Rorate Caeli

Sermon for the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter 2019: "The person of the Pope apart from the Chair of St Peter becomes just another CEO"

Father Richard G. Cipolla

 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of Hades shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18)

To say that the interior of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is monumental and deeply impressive is an understatement.  I have described several times the role this church had in my own conversion to the Catholic Church.  But so many people who visit St Peter’s miss one of the greatest of the gems in this church: the Chair of St Peter as encased in a most remarkable Baroque confection by the genius architect and sculptor, Gianlorenzo Bernini.  The remarkable sculpture is at the liturgical East of the massive church. Gold is the fundamental color, a gold that contrasts with the bronze of the covering of the chair and the figures of Four Doctors of the Church. Above there is a stained glass window, the center of which is the symbol of the Holy Spirit, the dove, that is surrounded by a super Baroque sunburst that seems to connect to heaven itself.  All this from a time when the Church and those artists who worked for the Church understood the power of beauty and symbolism in the Catholic faith.   

What is the chair that is the center of this triumphant artistic confection?  It is known as the Chair of St. Peter.   The wooden chair, with ivory arms, that is enclosed by Bernini’s splendid chair in bronze and gold, was venerated as a relic for centuries.  Whether this was the actual chair on which St Peter sat as Bishop of Rome, or whether it is dated from the third or sixth century is not ultimately important.  The chair that is venerated at St. Peter’s today is the symbol of the Christ-given role of St Peter and his successors within the Catholic Church. “You are Peter, and on this Rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” 

And yet how odd of Peter’s being chosen for this literally fundamental role in the Church:  Peter who constantly misunderstands Jesus in the Gospels, Peter who impetuously slices off the ear of the centurion when Jesus is arrested, Peter who denies Christ in the most cowardly way three times.  Not a good basis for a leader of any sort, much less the leader of the Church of Christ that is the Catholic Church.  Why not John, whom Jesus loved in a special way and to whom he entrusted his Mother after the Crucifixion?  There is no definitive answer to this question. But I think we can say this:  Jesus chose the deeply flawed Peter to be the Rock on which his Church on earth is founded, to remind us that the God given role of the Papacy depends not on the personal qualities of the man who is elected Pope but rather on the grace that God bestows on the Successor of Peter to fulfill his singular ministry in the Church and the acceptance of that grace by the Pope.

 There have been good Popes and bad Popes, and Popes who fall somewhere between. Now we must say this:  to judge a Pope as good or bad does not necessarily refer to his life as a man in his time and place.  One expects that a Pope be a moral man and be an example to the flock and to the clergy of the Church.  That some Popes have failed in this respect is obvious from the history of the papacy. But much more deeply the judgment of history on a Pope, at least history as understood in a Catholic sense, a sense that sees all human history as related to the dynamism of the Holy Spirit in this time and space, the judgement of history is based primarily on whether the particular Pope fulfilled faithfully his role as the successor of Peter.  And what this specifically means is whether he was faithful to his special vocation as the Vicar of Peter,  the successor of Peter in answering positively to Jesus’ pointed questions to Peter at the end of the Gospel of John.  

 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.

It is this passage that it is the explanation, so to speak, of Jesus’ words in Matthew:  You are Peter and on this Rock I will build my Church, giving Peter the power of the forgiveness of sins and the withholding of this forgiveness on earth and ratified in heaven by God. Jesus also gives this power to the other Apostles in Matthew 18.  But it is to Peter first and most fundamentally that the power of the keys is given.   And the Catholic faith teaches that  it is also given to the successor of Peter as the Bishop of Rome to preserve the faith handed down from the Apostles and to strengthen his brethren.

The feast of the Chair of Peter is a joyful thanksgiving for the gift of the special ministry of the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome, which, by the power of the Holy Spirit, is our guarantee that the Truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is faithfully handed down through the centuries.  Pope Benedict XVI described the Chair, the Cathedra,  as "a symbol of the special mission of Peter and his Successors to tend Christ’s flock, keeping it united in faith and in charity."[2]But we must remember that this Truth is not merely what is in Scripture, as fundamental as Scripture is.  This Truth unfolds through the history of the Church as the authentic implications of the fundamentals of the Gospel become apparent and then become part of the authentic teaching of the Church.  It is especially, but not exclusively, through those Councils we call Ecumenical, which means pertaining to universality, that the development of doctrine ordinarily occurs. 

But we must say that this is not a merely juridical process. It is not a matter of a bunch of definitions like laws.  But rather it is through real conflict and attempts to understand the implications of what God has done in the person of Jesus Christ that the Truth is ever more deeply revealed.  The storminess of the first Seven Ecumenical Councils is a testament that the doctrine of the Church unfolds not in a dreamlike way nor in a rationalistic way but rather through argument and conflict. But in the end the Truth, by the power of the Holy Spirit becomes obvious to all, even if that Truth has always taken at least a hundred years after an Ecumenical Council to be accepted by the whole Church.  Those who make a fetish out of the Second Vatican Council, as if that Council were somehow more important than any Council before it, fail to understand how what is of value as the Truth in a particular Council is often not apparent for many years.  Those who succumb to the fetish of Councilolatry would seem to have an agenda that has nothing to do with the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit leading the Church into a deeper understanding of the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, but rather with a panting and embarrassing desire to be relevant to the world, the world that harbors the darkness that hates the true Light of Christ. 

The unfolding of the Church’s understanding of the role of the Bishop of Rome, who is called the Pope, has been a process whose manifestation can be seen clearly in Church history from Peter, to the early Martyr Popes, to Leo the Great, to Gregory the Great, to Gregory VII called Hildebrand, through the period of the Protestant Reformation that forced the Church to hammer out more cogently the role of the Papacy in the Church in the Council Trent, to the First Vatican Council, in which the doctrine of the Infallibility of the Pope was solemnly declared—and all this, we believe as Catholics, in the power of the Holy Spirit. 

The years after Vatican I began another chapter in the continuing unfolding of the Catholic understanding of the papacy.  That chapter is still in the process of maturing and working itself out.  One of the dangers after Vatican I and the definition of Papal Infallibility was the development of what we could call hyper-papalism, which made the person and role of the Pope go far beyond what was defined in Vatican I, where the Pope and his utterances, even if outside the severe conditions for an infallible teaching, are deemed in some sense infallible, as if  the Pope has power to change doctrine itself, or, even worse, has the power to impose a new order of the Liturgy that is discontinuous with the liturgy that developed within the womb of Tradition.  This combined with the late twentieth century cult of superstars and this century’s rapid de-Christianization of the West has brought us to a crisis in the Church, a crisis centered on the very role of the papacy in the Church amidst moral corruption in the very heart of the Church.

In these difficult times we must remember this: the Papacy is a gift from God to the Church, it is a gift of service to the Church, it is a gift that enables the proper governance of the Church, it is a gift that guarantees the unfolding of the Truth of the person of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. The person of the Pope can never be separated from that Chair that is the symbol of the governing, teaching and sanctifying office of the Bishop of Rome.  The person of the Pope apart from the Chair of St Peter becomes just one more chairman of the board of a multinational corporation that is trying to figure out how to survive in a world that does not care about the product that corporation is selling.  And one of the great temptations in this situation is to make the product more acceptable to the world by watering it down and even changing it significantly.

We must pray every day for the Pope, that he may understand his role ever more deeply within the Tradition of the Church as the teacher who models himself on the Great Teacher who is Jesus Christ, whose greatest lesson to the world and to the Church is his crucifixion and death at the hands of both his own people and the power of the world. 

St. Peter, pray for us.