What’s in a chair?

Next Saturday is the Feast of the Chair of St Peter. So what is that all about? In former times a chair was often seen as a symbol of authority, especially teaching authority. Professors are still sometimes described as holding the “chair” in English, economics or whatever- So also the Bishop of a diocese has his spiritual chair, represented by an actual chair in his principal church. From a Greek word for chair comes the name we give to that church – the “cathedral”.

Now St Peter was of course given that ministry of leadership and service by Our Lord (“You are Peter-”) which he exercised first in Jerusalem, then in ancient Antioch and finally in Rome. So Saturday’s feast symbolises the ministry of Peter and his successors, the Popes, in our present case Pope Francis.

The Pope’s actual chair or cathedra is in the Rome church of St John Lateran, which is therefore the “cathedral” of Rome, and where the Popes used to reside.

Nowadays, of course they live at the Vatican. So there is no actual cathedra at St Peter’s in the Vatican – despite it often being described as a cathedral. But what there is in St Peter’s is a huge symbolic cathedra. You will find it at the far end, beyond the Papal Altar and its canopy, and is attached to the wall. It is in the form of a magnificent bronze representation of a throne, held up by four giant Doctors of the Church.

Most interestingly of all, inside that masterpiece of the sculptor/architect Bernni – also responsible for the canopy and the piazza outside St Peter’s – is an actual ancient chair. This was originally believed to have belonged to St Peter himself, but when they removed it from the shrine in recent times it was dated by style to maybe the sixth century. So just as the whole of the magnificent church of St Peter’s is built over the humble remains of a fisherman of Galilee, so also the glorious sculpture and decoration contains a humble and ancient wooden chair. If you go to the Vatican, make sure to go right down to see the Chair of Peter, and ponder…


Fr Matthew