Today is the feast day of Saint Peter’s Chair at Antioch.
In the honor which is this day paid to the inauguration of the first Bishop’s throne, an honor is paid to the office of all Bishops. The Churches testify one to another, that, the greater the Church’s dignity, the greater the reverence due to her priests. While I confess how rightly godly custom hath exalted this Feast in the estimation of all the Churches, the more do I wonder at the growth of that unhealthy error which at this day causeth some unbelievers to lay food and wine upon the graves of the dead, as if souls once rid of the body had any longer any need of bodily refreshment.” St. Augustine (4)
SAINT PETER’S CHAIR AT ANTIOCH
By Abbot Dom Guéranger
We are called upon, a second time, to honour St. Peter’s chair: ﬁrst, it was his pontiﬁcate in Rome; today, it is his episcopate at Antioch. The seven years spent by the prince of the apostles in the second of these cities, were the grandest glory she ever had; and they are too important a portion of the life of St. Peter to be passed by without being noticed in the Christian cycle.
Three years had elapsed since our Lord’s Ascension. The Church had already been made fruitful by martyrdom, and from Jerusalem she had spread into distant countries. Antioch, the ﬁrst of the cities of Asia, had received the Gospel; and it was there that those who professed the faith of Jesus were ﬁrst called Christians. Jerusalem was doomed to destruction for having not only refused to acknowledge, but even cruciﬁed, the Messias: it was time for Peter, in whom resided the supreme power, to deprive the faithless city of the honour she had heretofore enjoyed, of possessing within her walls the chair of the apostolate. It was towards the Gentiles that the Holy Spirit drove those clouds, which were shown to Isaias as the symbol of the holy apostles. Accordingly, it is in Antioch, the third capital of the Roman Empire, that Peter ﬁrst places the august throne, on which, as vicegerent of Christ, he presides over the universal Church.
But the progress of the apostles was so rapid; the conquests they made, in spite of every opposition, were so extensive, that the vicar of Christ was inspired to leave Antioch, after he had honoured it with the chair during the space of seven years. Alexandria, the second city of the empire, is also to be made a see of Peter; and Home, the’ capital of the world, awaits the grand privilege for which God has long been preparing her. Onwards, then, does the prince advance, bearing with him the destinies of the Church; where he ﬁxes his last abode, and where he dies, there will he have his successor in his sublime dignity of vicar of Christ. He leaves Antioch, making one of his disciples, Evodius, its bishop. Evodius succeeds Peter as bishop of Antioch; but that see is not to inherit the headship of the Church, which goes whithersoever Peter goes. He sends Mark, another of his disciples, to take possession, in his name of Alexandria; and this Church he would have to be the second in the world, and though he has not ruled it in person, he raises it above that of Antioch. This done, he goes to Rome, where he permanently establishes that chair, on which he will live, and teach, and rule, in his successors, to the end of time.
And here we have the origin of the three great patriarchal sees, which were the object of so much veneration in the early ages: the ﬁrst is Rome, invested with all the prerogatives of the prince of the apostles, which, when dying, be transmitted to her; the second is Alexandria, which owes her pre-eminence to Peter’s adopting her as his second see; the third is Antioch, whither be repaired in person, when he left Jerusalem to bring to the Gentiles the grace of adoption. If, therefore, Antioch is below Alexandria in rank, Alexandria never enjoyed the honour granted to Antioch, of having been governed, in person, by him whom Christ appointed to be the supreme pastor of His Church. Nothing, then, could be more just, than that Antioch should be honoured, as having, for seven years, had the privilege of being the centre of Christendom; and this is the object of today’s feast.
The children of the Church have a right to feel a special interest in every solemnity that is kept in memory of St. Peter. The father’s feast is a feast for the whole family; for to him it owes its very life. If there be but one fold, it is because there is but one Shepherd. Let us, then, honour Peter’s divine prerogative, to which Christianity owes its preservation; and let us often reﬂect upon the obligations we are under to the apostolic see. On the feast of the chair at Rome, we saw how faith is taught, and maintained, and propagated by the mother-Church, which has inherited the promises made to Peter. Today, let us consider the apostolic see as the sole source of the legitimate power, whereby mankind is ruled and governed in all that concerns eternal salvation.
