Gospel – Feast of the Chair of Peter
13 When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi He asked His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
17 Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. 18 And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. 19 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” (Mt 16:13-19).
I – The Chair that No Human Power Can Destroy
It is a centuries-old and venerable custom to commemorate the Chair of Peter, exalted by the Fathers of the Church in their writings.1 The city of Antioch pioneered this feast in memory of its first bishop, the very Prince Apostles himself. Later, Rome, his last diocese, also began to celebrate it, later extending it to the universal Church.
In referring to the Chair, we mean the stable seat from which the bishop teaches words of salvation to his faithful. The Chair of Peter, refers to the infallible teaching of the Pope, the universal shepherd of the Church, from whose lips the flock of Christ must receive the pure and holy food of divine truth.
In this regard, the First Vatican Council consecrated an ancient ecclesial tradition by declaring:
“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.”2
The doctrinal authority of the Vicar of Christ, however, is neither independent nor absolute. The same council clearly explains its subordination to Divine Revelation:
“For the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by His revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by His assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of Faith transmitted by the Apostles.”3
Therefore, through the Petrine office, the Pope possesses a power delegated by Christ to assure Catholics of the fundamental truths, so that by knowing and loving God with certainty, they can be sanctified and, at the end of their earthly journey, gain access to the eternal mansions. It was Jesus Himself, in the region of Caesarea Philippi, who chose to establish His Church on the rock of St. Peter’s confession of faith. This is a gift of inestimable value, for which we are grateful to God.
Through the Petrine ministry, the Pope possesses a power conferred by Christ, not to divulge new doctrines, but to assure Catholics of the fundamental truths
Nevertheless, across history, unfortunate events highlighting the frailty of some Popes and the misuse of their magisterium have not been lacking. For fear of prevailing opinion, the Faith has been shamefully jeopardized on occasion. Let us recall – in addition to the cases of Vigilius and Liberius – the defection of Honorius, condemned for heresy by the Third Council of Constantinople, with the subsequent confirmation of Pope St. Leo II. The Pontiff’s solemn sentence runs thus:
“We anathematize […] Honorius, who has not enlightened this Apostolic Church [of Rome] with the doctrine of the apostolic tradition, but has allowed the immaculate Church to be stained by impious treachery.”4
Add to this the long list of antipopes who sowed confusion in the Church for years on end, through the illegitimacy of their appointment or the doctrinal and disciplinary confusions spread under their auspices.
Do these scandals jeopardize the guarantee of the veracity of the Chair of Peter? No, because in none of them – or in similar cases over the centuries – did the Pontiffs resort to infallibility. Such episodes only show the weakness inherited from original sin and, concurrently, the indestructible strength of the Chair that even its occupants, however weak or perverse they may be, cannot destroy.
In contrast, history yields abundant examples of holy and intrepid Popes, who declared the truth in a definitive and binding way without fear of occasionally dramatic personal consequences. Some even gave their lives out of fidelity to the gift of faith, reinforcing with their blood the chair entrusted to them by the Divine Master.
Thus, the Catholic Faith is tested time and again by the mayhem provoked by false doctrines spread by agents of evil in the Church, but they invariably meet with the obstacle of the infallible Chair of Peter, ever imperturbable and immutable in its fidelity to the truth of Christ. It is always the sure criterion for distinguishing the voice of authentic shepherds from the pernicious plots of wolves disguised as ministers.
With these principles in mind regarding the Chair of Peter, we are well-equipped to explore the famous Gospel of the confession of the Prince of the Apostles, that is ever rich and filled with new insights.
II – The Foundation of the Catholic Church
13 When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi He asked His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
St. Matthew tells us that Our Lord chose the most suitable place for the conversation that would transpire there. It was a region around Caesarea Philippi, a city located at the south-western foot of Mount Hermon and dedicated to Caesar Augustus, in whose honour a sumptuous temple had been built.
At Mount Hermon, a symbol of the Father of Lights, St. Peter is inspired by God with respect to the messiahship and divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Mount Hermon, mentioned several times in Scripture, is of an imposing altitude, and in winter is usually capped with snow. Its elevation makes it the centrepiece of the panorama, but its broad and amenable expanses give it a note of noble delicacy. It is a beautiful symbol of the grandeur of the Father of Lights, who will inspire Peter on this occasion regarding the messiahship and divinity of His Son.
