It's not just a chair, but a teaching office

By Kimberly Bruce

"The Catholic Church has a feast day to a chair?" you ask.

Why, yes, but the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter on Feb. 22 does not exist to honor an actual piece of furniture, though such a chair (dating to the ninth century) does indeed exist in the apse of St. Peter's Basilica. It's an ordinary four-legged oaken armchair considerably ornamented and gilded over the centuries by various artists.

It is not the workmanship of this chair that holds its special significance for Catholics. Rather, it is the "spiritual authority" that this chair represents.

What the Feast of the Chair actually honors is the office of St. Peter the Apostle. Saint Peter, "the Rock," was the first pope officially appointed by our Lord Himself in Matthew's Gospel. The office, or duties and responsibilities, of his chair extend to all popes via the line of apostolic succession in the Church, which began with St. Peter and continues to our current pope, Pope Francis.

Christ conferred upon St. Peter spiritual authority over the Twelve Apostles and His Church when He declared in Matthew 16:18-19:

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

This papal authority also mirrors the "keys to the kingdom" authority given to Eliakim in the Old Testament:

On that day I will call my servant Eliakim son of Hilkiah, and will clothe him with your robe and bind your sash on him. I will commit your authority to his hand, and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open. I will fasten him like a peg in a secure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his ancestral house (Is 22:20-23).

The one who had the "keys" in the Old Testament was the one with the power to let someone into or out of the kingdom, and the power to govern within the kingdom. In Eliakim's case, he was given the keys to the kingdom of the house of David, the line from which the Messiah was to come. This, as well, mirrors Christ giving His apostles the authority and power to forgive sins when He later says to them in Matthew 18:18, "Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."

So the Holy Father is given the governing power of a prime minister within the Church, able to rule on matters of discipline and Catholic life with authority, though not infallibility. When it comes to his authority to teach on matters of faith and morals, he has certain exceptional guarantees when he exercises his office in specific ways. This is where papal infallibility comes into play. Personally, the pope is not an infallible human being. He is not infallible in his own opinions, thoughts, or necessarily by the way in which he leads his life. Papal infallibility is evident when he promulgates for Catholics doctrine concerning faith and morals via his authority in virtue of his office as pope. When the Church, via the Magisterium, "proposes a doctrine 'for belief as being divinely revealed,' and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions 'must be adhered to with the obedience of faith'" (Catechism, 891).

Papal infallibility has only been fully, officially invoked a few times in the Church's 2,000-year history. Most recently, these include Pope Bl. Pius IX's 1854 definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and Pope Ven. Pius XII's 1950 definition of the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

What this papal infallibility confirms is Christ's love for His Church. He does not leave her alone to fend for herself with regards to truth after His death. He provides continued guidance for her by way of the Holy Spirit through the Magisterium.

As the philosopher Dr. Peter Kreeft says in his book Catholic Christianity: A Complete Catechism of Catholic Beliefs Based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "Infallibility is God's loving gift in response to our need to persevere in the unity of love and truth - which is what God wants above all because that is what he is: love (1 Jn 4:18) and truth (Jn 6:14). Without infallibility, uncertainties and schisms are inevitable among us fallen and foolish humans for whom Christ designed his Church ... The gift of infallibility flows from God's character. He is so generous that he does not hold back anything that we need. He is not a stingy God!"

We should remember to be grateful, particularly on the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter the Apostle on Feb. 22, for Christ's loving protection of His Church via the vigilance of her bishops, in union with the pope, and guided by the Holy Spirit, in staying the course of the faith.


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