Our Saviour said to Peter: ‘To thee will I give the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” that is to say, of the Church. He said to him on another occasion: ‘Feed My lambs, feed My sheep.’ So that Peter is prince; for, in the language of the sacred Scriptures, keys denote princely power: he is also pastor, and universal pastor; for the whole flock is comprised under the two terms, lambs and sheep. And yet there are other pastors in every portion of the Christian world. The bishops, whom the Holy Ghost hath placed to rule the Church of God, govern, in his name, their respective dioceses, and are also pastors. How comes it that the keys, which were given to Peter, are found in other hands than his? The Catholic Church explains the difﬁculty to us by her tradition. She says to us, by Tertullian: ‘Christ gave the keys to Peter, and through him to the Church.’ By St. Optatus of Milevum: ‘For the sake of unity, Peter was made the ﬁrst among all the apostles, and he alone received the keys, that he might give them to the rest.’ By St. Gregory of Nyssa: ‘It is through Peter that Christ gave to bishops the keys of their heavenly prerogative.’ By St. Leo the Great: ‘If our Lord willed that there should be something common to Peter and the rest of the princes of His Church, it was only on this condition, that whatsoever He gave to the rest, He gave it to them through Peter.
Yes, the episcopate is most sacred, for it comes from the hands of Jesus Christ through Peter and his successors. Such is the unanimous teaching of Catholic tradition, which is in keeping with the language used by the Roman pontiff’s, from the earliest ages, who have always spoken of the dignity of bishops as consisting in their being ‘ called to a share of their own solicitude.’ Hence St. Cyprian does not hesitate to say that ‘ our Saviour, wishing to establish the episcopal dignity and constitute His Church, says to Peter: “To thee will I give the keys of the kingdom of heaven”; and here we have both the institution of bishops, and the constitution of the Church.’ This same doctrine is clearly stated in a letter written to Pope St. Symmachus by St. Cesarius of Arles,‘ who lived in the ﬁfth century: ‘The episcopate ﬂows from the blessed apostle Peter; and consequently, it belongs to your holiness to prescribe to the several Churches the rules which they are to follow.’ This fundamental principle, which St. Leo the Great has so ably and eloquently developed (as we have seen on the feast of the chair at Rome, January 18), this principle, which is taught us by universal tradition, is laid down with all possible precision in the magniﬁcent letters, still extant, of Pope St. Innocent I., who preceded St. Leo by several years.
Thus he writes to the Council of Carthage, that ‘the episcopate, with all its authority, emanates from the apostolic see’; to the Council of Milevum, that ‘bishops must look upon Peter as the source whence both their name and their dignity are derived ’; to St. Victricius, bishop of Rouen, that ‘the apostolate and the episcopate both owe their origin to Peter.’
Controversy is not our object. All we aim at by giving these quotations from the fathers on the prerogatives of Peter’s chair, is to excite the faithful to be devoted to it and venerate it. This we have endeavoured to do, by showing them that this chair is the source of the spiritual authority, which, in its several degrees, rules and sanctiﬁes them. All spiritual authority comes from Peter; all comes from the bishop of Rome, in whom Peter will continue to govern the Church to the end of time. Jesus Christ is the founder of the episcopate; it is the Holy Ghost who establishes bishops to rule the Church; but the mission and the institution, which assign the pastor his ﬂock, and the ﬂock its pastor, these are given by Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost through the ministry of Peter and his successors.
How sacred, how divine, is this authority of the keys, which is ﬁrst given by heaven itself to the Roman Pontiff’; then is delegated by him to the prelates of the Church; and thus guides and blesses the whole Christian world! The apostolic see has varied its mode of transmitting such an authority according to the circumstances of the several ages; but the one source of the whole power was always the same, the chair of Peter. We have already seen how, at the commencement, there were three chairs: Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch; and all three were sources of the canonical institution of the bishops of their respective provinces; but they were all three chairs of Peter, for they were founded by him that they might preside over their patriarchates, as St. Leo, St. Gelasius, and St. Gregory the Great, expressly teach. But of these three chairs, the Pontiff of Rome had his authority and his institution from heaven; whereas, the two other patriarchs could not exercise their rights, until they were recognized and conﬁrmed by him who was Peter’s successor, as vicar of Christ. Later on, two other sees were added to these ﬁrst three: but it was only by the consent of the Roman Pontiff that Constantinople and Jerusalem obtained such an honour. Let us notice, too, the difference there is between the accidental honours conferred on four of these Churches, and the divine prerogative of the Church of Home. By God’s permission, the sees of Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and
Jerusalem, were deﬁled by heresy; they became chairs of pestilence; and having corrupted the faith they received from Rome, they could not transmit to others the mission they themselves had forfeited. Sad indeed was the ruin of such pillars as these! Peter’s hand had placed them in the Church. They had merited the love and veneration of men; but they fell; and their fall gave one more proof of the solidity of that ediﬁce, which Christ Himself had built on Peter. The unity of the Church was made more visible. Obliged by the treachery of her own favoured children to deprive them of the privileges they had received from her, Rome was, more evidently than ever, the sole source of pastoral power.
