The Petrine Teaching Authority, Chair of St. Peter, February 22, 2017

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Feast of the Chair of St. Peter
February 22, 2017
1 Pet 5:1-4, Ps 23, Mt 16:13-19


To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 


The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • In today’s Gospel, we have a double confession. Inspired by God the Father, Simon confesses Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God. Jesus in return gives another, almost equally striking confession: You are kepha (the Aramaic means both the name “Peter” and the thing “Rock”), you are Rock and on this Rock, on you, I will build my Church and the gates of Hell won’t prevail against it. Jesus built his Church with an architectural plan and the foundation of the Church would be Peter. That means that if we’re going to be truly Christian, fully Christian, we need to build our faith in Christ on Peter. At the beginning of Mass today, we prayed to God the Father, “Grant that no tempests may disturb us for you have set us fast on the rock of the Apostle Peter’s confession of faith.” God has set us fast, made our faith steadfast, on the Rock’s confession of faith, and therefore our growth in faith, our deepening of the Christian life, is directed linked to Peter, to the office of the Papacy, and to the responsibilities Christ gave him he passed on to his successors.
  • Today the Church celebrates the Feast of the “Chair” of St. Peter. Liturgically, it recalls the day he took up his episcopal ministry in Antioch, where he served before coming to Rome. He was Pope from Jesus’ ascension, but he didn’t immediately go to Rome. The early Christians not only celebrated Peter’s heroic martyrdom as a feast but also celebrated the day in which he started to guide the first Christians in the place Jesus’ believers were first called Christians.
  • To celebrate the feast of St. Peter’s Chair, however, is something more specific than feting Peter’s ministry as a whole. The chair was the ancient symbol of teaching authority. Teachers would sit and all their students would stand, the exact opposite of what happens today. In the Gospel, the evangelists tell us on several occasions that Jesus “sat down and began to teach” the crowds. The chair became a symbol of teaching authority and in some ways that remains today, when we refer to the person who has the “chair of philosophy” or “chair of theology” or even the “chairman” of a particular meeting. To celebrate the feast of the Chair of St. Peter is to rejoice in the teaching authority Christ has given him for the sake of his body the Church. Jesus gave Peter the “keys of the kingdom of heaven,” to bind and loose on earth, and that even greater authority over the sacraments points to the authority he has to teach authoritatively in Jesus’ name. We retain the expression of the Pope’s teaching ex cathedra (literally “from the chair”) to highlight his most solemn teachings to us, applying Christ’s words and wisdom to the present age.
  • I was ordained a transitional deacon at the Altar of the Chair in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. In the sculpture that hovered over the altar Bernini enshrined the chair that in the 1600s everyone said was the one used by St. Peter 1600 years earlier to teach the faith to the people of Rome. They were mistaken by a measly 800 years — history then wasn’t what it is now and archaeology basically didn’t exist — and the chair was actually given to the Pope around the year 800 by the emperor Otto II, but the reality to which the altar of the chair pointed was Peter’s authority, and Bernini illustrated the theology of that authority in this incredible sculpture. On top of the bronze-enshrined chair was the image of the Holy Spirit above my shoulder, showing that the Holy Spirit continued to guide Peter and through him the Church to “all the truth,” as Jesus promised during the last supper. Underneath the chair, pointing to and spiritually upholding the legs of the chair, are four great theologians, bishops and fathers of the Church, Saints Ambrose, Augustine, Chrysostom and Athanasius. Their presence shows how bishops and theologians are supposed to support the teaching authority of the Popes, not “chopping off” the legs by undermining that authority. And then on the front of the seat-back is a bas relief of Peter’s feeding Christ’s sheep and lambs, the commission Christ gave Peter at the end of St. John’s Gospel after asking him three times if he loved him. Peter’s love for Christ will be shown in his feeding Christ’s flock, and the first way he feeds the flock is through his authoritative teaching in Christ’s name. Just as the evangelists tell us that Jesus had pity on the crowds and began to teach them many things, so Peter, sharing in Christ’s compassion, teaches.
  • The teaching authority of the Pope has been so important throughout Church history. We see even in the Acts of the Apostles how there were disputes about whether Gentile converts needed to follow the whole Mosaic law and how Peter intervened in the Council of Jerusalem. Much later there were huge issues with whether Christ was fully God and fully man, whether he was two persons or one person and two natures, whether he had the full complement of a human body, soul and spirit, whether he had one will or two wills, whether the Holy Spirit was divine, what the sacraments were and whether they were necessary for salvation, which sacred writings were truly inspired and binding, and so many other concerns. It was the work of the Popes and the early ecumenical councils to guide the Church through this time of confusion and division. The Pope was the central reference point. After Pope Leo the Great intervened with a famous “Tome” to guide the deliberations of the Council of Chalcedon in 451, many said, in a phrase that has since become famous, “Roma locuta est. Causa finita est.” “Rome [Peter] has spoken. The matter’s been put to rest.”
