Sunday, 23 February 2014

THE CHAIR OF ST . PETER

Homily preached by Fr. John Hodgins at St. Joseph's Catholic Church, Streetsville, Ontario, CANADA - Saturday, Feb 22, 2014

Marking the Third Anniversary of the First Anglican Use Mass in Canada celebrated by Father Christopher Phillips in 2011.

Based upon a homily by Benedict XVI for the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter


Today’s Gospel presents Peter, divinely inspired, expressing his firm faith in Jesus as the Son of God and as the promised Messiah.  

In response to this transparent profession of faith, which Peter makes in the name of the other Apostles as well, Jesus reveals to Peter the mission he intends to entrust to him, namely that of being the “rock”, the visible foundation on which the entire spiritual edifice of the Church, the Body of Christ, is built (cf. Mt 16:16-19). 

Peter, Simon's new name meaning “rock” is not a reference to Peter’s personal character, but can be understood only on the basis of a deeper aspect, a mystery: through the office that Jesus confers upon him, Simon Peter will become something that, in terms of “flesh and blood”, he is not. 

The exegete Joachim Jeremias has shown that in the background, the symbolic language of “holy rock” is present. 

A rabbinic text states: “The Lord said, ‘How can I create the world, when these godless men will rise up in revolt against me?’ But when God saw that Abraham was to be born, he said, ‘Look, I have found a rock on which I can build and establish the world.’  Therefore he called Abraham a rock.”

The prophet Isaiah makes reference to this when he calls upon the people to “look to the rock from which you were hewn … look to Abraham your father” (Isaiah 51:1-2).  On account of his faith, Abraham, the father of believers, is seen as the rock that supports creation. 

Simon, the first to profess faith in Jesus as the Christ and the first witness of the resurrection, now, on the basis of his renewed faith, becomes the rock that is to prevail against the destructive forces of evil.

Let us go on a little imaginary pilgrimage, a pilgrimage to St. Peter’s in Rome. The Gospel we read today finds an explanation as we approach one of the most famous artistic treasures of St. Peter’s Basilica: the altar of the Chair.  After passing through the magnificent central nave, and continuing past the transepts, we, the pilgrims arrive in the apse and see before us an enormous bronze throne that seems to hover in mid air, but in reality is supported by the four statues of great Fathers of the Church from East and West. 

Above the throne, surrounded by triumphant angels suspended in the air, the glory of the Holy Spirit shines through the oval window.  What does this sculpture say to us, this product of Bernini’s genius?  It represents a vision of the essence of the Church and the place within the Church of the Petrine Magisterium or teaching office of the Bishop of Rome.
We see the window of the apse opens the Church towards the outside, towards the whole of creation, while the image of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove shows God as the source of light.  But there is also another aspect us to see here: the Church herself is like a window, the place where God draws near to us, where he comes towards our world. 

Pope Benedict in describing this sculpture and its relation to the Church said this:
“The Church does not exist for her own sake, she is not the point of arrival, but she has to point upwards, beyond herself, to the realms above.  The Church is truly herself to the extent that she allows the Other, with a capital “O”, to shine through her – the One from whom she comes and to whom she leads.  The Church is the place where God ‘reaches’ us and where we ‘set off’ towards [God]: she has the task of opening up, beyond itself, a world which tends to become enclosed within itself, the task of bringing to the world the light that comes from above, without which it would be uninhabitable.”

In our imagination we can see that the great bronze throne encloses a wooden chair from the ninth century, which was long thought to be Saint Peter’s own chair and was placed above the huge central  altar because of its great symbolic value.  It expresses the permanent presence of the Apostle in the Teaching Office of his successors – the Magisterium of Faith and Morals which holds the Church in one.

Saint Peter’s chair is the throne of truth which takes its origin from Christ’s commission after the confession at Caesarea Philippi.  Meditating on the magisterial chair we are reminded of the words spoken to Peter by the Lord during the Last Supper: “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Lk 22:32).

The chair of Peter evokes the famous expression from Saint Ignatius of Antioch’s letter to the Romans, where he says of the Church of Rome that she “presides in charity”, caritas, that is, love. (Salutation, PG 5, 801).  In truth, presiding in faith is inseparably linked to presiding in love. 

Faith without love would no longer be authentic Christian faith.  But the words of Saint Ignatius have another much more concrete implication: the word “charity”, in fact, was also used by the early Church to indicate the Eucharist.  The Eucharist is the Sacramentum caritatis Christi, the sacrament of the love of Christ, through which Jesus continues to draw us all to himself, as he did when raised up on the Cross (cf. Jn 12:32). 

To “preside in charity”, then, is to draw men and women into a eucharistic embrace – the embrace of Christ – which surpasses every barrier and every division, creating communion from differences.  This, of course, is the purpose of the Personal Ordinariates, to draw not just Anglicans, but Protestants, unconfirmed Catholics indeed everyone into the unity of the See of Peter – the rock.

Ordinariate missions at to be  a signs of hope drawing people into the unity of faith and love.

The Petrine ministry is a primacy of love in the eucharistic sense. Peter and his successors are a solicitude for the universal communion of the Church in Christ.  And the Eucharist is the shape and the measure of this communion, a guarantee that it will remain faithful to the sacred tradition of the faith as defined by the universal Church.

Symbolically the great Chair at St. Peter’s Basilica is supported by the Fathers of the Church.  The two Eastern masters, Saint John Chrysostom and Saint Athanasius, together with the Latins, Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine, represent the whole of the scacred teaching tradition, and hence the richness of expression of the true faith of the one Church.  This aspect of the altar teaches us that love rests upon faith. 

Pope Benedict went on to say in a homily delivered at his final consistory: “Love collapses if man no longer trusts in God and disobeys him.  Everything in the Church rests upon faith: the sacraments, the liturgy, evangelization, charity.  Likewise the law and the Church’s authority rest upon faith.  The Church is not self-regulating, she does not determine her own structure but receives it from the word of God, to which she listens in faith as she seeks to understand it and to live it. “

The Magisterium following the teaching of the Fathers of the Church and the Councils fulfills the function of guaranteeing fidelity to sacred Scripture.  They ensure that the Church receives reliable and solid exegesis, capable of forming, in unity with the Chair of Peter, a stable and consistent community of faith – the One Church of Christ drawing all the baptized together in faith. 

The sacred Scriptures, authoritatively interpreted by the Magisterium in the light of the Fathers, shed light upon the Church’s journey through time, providing her with a stable foundation through the ebb and flow of history.

Finally, we see that the altar of the Chair, then, is characterized by a twofold movement: ascending and descending.  This is what Benedict calls “the reciprocity between faith and love.“

The Chair is placed in a prominent position in St. Peter’s, because this is where Saint Peter’s tomb is located, this too indicates the love of God.  Indeed, faith is oriented towards love.  A selfish faith would be an unreal faith.  Whoever believes in Jesus Christ and enters into the dynamic of love that finds its source in the Eucharist, discovers true joy and becomes capable in turn of living according to the logic of gift. 

True faith is illumined by love and leads towards love, leads on high, just as the altar of the Chair points upwards towards the luminous window, the glory of the Holy Spirit, which constitutes the true focus for the pilgrim’s gaze.  That window is given great prominence by the triumphant angels and the great golden rays, with a sense of overflowing fullness that expresses the richness of communion with God.  God is not isolation, but glorious and joyful love, spreading outwards and radiant with light.


My brothers and sisters, the gift of this love has been entrusted to us, to every Christian.  It is a gift to be passed on to others, through the witness of our lives.  This is our task in particular, in the Ordinariate:  to bear witness to the joy of Christ’s love in the unity of faith. 

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