In the liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church, February 22 is the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter. Not a literal chair — this is not a feast that honors some four-legged relic — but the office of the bishop of Rome, better known these days as the papacy. Peter is traditionally held to have been the first bishop of Rome; although this claim does not hold up well to historical scrutiny, since we can see the office of bishop emerging over the period documented by some of our earliest post-biblical texts, the traditional construal of Peter as bishop of Rome is consistent with the more historically-backed assertion that Peter was some meaningful sense the overseer (which is what bishop, episkopos, means) of the early church. The assertion that the church of Rome emerged very early as a guarantor of orthodoxy, and had a meaningful role in settling conflicts in or between other local churches, is also clearly supported by early texts. “The pope” most fundamentally means “the bishop of Rome.”
The chair signifies the office of bishop more traditionally than episcopal accoutrements like the mitre, crozier, and ring — these were originally secular symbols of power that were later invested with theological significance. The chair refers to the bishop’s chair in the cathedral (which just means “the bishop’s church”). When a bishop is ordained or installed to lead a local church, taking his seat in the chair is part of the ordination or installation rite in some of the earliest rites we possess.
The chair is also the reason that you will sometimes hear a diocese referred to as a see, and the Vatican as the Holy See: it comes from the Latin sedes, meaning seat or chair. The interregnum between popes is referred to as the sedes vacantes: the chair is vacant.
On this feastday, let us hold in prayer Pope Benedict XVI, as he prepares to leave the chair of Peter and discern how to live as a retired pope; the college of cardinals, as they prepare to discern the man who should next occupy the chair of Peter as bishop of Rome and head of the college of bishops; and the entire Roman Catholic church at this historic time, that it may grow ever truer to its calling to be a lumen gentium, a light to the nations, animated by the Holy Spirit and embodying the living presence of Christ.
Gracious God, we pray for your holy catholic church.
Fill it with your truth;
Keep it in your peace.
Where it is corrupt, reform it.
Where it is in error, correct it.
Where it is right, defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, reunite it;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.