Category: Catholic Prayers

9 things you need to know about the “Chair of St. Peter

9 things you need to know about the “Chair of St. Peter

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Chair of St. Peter.

Yes, there is a physical object known as “the Chair of St. Peter.”

It is housed at the Vatican, at the back of St. Peter’s basilica.

February 22 is the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter.

And there is more to the story.

Here are 9 things you need to know . . .

1. What is the Chair of Peter?

It depends on what you mean.

On the one hand, there is a physical object–an ancient, ornamented chair–located in the apse of St. Peter’s Basilica.

On the other hand, there is the spiritual authority that this chair represents.

Here we will look at both the physical object and the spiritual reality it represents.

2. What is the physical Chair of St. Peter?

This object–known as the Cathedra Petri (Latin, “Chair of Peter”)–is located in the apse of St. Peter’s Basilica. It is in the back of the chamber, behind the famous altar, on the far, back wall, below the the well-known, stained glass image depicting the Holy Spirit as a dove (see above).

This display contains an ancient chair that has been repaired and ornamented over time.

The Catholic Encyclopedia states of the original chair:

The seat is about one foot ten inches above the ground, and two feet eleven and seven-eighths inches wide; the sides are two feet one and one-half inches deep; the height of the back up to the tympanum is three feet five and one-third inches; the entire height of the chair is four feet seven and one-eighth inches.

According to the examination then made by Padre Garucci and Giovanni Battista de Rossi, the oldest portion is a perfectly plain oaken arm-chair with four legs connected by cross-bars.

The wood is much worm-eaten, and pieces have been cut from various spots at different times, evidently for relics.

To the right and left of the seat four strong iron rings, intended for carrying-poles, are set into the legs.

Here is an image of the ancient chair:

3. How has the chair changed over time?

Various modifications have been made to the chair, to repair and ornament it.

Most notably, the famous Italian artist/architect Bernini (1598-1680) created the current display (pictured at the top of this post).

The Catholic Encyclopedia notes:

During the Middle Ages it was customary to exhibit [the chair] yearly to the faithful; the newly-elected pope was also solemnly enthroned on this venerable chair. . . .

In order to preserve for posterity this precious relic, Alexander VII (1655-67) enclosed, after the designs of Bernini, the Cathedra Petri above the apsidal altar of St. Peter’s in a gigantic casing of bronze, supported by four Doctors of the Church (Ambrose, Augustine, Athanasius, Chrysostom).

4. Did St. Peter really sit in this chair?

In the early 20th century, the Catholic Encyclopedia stated:

We conclude, therefore, that there is no reason for doubting the genuineness of the relic preserved at the Vatican, and known as the Cathedra Petri.

However, since that time the fields of history and archaeology have advanced considerably, and, when Pope Benedict addressed the subject in 2006 and 2012, he spoke in a more reserved way, saying:

Dear brothers and sisters, in the apse of St Peter’s Basilica, as you know, is the monument to the Chair of the Apostle, a mature work of Bernini. It is in the form of a great bronze throne supported by the statues of four Doctors of the Church: two from the West, St Augustine and St Ambrose, and two from the East:  St John Chrysostom and St Athanasius [General Audience, Feb. 22, 2006].

The Chair of St Peter, represented in the apse of the Vatican Basilica is a monumental sculpture by Bernini. It is a symbol of the special mission of Peter and his Successors to tend Christ’s flock, keeping it united in faith and in charity [Angelus, Feb. 19, 2012].

He thus placed less emphasis on the archaeological authenticity of the chair than on its spiritual significance.

5. What is the spiritual significance of the feast the Church celebrates today?

According to Pope Benedict:

This is a very ancient tradition, proven to have existed in Rome since the fourth century. On it we give thanks to God for the mission he entrusted to the Apostle Peter and his Successors.”Cathedra” literally means the established seat of the Bishop, placed in the mother church of a diocese which for this reason is known as a “cathedral”; it is the symbol of the Bishop’s authority and in particular, of his “magisterium”, that is, the evangelical teaching which, as a successor of the Apostles, he is called to safeguard and to transmit to the Christian Community. . . . The See of Rome, after St Peter’s travels, thus came to be recognized as the See of the Successor of Peter, and its Bishop’s “cathedra” represented the mission entrusted to him by Christ to tend his entire flock. . . . Celebrating the “Chair” of Peter, therefore, as we are doing today, means attributing a strong spiritual significance to it and recognizing it as a privileged sign of the love of God, the eternal Good Shepherd, who wanted to gather his whole Church and lead her on the path of salvation [General Audience, Feb. 22, 2006].

Additional spiritual insights are found in the Scripture readings for the day.

