2nd Sunday of Lent

Dear Friends in Christ,

We are accustomed to the sight of teachers standing in front of their students to teach, either behind a lectern or pacing back and forth in a classroom or lecture hall. But in the ancient world the traditional posture of a distinguished teacher was to be seated in a prominent chair from which instruction would be given, and the teacher’s chair thereby became a symbol of his authority to teach. The Lord Jesus refers to the “chair of Moses” (Mt 23.2) as a symbol of the Law Giver’s authority, and we still have a modern echo of this ancient custom in the description of a professor’s position in his university as a “chair.”

From this habit of speaking of a chair as a symbol of the authority to teach, the Church acquired the word for a bishop’s church. The Latin word cathedra (chair) gave us the word cathedral, meaning the church in which the bishop’s chair is located. This is the symbol of the bishop’s authority to teach the Gospel in the name and person of Christ the Lord, an authority conferred by Jesus on His Apostles and the bishops who are their successors. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28.18-20) The most solemn teaching of a bishop is said to be ex cathedra or “from the chair.”

Each year on February 22nd, the Church keeps the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter the Apostle, and this celebration reminds us that Peter and his successors in Rome exercise a unique teaching authority in the Church. Simon Peter was the first of the Twelve to confess the divinity and messianic identity of Jesus: You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. And from that moment Simon occupied a singular place in the eternal Plan of Salvation: Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on each shall be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16.16-19)

The physical cathedra of the Bishop of Rome is located in the Basilica of St John Lateran, thus making that ancient church the cathedral of Rome. But an even more famous “Chair of Peter” is the Baroque masterpiece of gilt bronze, sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and located in the apse of Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Both of these physical objects remind us that the Feast of the Chair of Peter celebrates the teaching of Jesus Christ which continues in every age through the teaching of the Church’s bishops, most especially the Bishop of Rome, the Successor of Saint Peter. We also rejoice that this is the patronal feast of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter, represented here by the Saint Anselm’s Community.

Father Newman