Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Not-So-Comfy Chair

“[Y]ou are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” ---Gospel of St. Matthew 16:18-19

Today the Roman Church celebrates the Feast of the Chair of St Peter. The Bernini examplar of such is illustrated here in all its golden glory.

My own meditations focus on the nature of Christ's bestowal of authority to Peter, and its implications for our own spiritual lives.

I call this Chair of Peter "not-so-comfy." I do so for several reasons. Many of us modern folk are less than comfortable with the concept of a settled "buck stops here" type authority in the Church, be it keys or chair or whatever. I understand that discomfort.

For me, however, the Chair of Peter and the authority it represents are a concomitant expression and continuation of Jesus' presence on earth. The same Jesus who sat down to teach his disciples on the Mount assured them that they would not be teacherless after His departure. That authority stems from and is of a piece with several other components of our spiritual lives.

Without this larger context the Chair of Peter may look for all the world like a bit of political posturing or a heavily authoritarian "City in Space" suspended far above our heads, a place where the real "decisionmakers" reside and from which they pontificate. One result of such a perception is that our own spiritual lives might appear to be disconnected from those lines of authority extending from Christ and His apostles down to us. But they are not.

Let's place the Chair in a larger context.

In Matthew 16 Jesus elicits a confession of faith from Peter. Wrapped in that confession and issuing from it are at least four basic and functional areas of spiritual life and thought. To me they are like concentric circles which emanate from this basic truth: "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God."

1. the Mysteries of Jesus Incarnation and Man's Redemption
2. the Grace of forgiveness for sin
3. the Sacramental life of the Church
4. the various teachings of the Magesterium

Personally, each one of us may or may not "buy in" to the structure of authority out of which those four elements proceed. But we have all experienced one or more of these four elements.

Who among us has not experienced the grace of knowing that we are forgiven sinners?
Who has not wetted her head with baptismal water or tasted our God at the Table?
Who has not wondered at the deep mysteries of God made human, God dying for us?
Some of us have even discovered the joys of logical catechetics.

In fact, however, I believe that many of us are probably not fully or consciously aware of the connections between the Church's teaching/ authority/ structure and the great mysteries of the Faith, the forgiveness we receive, the on-going sacramental life of the Church and the various discrete teachings which the Church espouses.

But the connections are there.

I cannot make them all here. But I can pray about them and ask my fellow Christians of all varieties to do the same.

To be clear, here follows a summary of the external structure of the Catholic Church's teaching regarding authority in the Church. It's not comfy. So, I will probably "lose" many of you at this point. Those who are not fans of Catholic Dogmatic Theology or are otherwise allergic to such may want to read no further.

However, I feel duty bound to offer the following as a summary of the structure as I have come to view it, even if it makes this the longest of my many posts to date.

You might want, however, to skip to the last paragraphs for a helpful quote from Benedict XVI on the role of Peter in the Church.

Here goes....

As the bishops declared at Vatican II:

When Christ instituted the Twelve, “he constituted [them] in the form of a college or permanent assembly, at the head of which he placed Peter, chosen from among them” (
Lumen gentium, n. 19; cf. Luke 6:13; John 21:15-17). Just as “by the Lord’s institution, St. Peter and the rest of the apostles constitute a single apostolic college, so in like fashion the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are related with and united to one another” (Lumen gentium, n. 22; cf. CIC, can. 330).

The Lord made Simon alone, whom he named Peter, the “rock” of His Church. He gave him the keys of His Church and instituted him shepherd of the whole flock (cf.
Matthew 16:18-19; John 21:15-17). “The office of binding and loosing which was given to Peter was also assigned to the college of apostles united to its head” (Lumen gentium, n. 22.2). This pastoral office of Peter and the other apostles belongs to the Church’s very foundation and is continued by the bishops under the primacy of the Pope.

The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, “is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful” (
Lumen gentium, n. 23). “For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered” (Lumen gentium, n. 22; cf. Christus Dominus, nn. 2, 9).

The teaching office of Christ through the Church has historically been a part of this authority.

This time from Vatican I:

The Petrine office of binding and loosing includes the
teaching office (Magisterium), which the Pope can exercise in a supreme manner when he speaks ex cathedra (from the chair), in which case his teaching is infallible (incapable of error). The First Vatican Council defined papal infallibility as follows:

when the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed His Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable. (Vatican Council I,
First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ, chap. 4, n. 9 [1870])

If you are still with me after all of THAT, then I close with a statement from our Holy Father, Benedict XVI. He, in his usual winsome and warm way, summarizes the place of Peter in the Church:

From Pope Benedict XVI's General audience, 7 June 2006 -

"You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church.... I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven".

In themselves, the three metaphors that Jesus uses are crystal clear: Peter will be the rocky foundation on which he will build the edifice of the Church; he will have the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven to open or close it to people as he sees fit; lastly, he will be able to bind or to loose, in the sense of establishing or prohibiting whatever he deems necessary for the life of the Church.

It is always Christ's Church…This pre-eminent position that Jesus wanted to bestow upon Peter is also encountered after the Resurrection (Mk 16:7; Jn 20:2.4-6)… Then, Peter was to be the first witness of an appearance of the Risen One (cf. Lk 24: 34; I Cor 15: 5). His role, decisively emphasized (cf. Jn 20: 3-10), marks the continuity between the pre-eminence he had in the group of the Apostles and the pre-eminence he would continue to have in the community born with the paschal events…

Moreover, the fact that several of the key texts that refer to Peter can be traced back to the context of the Last Supper, during which Christ conferred upon Peter the ministry of strengthening his brethren (cf. Lk 22: 31ff.)…

This contextualization of the Primacy of Peter at the Last Supper, at the moment of the Institution of the Eucharist, the Lord's Pasch, also points to the ultimate meaning of this Primacy: Peter must be the custodian of communion with Christ for all time. He must guide people to communion with Christ; he must ensure that the net does not break (Jn 21:11), and consequently that universal communion endures. Only together can we be with Christ, who is Lord of all.

Thus, Peter is responsible for guaranteeing communion with Christ with the love of Christ, guiding people to fulfil this love in everyday life. Let us pray that the Primacy of Peter, entrusted to poor human beings, will always be exercised in this original sense as the Lord desired, and that its true meaning will therefore always be recognized by the brethren who are not yet in full communion with us."

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