6. What does the first Scripture reading of the day have to teach us?

The first reading for the day is 1 Peter 5:1–4, which reads:

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed. Tend the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd is manifested you will obtain the unfading crown of glory.

This reading introduces the idea of the leaders of God’s people as spiritual shepherds, focusing on Christ as the Chief Shepherd.

Although Peter is below Christ as his under-shepherd (John 21:15-17), he does not direct attention to himself. Instead, he extends the office of shepherd to the leaders in his audience, revealing to them the way that they are to serve the portions of Christ’s flock entrusted to their care–not by lording it over them (“domineering over those in your charge”) but by serving in a truly spiritual manner (“being examples to the flock”).

The first reading thus serves as instruction in the first place for those who are ordained ministers in Christ’s Church but–in an extended way–it serves as instruction for all of us, for we all influence others and should set the same example.

7. What does the responsorial Psalm of the day have to teach us?

The responsorial Psalm is taken from Psalm 23:1-6. It also echoes the theme of shepherding.

In this case the Lord is identified for the individual believer as “my shepherd,” with the result that “I shall not want” (that is, I shall not lack anything).

The whole Psalm thus is taken up into the theme of the day, focusing on the relationship between God as the ultimate shepherd of our souls and we as the individual members of his flock.

8. What does the gospel reading of the day have to teach us?

The gospel reading for the day is Matthew 16:13-19, in which Jesus declares Peter the rock on which he will build his Church.

Here is a video in which we explore this passage:

9. Does the pope have to sit in the physical Chair of Peter be infallible?

No. Although the pope’s infallible pronouncements are called ex cathedra (Latin, “from the chair”) statements, he does not have to be sitting in the physical chair (which is rather high off the ground in any case).

In fact, he doesn’t have to be seated at all.

He simply has to use the fullness of his authority as the successor of Peter to definitively teaching a particular matter pertaining to faith or morals.

This use of the full extent of his teaching authority is referred to figuratively, as him speaking “from the chair” of St. Peter.

It’s a figurative expression, not a reference to the physical object.

Do all Catholic altars contain relics?

Do all Catholic altars contain relics?

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Q: I would like to know the present teaching of the Church, with documentary evidence, on fixing relics of the saints at the altar of Holy Mass. — K.S., Nagapattinam, India

A: The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 302, contains the following statement: “The practice of placing relics of Saints, even those not Martyrs, under the altar to be dedicated is fittingly retained. Care should be taken, however, to ensure the authenticity of such relics.”

This statement summarizes the more detailed treatment of this question found in other documents such as the Roman Pontifical, Dedication of a Church and an Altar, and in the Ceremonial of Bishops.

No. 866 of this latter book indicates the basic norms for relics:

“The tradition in the Roman liturgy of placing relics of martyrs or other saints beneath the altar should be preserved, if possible. But the following should be noted:

“a. such relics should be of a size sufficient for them to be recognized as parts of human bodies; hence excessively small relics of one or more saints must not be placed beneath the altar;

“b. the greatest care must be taken to determine whether the relics in question are authentic; it is better for an altar to be dedicated without relics than to have relics of doubtful authenticity placed beneath it;

“c. a reliquary must not be placed upon the altar or set into the table of the altar; it must be placed beneath the table of the altar, as the design of the altar permits.”

Other numbers such as 876-877 describe some details as to the vesture and form of the entrance processions and the contents of the copy of the record of the dedication to be placed in the reliquary.

Later, in No. 900, the Ceremonial describes the rite of depositing of the relics:

“If relics of the martyrs or other saints are to be placed beneath the altar, the bishop approaches the altar. A deacon or presbyter brings the relics to the bishop, who places them in a suitably prepared aperture. Meanwhile Psalm 15 (14), with the antiphon ‘Saints of God’ or ‘The bodies of the saints,’ or some other suitable song is sung.

“During the singing a stonemason closes the aperture, and the bishop returns to the chair (cathedra).”

* * *

Follow-up: The Pope’s Veil

I knew that I could rely on our well-informed readers to relieve me of my ignorance regarding the purpose of the veil placed on the face of Pope John Paul II before his coffin was sealed .

Many readers, above all those hailing from the venerable traditions of the Eastern Churches, have written to explain that this veil is a common custom for priestly funerals, often accompanied by an anointing with blessed oils.

One reader explains: “In the Byzantine funeral-liturgy for a priest, the large veil (the one used to cover chalice and paten) is placed on the face of the deceased. It is on the one hand a symbol of the strength and protection of God, on the other hand a symbol of the tomb of Christ.” Other readers attest similar practices in other rites such as the Melkite and Ruthenian.

Some hypothesize that this custom may have originated in Jewish burial customs.

