesus for forgiveness and restoration. It is this attachment to Jesus—this reliance on him at all costs—that made Peter the “rock” on which Jesus built his entire church.
Passionate attachment to Jesus pleases our Father in heaven. Like Peter, we will sometimes fail to live up to our promises or to do what is right. The most important thing, however, is our attitude and our willingness to turn to God for forgiveness each time we sin. We may see only our unbelief and failings, but Jesus sees the desires of our hearts. Let us look to Peter as an example of faith. Jesus can use even the weakest people to build his church, as long as they respond to his grace of faith.
Points for Meditation
What is it about Peter’s faith that is most attractive to you? Ask the Lord to give you the same faith that made Peter cling to Jesus at all times.
How do you react when you become aware of a sin in your life? If you are tempted to become discouraged, ask the Lord to give you the wisdom to see these temptations for what they are and the strength to overcome them.
As successors to Peter and the apostles, our church leaders are called to tend the flock of God willingly and humbly. As Jesus prayed for Peter, let us pray for our pope and for all the bishops, that the Lord would continue to guide the church by his Spirit.
Lord, we pray for all whose faith is wavering. Bring them to greater intimacy with you. Let us not be discouraged by our failings, but ever more determined to believe.
This is a selection from A Year of Celebration: Experiencing God through the Feast Days of the Church (The Word Among Us Press, 2001).