The purpose of sacred art in any Catholic church is to teach us something about our faith and ultimately lead us to Jesus. In Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s soaring masterpiece at the Altar of the Chair shows what is traditionally presented as Saint Peter’s “cathedra,” which is Latin for “chair,” encased in gilded bronze and being lifted to heaven by four Fathers of the Church – Saints Ambrose and Augustine from the West and Saints John Chrysostom and Athanasius from the East. At the top of the dramatic work, rays of light and angels swirling in clouds surround an alabaster window depicting a dove that symbolizes how Saint Peter and his successors are guided by the Holy Spirit in leading people to heaven.
This artwork, which is behind the papal high altar directly below which lie the bones of the fisherman, and the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter that we celebrate today both offer a reminder to all of us of how we are connected to the leader of the Apostles who was the first pope. Today, he bears the name of Francis, the successor of Peter who like him and every pope since remains the touchstone of our faith and the “rock” upon which Jesus promised to build his Church.
From “cathedra” is derived the word “cathedral,” the place where sits the chair of a bishop as a successor of the Apostles. The pope’s chair symbolizes his enduring teaching authority, just as the bishop’s chair does in every cathedral around the world, including the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle, which is the mother church for the Archdiocese of Washington. In explaining what the chair of Saint Peter and a bishop’s chair represents, Pope Benedict XVI said, “From this seat, as teacher and pastor, he will guide the journey of the faithful in faith, hope and charity.”
Last year on this feast day during the Jubilee of Mercy, Pope Francis urged pastors to make their own the words of Peter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16) and to keep their thoughts fixed on Jesus, “the beginning and the end of all actions of the Church.” From this profession of faith, he added, each pastor takes up his charge to care for that portion of the flock entrusted to him.
The Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter, inspired by Bernini’s artistry, offers a reminder of that fisherman who dropped his nets to follow and walk with Jesus on a journey to heaven that the Successors of Peter, from Linus to Francis, have continued to lead us on for nearly two millennia.