Let's backtrack for a moment. In every diocese, the "head church", that is the bishop's church, is called the cathedral. Perhaps the most famous cathedral in the United States is Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. The word cathedral is derived from the Latin word cathedra, which means chair. It is preciously because a church contains the bishop's chair that it is called a cathedral.
Now we know from Sacred Scripture that Our Lord chose Saint Peter to be the head of the Apostles and thus the head of the Church. As we read the Gospel of Saint Matthew, "Jesus, having come to the district of Caesarea Philippi, began to ask his disciples, saying, 'Who do men say the Son of man is?'...Simon Peter answered and said, 'You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.' Then Jesus answered and said, 'Blessed are you, Simon, son of John, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.'"
As the Catechism of the Church, quoting the Second Vatican Council, teaches, "The Lord made Simon alone, whom he named Peter, the 'rock' of his Church. He gave him the keys of his Church and instituted him head of the whole flock. The office of binding and loosing which was given to Peter was also assigned to the college of Apostles united to its head. This pastoral office of Peter and the other Apostles belongs to the Church's very foundation and is continued by the bishops under the primacy of the Pope".
Thus, in the early Church, as in our own day, the successors of Peter, the popes, exercised special authority over the whole Church. The successors of the Apostles, the bishops of the Church, exercise their pastoral authority in union with the Holy Father.
Ever since the times in which the Apostles lived, the bishop's cathedra, or chair, has symbolized his authority over a local Church, or diocese. Thus it is that the Feast of the Chair of Peter is the day in the Church's liturgical year that is set aside to recall the inauguration of Peter's ministry as Bishop of Rome (following his having served as Bishop of Antioch) and to reflect on and thank God for the ministry and authority of the Successor of Peter, the pope.
A glorious bronze sculpture by Gianlorenzo Bernini called Cathedra Petri (The Chair of Peter) fills the apse behind the high altar of St. Peter's Basilica, just below the famous window of the Holy Spirit. The sculpture contains a chair once believed to be the actual one in which Saint Peter sat when he was the first Bishop of Rome. Furthermore, the date of February 22nd was long thought to be the actual date on which the famous exchange between Our Lord and Saint Peter took place.
Whether or not the very chair contained in that sculpture is the same one that was occupied by Saint Peter, and regardless of the exact date on which the scene recounted in Saint Matthew's Gospel took place, one thing is certain: Christ, the Lord, made Peter the rock on which the Church was built. Today, Peter's 264th successor, Pope John Paul II, is by the will of Jesus Christ the head of the Church and the shepherd of his flock.
This year, as we again celebrate on February 22nd the Feast of the Chair of Peter, let us thank God for the life and ministry of our Holy Father, because as the Church has repeated for countless centuries: ubi Petrus, ibi Ecclesia - Where Peter is, there is the Church.
Let us pray:
God, our Father, look with love and mercy upon your servant, John Paul, whom you have chosen to be successor of Peter and Vicar on earth of Our Lord, Jesus Christ. May he, through word and example, direct, sustain and sanctify people in his care, so that with them, he may attain unto everlasting life in your kingdom. Amen