One reader wrote: “In the Jewish burial custom, the Jews would anoint the faces of their dead priests with oil and then wrap them in a white cloth. This same action was apparently performed on Jesus.

“In the early Eastern churches at every Divine Liturgy, the priest would fan his chalice veil over the gifts during the Creed (a practice that endures to this day). During this fanning of the gifts, the priest is not to look over the top of the veil to the other side, a symbolic sign that, here on earth, he has the faith to believe what, after he dies, he will come to see.

“After the death of the priest, the veil would be placed over the face of the priest, with the front side of the veil, which faced away from him during the Creed, touching his face. This veiling of the priest’s face was symbolic of the fact that, now that the priest was dead, he now saw what before he only believed.”

It is certainly an appropriate comment, although perhaps not the liturgical reason for the inclusion of this rite as I am inclined to accept the Eastern origin suggested by our correspondents.

Mind you, I am convinced that the veil will be removed well before the resurrection, when, following John Paul II’s likely beatification, his relics will leave the crypt to join other saintly pontiffs in St. Peter’s Basilica itself.

A Hong Kong reader asked some questions regarding liturgical norms.

“According to the Ordo, ritual Masses are not permitted on the Sundays of the Advent, Lent and Easter seasons,” the reader noted. “Then, why was a papal inauguration Mass held on fifth Sunday of the Easter? … We give a lot of theological and liturgical reasons to explain the importance of the liturgical season; however, we break it when we like. … Also will the “new” (or ancient) style of pallium used for other metropolitans?”

As regards the pallium we will have to wait until the next feast of Sts. Peter and Paul to find out, unless in his next public Mass the Holy Father Benedict XVI reverts to the former style.

With respect to the change-of-Mass formula, our correspondent is correct that, strictly speaking, a ritual Mass is not normally allowed on a Sunday in the Easter season.

However, the Pope is the supreme legislator and is able to dispense from a liturgical law for a justifiable reason.

Such dispensations have already been granted for other just causes such as the celebration of the Immaculate Conception in Spain and Italy and that of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico. These feasts are celebrated even if they coincide with a Sunday of Advent, as the dates are intimately tied up to the religious practice of the people in these countries and are also celebrated as civil holidays.

Our correspondent might want to place his objection in perspective. A Mass of papal inauguration probably occurs about six or seven times a century; a funeral could happen every week. The danger of a papal inauguration undermining the theology of the liturgical year is scant and I believe the occasion more that justifies an exception to a liturgical norm.

Finally, a Michigan reader asked about the significance of the triple coffin, the coins and the biography placed alongside the body, and the nine days of mourning.

The nine days is a fairly traditional period of mourning in many countries although not universal as some traditions have 30 days or another period.

The use of some means of identification of the deceased were customary practices that arose in earlier times, above all, for the burial of nobility and monarchs. Such identification has resulted necessary at times. Tombs can be moved, over time, and nothing is permanent. It is enough to think that the first St. Peter’s basilica, finished about the year 330, was almost completely demolished to make way for the present structure over a thousand years later.

The triple coffin probably originated from practical concerns to protect the body, especially as most popes were interred in an above-ground sarcophagus.

What is a Catholic relic?

What is a Catholic relic?

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Relics in the Church

Relics include the physical remains of a saint (or of a person who is considered holy but not yet officially canonized) as well as other objects which have been “sanctified” by being touched to his body.  These relics are divided into two classes: 

First class or real relics include the physical body parts, clothing, and instruments connected with a martyr’s imprisonment, torture, and execution.  Second class or representative relics are those which the faithful have touched to the physical body parts or grave of the saint.

The use of relics has some, although limited, basis in Sacred Scripture. 

  • In II Kings 2:9-14, the Prophet Elisha picked-up the mantle of Elijah, after he had been taken up to heaven in a whirlwind; with it, Elisha struck the water of the Jordan, which then parted so that he could cross.     
  • In another passage (II Kings 13:20-21), some people hurriedly buried a dead man in the grave of Elisha, “but when the man came into contact with the bones of Elisha, he came back to life and rose to his feet.”   
  • In Acts of the Apostles we read, “Meanwhile, God worked extraordinary miracles at the hands of Paul.  When handkerchiefs or cloths which had touched his skin were applied to the sick, their diseases were cured and evil spirits departed from them” (Acts 19:11-12). 

In these three passages, a reverence was given to the actual body or clothing of these very holy people who were indeed God’s chosen instruments– Elijah, Elisha, and St. Paul.  Indeed, miracles were connected with these “relics”– not that some magical power existed in them, but just as God’s work was done through the lives of these holy men so did His work continue after their deaths.  Likewise, just as people were drawn closer to God through the lives of these holy men, so did they (even if through their remains) inspire others to draw closer even after their deaths.  This perspective provides the Church’s understanding of relics.

