Friday, 22 February 2008

Chair of St Peter

Last week I was away: I was back in England for a Symposium at Ampleforth Abbey and I saw the Bishop in Northampton. I also spent time with my parents in Luton, both of whom are engaged in a war of attrition with a mouse in the kitchen.

Today was the feast of the Chair of St Peter. The station church in Rome this morning was San Vitale, a church which was dedicated in 416 but has been reconstructed in the 15th century. It is on a lower level to the Via Nazionale on which it is situated - 35 steps down from that level, so quite far down at its original level. As one wag put it, "More metro than retro." The church is dedicated to the martyr Vitalis and his two sons and fellow martyrs, Gervase and Protase: Vitalis was a soldier who remained faithful to Christ in one of the earlier persecutions - either that of Nero c. 64 AD or that of Marcus Aurelius (161-180). He was tortured on a rack and then buried alive - as the not exceedingly clear photograph I took this morning will demonstrate. You can see him there being buried under stones.

The church also has a claim to fame since it was the titular church of St John Fisher who never received his red hat but who wore the true red of a Cardinal in his martyrdom during the reign of King Henry VIII. Fr Tim Laboe from the Archdiocese of Detroit (the church has the Cardinal there as its present titular) preached a very moving sermon about the obedience in faith of Fisher, an obedience expressed in relation to the Successor of St Peter, to his authority received as it is from Christ and so from the Father.

Later, after a few hours work in the library, I went with another priest to the Basilica of St Peter. There the tradition is to illuminate the famous Altar of the Chair with candles on this feast day. The Altar expresses the same Mystery mentioned in this morning's homily: the Church is united in the authority of Peter - the four statues on either side represent East and West, with the two Western Fathers, Augustine and Ambrose, at the front, and the Eastern ones, Athanasius and John Chrysostom, at the back; yet they are not holding the Chair up - this is supported by the clouds that pour forth from the glory of God, from the explosion of light of the Spirit, who inspires and guides the Church into all truth. The point is (to labour the point) that Peter's authority comes from neither flesh nor blood but from the Father in heaven (cf. Matthew 16:17-19). Inside Bernini's magnificent Chair is a very ancient chair carved with a representation of the Labours of Hercules: it was once thought to have belonged to St Peter himself, though it is now thought to be of later though Pagan origin and was once used for the Liturgy.

Moving further on in the Basilica, the old statue of St Peter seated on a throne - the one whose foot pilgrims touch, rub or kiss, with the result that it is now very worn - appeared somewhat differently. It was bedecked in cope and triple tiara and a ring on a finger, another tradition that has continued even after the Papal coronation with the tiara has been discontinued. The tiara itself is not one of those used for the coronations: it is very large and made to fit the head of the statue, not a human head.

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