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Why the feast of the Chair of St. Peter has a lot to do with me

©Fabio PIGNATA/CPP/CIRIC
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Especially in an era tempted to privatize the faith and disengage from the life of the Church, this celebration calls to us.

As with the Feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran (celebrated on November 9), the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter is a uniquely Catholic feast. Despite its name, this celebration is not focused on a piece of furniture (namely, the relic housed in St. Peter’s Basilica that is said to have been the bishop’s throne used by the Apostle Peter), but rather, this feast celebrates the role St. Peter and his successors, the popes, in the life of the Church.

The collect for the Mass of today’s feast presents for us a central characteristics of Peter:

Grant, we pray, almighty God, / that no tempests may disturb us, / for you have set us fast / on the rock of the Apostle Peter’s confession of faith (cf. Matthew 1618).

Peter is the rock of the communion of the Church. Because of Peter’s statement of faith, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16), and not by any personal strength or quality Peter possessed, Peter becomes the solid “point of reference for our apostolic faith and serves as a motive for fidelity to the Word of God” (Enzo Lodi, Saints of the Roman Calendar).

In reflecting on the significance of the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, Pope Saint John Paul II observed,

It sheds light on the special ministry of strengthening and guiding the Church in the unity of faith which the lord entrusted to the Head of the Apostles. It consists in this ministerium petrinum (Petrine Ministry), the particular service of the Bishop of Rome is called to render to the entire Christian people. It is an indispensable mission that is not built on human prerogatives but on Christ himself, the cornerstone of the Eucharistic community. (General Audience, February 22, 2004).

One of the gifts that the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter offers to us is the opportunity to reflect on our call to mutual service along with and guided by the Holy Father and the magisterium of the Church.

In Lumen Gentium, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council reflected that each of us shares in the Church’s prophetic office, especially through the witness we offer in lives of faith, charity and praise:

The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief … the Holy Spirit sanctifies and leads the people of God and enriches it with virtues, but ‘allotting gifts to everyone according as He wills’ (1 Corinthians 12:11), the Spirit distributes special graces among the faithful of every rank” (12).

To live the life of the Church places a burden of responsibility on each of us, clergy and laity alike. Whether we style ourselves “a ministry professional” or simply as “a person in the pews,” each of us is called to walk the same path: “Thus in their diversity,” Lumen Gentium says, “all bear witness to the wonderful unity of the Body of Christ” (32).

Collaborative ministry, exemplified in the first chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, allows for each of the Church’s diverse members to contribute to the building of the Kingdom, whether this is expressed in support of new movements, evangelization, and doctrinal development, or in active engagement with the very real opportunities and challenges faced by the Church today, such as with the “Meeting on the Protection of Minors in the Church” that is taking place now in Rome.

Contrary to what some may argue, the greatest threat to this vision of collaborative ministry is not magisterial oversight or Curial power. Rather, it is the tendency to privatize our faith and disengage from the life of the Church.

In our contemporary culture, in a time when the number of those who identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious” or who claim no religious affiliation, is rising rapidly, the Church is seen by many as a relic of the past. And, if we believe that we ourselves are the sole actors in the life of the Church, that we make the Church, then they would be right. But, what if we look beyond our egos and allow for the work of the Holy Spirit?

In Acedia & Me, Kathleen Norris emphasizes that we must begin to cultivate a “greatness of spirit” if we are going to combat this tendency to focus on ourselves, our comforts and our agendas:

In a priggish culture such as ours, this magnanimity of spirit is precisely what we lack, and if we persist in denying any truth but our own, the danger to society is that our perspective will remain so narrow and self-serving that we lose the ability to effect a meaningful change … This mentality may be of some use in business, but in a family, including a family of faith, it is a disaster. It permits us to treat our churches as if they were political parties instead of the Body of Christ, making them vulnerable to crass manipulation by ideologues. (116-117) 

The antidote for all of this is faith—the same faith we see in Peter in the Gospel for this feast. If we are willing to allow the Advocate promised by Jesus to come into our hearts and dwell there, then we will be able to live the communion with Christ and one another that is the life of the Church:

Life reaches farther than our biological existence. Where there is no longer anything worth dying for, even life itself is no longer worth living. When faith has opened our eyes and has enlarged our heart, [the message] of Saint Paul attains its full illuminating power: ‘None of us lives for himself, and no one dies for himself. If we live, we live for the Lord; if we die, we die for the Lord; whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s’ (Romans 14:7f)” (Joseph Ratzinger, Called to Communion, 155-156).

The Feast of the Chair of St. Peter offers us an opportunity to pray in a special way for the gifts of faith, courage, wisdom, and discernment for Pope Francis and all Church leaders, but it also invites each of us to recognize the call to collaborative ministry, recognizing the we are truly called to live in communion.

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