  • That teaching authority is just as important today. In a sense there is a small crisis with regard to the teaching authority of the Petrine Office. Some people think that rather than building his Church on a rock, Jesus built it on a weather-vane, in which successive popes can change the teachings of their predecessors on issues of faith and morals, as some are pretending Pope Francis is doing with regard to the teaching about adultery (divorce and remarriage), the necessity of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and the need to be in the state of grace to receive Holy Communion. The papal teaching office is a continuous one that makes explicit what was implicit before, yes, but one that must be interpreted in continuity rather than in rupture. Others, at the same time, in order to affirm the truth announced by Christ, for example, about marriage (which we’ll hear on Friday), are attempting to undermine the teaching authority of Pope Francis, by suggesting that he is in fact teaching in rupture with his predecessors, something that would call into question the Holy Spirit’s guiding the Church into all truth and in particular keeping the Petrine office from teaching in error with regard to what we need to believe or do to please God and enter into his life. On this Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, the whole Church needs to focus on what this Feast means and give God thanks for the gift of papal infallibility when teaching definitively on matters of faith and morals. It’s also a time to stop the attacks against the faith from a sense of a fluid papal teaching office that can teach A today and the exact opposite tomorrow on the one hand; and, on the other, from inferring that things that on the surface, or that may to some seem suggestive of a rupture with the teachings of predecessors are not actually that, but must be interpreted in line with what has come before. To be truly Catholic, we need to hold fast to Peter’s confession of faith through his successors in continuity.
  • I want to finish today by a reference to the second way Peter feeds Christ’s flock, which is by giving us Jesus’ body and blood. Peter is the one who gave the great confession of faith in Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist. After Jesus told us that we needed to gnaw on his flesh and drink his blood to have life in us, after many of the disciples abandoned Jesus because they found that teaching too hard to endure, and after Jesus turned to the apostles and asked whether they, too, would abandon him, that’s when Peter stood up and said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Peter didn’t know better than anyone else how Jesus would give us his body and blood — he wouldn’t until exactly a year later when during the Last Supper he would totally change bread and wine into his body and blood and give himself to us to eat — but because he believed in Jesus, he believed in what he said. We hold fast to that confession of faith in Christ. At St. Peter’s Basilica this relationship between Peter and the Sacrament of the Eucharist is depicted artistically. The tabernacle in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel is a replica of a famous Church dedicated to St. Peter elsewhere in Rome, called San Pietro in Montorio. The Church at the time wanted to show the connection between Peter and the Eucharist and thought that it wouldn’t be attracted, for example, to have a tabernacle shaped like a man with a key in the belly button and taking out the ciboria from the peritoneum. Instead they took a Church that symbolized Peter and placed Jesus within, to show that without holy orders, without the priesthood that finds its source of unity in Peter, there would be no Eucharist. So at the Mass, we have the double feast of the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Eucharist and in both Peter’s authority is key. He nourishes us first with the Word of God and the applications of that Word to Christian life and then he nourishes us with the Word made Flesh. Peter was present at the first Mass and then celebrated the Eucharist for the early Christians with the table of the Word and the table of the Eucharist.
  • Today we thank the Lord for the gift of his work, his Church founded on Peter, his teaching through the Pope, his giving of the Sacraments, and we ask for the grace to hold fast to his continual confession. And we pray in a special way for the 266th Peter, Pope Francis, that his faith may never fail, that he may strengthen us his brothers and sisters with Jesus’ teaching, and help us all to confess Jesus in the world to be the Messiah and Son of God.

The readings for today’s Mass were:

Reading 1 1 PT 5:1-4

I exhort the presbyters among you,
as a fellow presbyter and witness to the sufferings of Christ
and one who has a share in the glory to be revealed.
Tend the flock of God in your midst,
overseeing not by constraint but willingly,
as God would have it, not for shameful profit but eagerly.
Do not lord it over those assigned to you,
but be examples to the flock.
And when the chief Shepherd is revealed,
you will receive the unfading crown of glory.

Responsorial Psalm PS 23:1-3A, 4, 5, 6

R. (1) The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
In verdant pastures he gives me repose;
Beside restful waters he leads me;
he refreshes my soul.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
Even though I walk in the dark valley
I fear no evil; for you are at my side
With your rod and your staff
that give me courage.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
You spread the table before me
in the sight of my foes;
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
Only goodness and kindness follow me
all the days of my life;
And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
for years to come.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.

Alleluia MT 16:18

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church;
the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel MT 16:13-19

When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi
he asked his disciples,
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah,
still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Simon Peter said in reply,
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.
For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.
And so I say to you, you are Peter,
and upon this rock I will build my Church,
and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven.
Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven;
and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”