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Chair of St. Peter (February 22)

February 22, 2005

Blessed Feast!

I’m including a few notes on liturgical celebrations so you’ll know why I’m making such a big deal about today’s feast :).
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Optional memorial: the lowest rank of celebration on the Church calendar. It may be ignored or celebrated as the presider wishes. During Lent, all memorials become optional memorials and do not change the liturgical color.
Memorial: the next step up–a memorial may not be ignored. It changes the liturgical color of the day, and is incorporated in the opening prayer at Mass as well as in the prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours.
Feast: another step up. Feasts change the liturgical color and have readings specific to the celebration (some memorials do, some don’t). Feasts take precedence over even weekdays of Lent and bring back the Gloria, even during Advent and Lent.
Solemnity: the highest rank of liturgical celebration. Solemnities have the same rank as Sundays (if a Solemnity falls on a Sunday of Ordinary Time, we still celebrate the Solemnity–otherwise Sundays take precedence over other celebrations). Solemnities also change the liturgical color, have three readings (as opposed to the usual weekday two) which are specific to the occasion, and bring back the Gloria even during Lent and Advent. They also overrule the Friday fast. The observance of a Solemnity begins with Evening Prayer of the preceding day and it may have a vigil Mass.
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Readings:
I Peter 5:1-4 (Priests, shepherd your flock generously and lovingly)
Psalm 23: 1-6 “The Lord is my Shepherd; there is nothing I shall want”
+Matthew 16:13-19 (Peter identifies Jesus as God and is given the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven)

We interrupt this regularly scheduled season of fasting to bring you a feast!

Those of you who have the privilege of participating in the Mass today may have noticed that the priest’s vestments were white, not the usual Lenten violet. It takes a particularly important event for the Church to set aside Her penitential clothing during this penitential season, and today we celebrate such an event! We celebrate feast of the Chair of St. Peter, using the term “chair” as a designation of leadership, as in the term “chairman of the board” or “chair of the math department” (although there is an actual chair, which St. Peter used when presiding over early Christian liturgies, which has been preserved for special veneration). Since we will honor Sts. Peter and Paul with a Solemnity on June 29th, we will leave the more personal details of St. Peter’s life for then. Today we focus on St. Peter’s authority, on Christ’s gift to His Church of a visible head on earth, through whom God gives His Church the further gifts of unity, infallibility and spiritual protection (the gates of hell shall not prevail against it, Matthew 16:18).

This feast is foundational to our identity as Roman Catholics. Without the chair of St. Peter, the Roman Catholic Church would exist (if at all) only as an Italian oddity. History shows us what happens to those who reject St. Peter’s primacy. Unity is lost very quickly as splinter groups multiply. Denominations tend to become divided by nationality as well as by ideology. Heresies flourish, and the faithful have no way of knowing which interpretation of Jesus’ words is correct. They have no assurance about the very requirements for getting to Heaven! Further, they have no clear guidance regarding modern issues, things Christ didn’t explicitly address.

We as Catholics tend to take so many of these things for granted, sometimes even to object to them. This is a good time for us to re-examine just what a treasure Jesus left for us and to thank Him for it.
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Let us thank God for having called us to His holy faith. It is a great gift, and the number of those who thank God for it is very small. -St. Alphonsus
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In giving us the papacy, God has given us a living office through which He still speaks to us today, guiding and guarding us where it matters most. It’s the key to the renewed sacred order we talked about during Advent. When we wonder which interpretation of Scripture is correct, we can look to the Church for God’s answer (Jesus said, “He who hears you, hears Me”, Luke 10:16). When we wonder what’s right or wrong in a given situation, the teachings of the Church steer us away from evil. The information we need for salvation has been handed down, clarified and adapted to changing times for over two thousand years. We can count on the Church’s teaching to be Truth, based on the Word of God who can neither deceive nor be deceived. When Jesus told St. Peter that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church, He was declaring that lies (the devil is a liar and the father of lies, see John 8:44) would never win out against Truth in the Church. In addition, Jesus gave St. Peter the keys of the Kingdom, the power of binding and loosing. This means that if the Church declares that our sins are forgiven in the Sacrament of Confession, they’re forgiven! We don’t have to wonder if God has accepted our repentance.

All this is possible only because of the unifying gift of the papacy, and especially the gift of papal infallibility. There are those who call themselves Catholics who will still try to lead people astray, but they can be recognized when we ask whether or not they’re in unity with the pope, whether they accept his authority. If not, they’ve come out from under the mantle of protection God gave us, and we can expect them to steer us wrong.

Since the topic of infallibility has come up, let’s clarify what the Church does and doesn’t mean by that. Infallibility doesn’t mean that the pope never sins or that he never makes a mistake. Nor does it mean that the Holy Spirit whispers in his ear when a decision needs to be made. The pope has to come up with what he’s going to say the old-fashioned way, through prayer, study and discernment. Infallibility is a negative gift, a prevention. It means that God will protect the pope from error when, as the Supreme Teacher of the Universal Church, he proclaims a matter of faith or morals which is to be binding on the faithful throughout the world. If necessary, God will strike the pope dead rather than let him err in such a situation (which may actually have happened). As you can see, the pope says many things which do not fall under the heading of infallibility. That doesn’t mean we can just blow those off. To do so would be to despise (and rupture) the sacred order God has established for us in His Church. It just means we shouldn’t be scandalized if the Church’s understanding of something that’s not a matter of infallibility develops along new lines over time.

Our readings today describe the main encounter during which Jesus appointed St. Peter as the head of His Church (there are many other Scriptural references to Peter’s primacy, but this is the most direct) and give us a glimpse into Peter’s attitude toward leadership. Jesus first asked His apostles to report to Him what other people were saying about His identity. After they gave various answers, He asked, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). When Peter responded, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” (Matthew 16:16), Jesus pointed out that this was not mere human understanding. Only God the Father could have revealed this. In union with His Father, then, Jesus gave Peter a new name (he had previously been known as Simon) in connection with a new vocation. The importance of Peter’s name change can be seen more clearly in light of the Old Testament. God changed Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah when He promised to make Abraham the father of a multitude of nations and to make Sarah’s womb fruitful (Genesis 17:4-16). He changed Jacob’s name to Israel when He renewed with him the covenant He had made with Abraham (Genesis 35:10-12). Jesus changed Peter’s name in anticipation of the New Covenant, in which Peter was to act as the father of nations, as the visible head of the Church, the new Chosen People.

In accepting this new responsibility, Peter took Jesus’ instructions about holy leadership seriously. Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. Not so is it among you. On the contrary, whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; even as the Son of Man has come not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28). St. Peter, who lived out this command in his own life through his teaching, preaching, healing and finally martyrdom, echoes Jesus’ words when he instructs priests to shepherd their people eagerly, not looking for personal gain, but rather leading by example (see I Peter 5:1-4). Since the sixth century, popes have referred to themselves as the “servant of the servants of God” in recognition of their obligation to exercise their authority for the benefit of God’s people rather than for selfish gain.

In response, then, to God’s gift of leadership, let’s take to heart these words from the letter to the Hebrews:
“Obey your superiors and be subject to them,
for they keep watch as having to render an account of your souls
so that they may do this with joy, and not with grief,
for that would not be expedient for you” (Hebrews 13:17).

St. Peter, first pope of God’s holy Church, please pray for us, and for those who must render an account of our souls!

May we grow in gratitude for the great gift God has given us in the Chair of St. Peter.

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