The veneration of relics of the saints is found in the early history of the Church. 

A letter written by the faithful of the Church in Smyrna in the year 156 provides an account of the death of St. Polycarp, their bishop, who was burned at the stake.  The letter reads, “We took up the bones, which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place, where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together, as we are able, in gladness and joy, and to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom.”  Essentially, the relics– the bones and other remains of St. Polycarp– were buried, and the tomb itself was the “reliquary.”  Other accounts attest that the faithful visited the burial places of the saints and miracles occurred.  Moreover, at this time, we see the development of “feast days” marking the death of the saint, the celebration of Mass at the burial place, and a veneration of the remains.

After the legalization of the Church in 313, the tombs of saints were opened and the actual relics were venerated by the faithful.  A bone or other bodily part was placed in a reliquary– a box, locket, and later a glass case– for veneration.  This practice especially grew in the Eastern Church, while the practice of touching cloth to the remains of the saint was more common in the West.  By the time of the Merovingian and Carolingian periods of the Middle Ages, the use of reliquaries was common throughout the whole Church.

The Church strived to keep the use of relics in perspective.  In his Letter to Riparius, St. Jerome (d. 420) wrote in defense of relics:  “We do not worship, we do not adore, for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the Creator, but we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore Him whose martyrs they are.”

Here we need to pause for a moment.  Perhaps in our technological age, the whole idea of relics may seem strange.  Remember, all of us treasure things that have belonged to someone we love– a piece of clothing, another personal item, or a lock of hair.  Those “relics” remind us of the love we continue to share with that person while he was still living and even after death.  We are very proud to say, “This belongs to my mother,” for instance.  Our hearts are torn when we think about disposing of the very personal things of a deceased loved one.  Even from an historical sense, at Ford’s Theater Museum for instance, we can see things that belonged to President Lincoln, including the blood stained pillow on which he died.  With great reverence then, we treasure the relics of saints, the holy instruments of God.

During the Middle Ages, the “translation of relics” grew, meaning the removal of relics from the tombs, their placement in reliquaries, and their dispersal.  Sadly, abuses grew also.  With various barbarian invasions, the conquests of the Crusades, the lack of means for verifying all relics, and less than reputable individuals who in their greed preyed on the ignorant and superstitious, abuses did occur.  Even St. Augustine (d. 430) denounced impostors who dressed as monks selling spurious relics of saints.  Pope St. Gregory (d. 604) forbade the selling of relics and the disruption of tombs in the catacombs.  Unfortunately, the Popes or other religious authorities were powerless in trying to control the translation of relics or to prevent forgeries.  Eventually, these abuses prompted the Protestant leaders to attack the idea of relics totally.  (Unfortunately, the abuses and the negative reaction surrounding relics has led many people to this day to be skeptical about them.)

In response, the Council of Trent (1563) defended invoking the prayers of the saints, and venerating their relics and burial places:  “The sacred bodies of the holy martyrs and of the other saints living with Christ, which have been living members of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit, and which are destined to be raised and glorified by Him unto life eternal, should also be venerated by the faithful.  Through them, many benefits are granted to men by God.”

Since that time, the Church has taken stringent measures to insure the proper preservation and veneration of relics.  The Code of Canon Law (#1190) absolutely forbids the selling of sacred relics, and they cannot be “validly alienated or perpetually transferred” without permission of the Holy See.  Moreover, any relic today would have proper documentation attesting to its authenticity.  The Code also supports the proper place for relics in our Catholic practice:  Canon 1237 states, “The ancient tradition of keeping the relics of martyrs and other saints under a fixed altar is to be preserved according to the norms given in the liturgical books,” (a practice widespread since the fourth century).  Many Churches also have relics of their patron saints which the faithful venerate on appropriate occasions.  And yes, reports of the Lord’s miracles and favors continue to be connected with the intercession of a saint and the veneration of his relics.  In all, relics remind us of the holiness of a saint and his cooperation in God’s work; at the same time, relics inspire us to ask for the prayers of that saint and to beg the grace of God to live the same kind a faith-filled life.

The most popular Catholic prayers?

The most popular Catholic prayers?

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The Most Catholic Prayers

Like most religions, Catholicism has specific prayers that believers say at certain times or on certain occasions. The Our Father is part of the Catholic Mass, for example, and the Act of Contrition is said as part of the Sacrament of Penance. The Glory Be and Hail Mary are repeated as part of the Rosary, along with the Our Father:

  • Our Father: Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name; Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.
  • Hail Mary: Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
  • Glory Be: Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
  • Act of Contrition: O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended You. I detest all my sins because of your just punishments, but most of all because they offend you, My God, who are all good and worthy of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Your grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasions of sin. Amen.