We, then, both priests and people, have a right to know whence our pastors have received their power. From whose hand have they received the keys? If their mission come from the apostolic see, let us honour and obey them, for they are sent to us by Jesus Christ, who has invested them, through Peter, with His own authority. If they claim our obedience without having been sent by the bishop of Rome, we must refuse to receive them, for they are not acknowledged by Christ as His ministers. The holy anointing may have conferred on them the sacred character of the episcopate: it matters not; they must be as aliens to us, for they have not been sent, they are not pastors.
Thus it is that the divine Founder of the Church, who willed that she should be a city seated on a mountain, gave her visibility; it was an essential requisite; for since all were called to enter her pale, all must be able to see her. But He was not satisﬁed with this. He moreover willed that the spiritual power exercised by ‘her pastors should come from a visible source, so that the faithful might have a sure means of verifying the claims of those who were to guide them in His name. Our Lord (we say it reverently) owed this to us; for, on the last day, He will not receive us as His children, unless we shall have been members of His Church, and have lived in union with Him by the ministry of pastors lawfully constituted. Honour, then, and submission to Jesus in His vicar! honour and submission to the vicar of Christ in the pastors he sends! (9)
That Saint Peter, before he went to Rome, founded the see of Antioch is attested by many Saints of the earliest times, including Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Saint Pope Clement, Eusebius, Saint Jerome, and Saint Innocent. It was just that the Prince of the Apostles should take under his particular care and surveillance this city, which was then the capital of the East, and where the faith so early took such deep roots as to give birth there to the name of Christians. There his voice could be heard by representatives of the three largest nations of antiquity — the Hebrews, the Greeks and the Latins. Saint Chrysostom says that Saint Peter was there for a long period; Saint Gregory the Great, that he was seven years Bishop of Antioch. He did not reside there at all times, but governed its apostolic activity with the wisdom his mandate assured.
The festival of St. Peter’s chair in general, Natale Petri de Cathedrâ, is marked on this day in the most ancient calendar extant, made in the time of Pope Liberius, about the year 354.
On this festival we are especially bound to adore and thank the divine goodness for the establishment and propagation of his church, and earnestly to pray that in his mercy he may preserve the same, and dilate its pale, that his name may be glorified by all nations, and by all hearts, to the boundaries of the earth, for his divine honour and the salvation of souls, framed to his divine image, and the price of his adorable blood. The church of Christ is his spiritual kingdom: he is not only the architect and founder; but continues to govern it, and by his spirit, to animate its members to the end of the world as its invisible head: though he has left in St. Peter and his successors a vicar, or lieutenant, as a visible head, with an established hierarchy for its exterior government. If we love him and desire his honour, if we love men on so many titles linked with us, can we cease weeping and praying, that by his sweet omnipotent grace he may subdue all the enemies of his church, converting to it all infidels and apostates? In its very bosom sinners fight against him. Though these continue his members by faith, they are dead members, because he lives not in them by his grace and charity, reigns not in their hearts, animates them not with his spirit. He will indeed always live by grace and sanctity in many members of his mystical body. Let us pray that by the destruction of the tyranny of sin all souls may subject themselves to the reign of his holy love. Good Jesus! for your mercy’s sake, hear me in this above all other petitions: never suffer me to be separated from you by forfeiting your holy love: may I remain always rooted and grounded in your charity, as is the will of your Father. Eph. iii. (5)
From the earliest times the Church at Rome celebrated on 18 January the memory of the day when the Apostle held his first service with the faithful of the Eternal City. According to Duchesne and de Rossi, the “Martyrologium Hieronymianum” (Weissenburg manuscript) reads as follows: “XV KL. FEBO. Dedicatio cathedræ sci petri apostoli qua primo Rome petrus apostolus sedit” (fifteenth day before the calends of February, the dedication of the Chair of St. Peter the Apostle in which Peter the Apostle first sat at Rome). The Epternach manuscript (Codex Epternacensis) of the same work, says briefly: “cath. petri in roma” (the Chair of Peter in Rome).
In its present (ninth-century) form the “Martyrologium Hieronymianum” gives a second feast of the Chair of St. Peter for 22 February, but all the manuscripts assign it to Antioch, not to Rome. Thus the oldest manuscript, that of Berne, says: “VIII kal. mar. cathedræ sci petri apostoli qua sedit apud antiochiam“. The Weissenburg manuscript says: “Natl [natale] sci petri apostoli cathedræ qua sedit apud antiocia.” However, the words qua sedit apud antiochiam are seen at once to be a later addition. Both feasts are Roman; indeed, that of 22 February was originally the more important. (6)
Image: By Francis Bond, (1852–1918) – ‘Wood Carvings in English Churches: II. Stallwork, Thrones, and Chairs'(9)
Research by REGINA Staff