On the slopes of this sacred mountain, Our Lord begins the dialogue by asking His disciples, with divine didacticism, about the opinion that people have of Him. They need to become fully aware that they have received a privileged vocation that sets them apart from the crowd. Perhaps in order to emphasize this aspect, Jesus takes them to a place with a magnificent vista, far from Galilee, to help them realize that they ought to separate themselves, because the secret of the great King is being revealed to them.
An incomplete perspective
14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
Influenced by the sin of their elites, the people of Israel had lost the bloom of innocence, letting themselves be lured by a greedy and excessively earthly spirit. Accordingly, awaiting the Messiah had become a socio-political aspiration more than a religious one. Conversion of heart was being neglected by the Jews blighted by the smokescreen of Pharisaic hypocrisy, consisting of external practices.
That is why, upon seeing Jesus travelling through the cities of Galilee and Judea, people identified Him as someone from the past, unable to distinguish the unique and novel greatness of that mysterious character endowed with unheard of powers, who embodied every charm.
The Lord Himself, when asked by His disciples why He taught the crowds in parables, had affirmed:
“To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of Heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.
“This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which says: ‘You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for Me to heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear” (Mt 13:11-16).
A deeply theological question
15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Our Lord conducts the conversation with finesse and precision. After prompting them to reflect on the world’s opinion of Him, He turns to His disciples, questioning them about His identity.
In this context, He does not refer to Himself as “the Son of Man”, but instead uses the first person singular of the verb to be – “who do you say that I am” – with which God had identified Himself when Moses asked Him to reveal His name: “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you’” (Ex 3:14).
The premises were in place to favour the confession of faith of His followers, through the lips of St. Peter.
The core of the Faith
16 Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
St. Peter’s statement perfectly expresses our faith with regard to the Saviour. By affirming that He is the Christ, he recognizes Him as true Man, descended from David, anointed by God as Messiah; by adding that He is the Son of the living God, he acknowledges His divine nature, which remained hidden from most of the Jews.
In this way, with penetrating and inerrant supernatural discernment, St. Peter expresses in a few words the whole doctrine on the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, true God and true Man.
The inspiration of the Father
17 Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.”
Little attention is usually paid to this detail which sheds particular light on today’s feast: St. Peter’s confession of faith owes its weight to divine illumination, without which it would be devoid of value.
Therefore, before all else, the safeguard of the Petrine Chair is first of all Heaven’s inspiration, God’s commitment to men, assuring them of the veracity of the teaching of the Supreme Pontiff, thanks to His infallible aid. The solidity of the rock does not ultimately lie in itself, but in the Trinity upon which it is founded.
Two rocks, two foundations?
18 “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”
St. Peter is established as the rock – Cephas, according to the Aramaic form – on which Our Lord will build His work. To this precious gift, the Redeemer adds another of incalculable relevance: the promise of the indestructibility of the Church, for the gates of hell will never overcome it.
St. Peter is established as the rock on which Our Lord will build His Church, and to this gift the Redeemer adds the promise that it will remain ever indestructible
However, St. Matthew’s account focuses on a more prominent character than the Prince of the Apostles. It is Our Lord Himself, for it is He who makes Simon the cornerstone of the Church and who promises to make it invincible against the assaults of the evil one.
In theological disputes, the Protestants argued that it was incongruous to claim that the Bride of Christ had two foundations, namely Jesus and the Apostle Peter. Based on scriptural references to Our Lord as the cornerstone of the Church, they attempted to dismiss the mission of the Pope, the Successor of St. Peter and their sworn enemy. They often quoted St. Paul’s famous assertion: “For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 3:11).
How to clarify this apparent dichotomy? Does the Church have two distinct foundations?
To respond to these questions, it is worthwhile to cite an apologetic work written by St. Francis de Sales which earned him the title of Doctor of the Church is:
“It is not we [Catholics] who place him [St. Peter] as foundation. He, besides whom no other can be placed, He Himself placed him. So that if Christ is the foundation of the Church, as He is, we must believe that St. Peter is such too, since Our Lord has placed him in this rank. […]
St. Peter and the other Apostles are not foundations distinct from Our Lord, but dependent on Him, and their doctrine does not differ from their Master’s
“And then, have you well considered the words of St. Paul? He will not have us recognize any foundation besides Our Lord, but neither is St. Peter nor are the other Apostles foundations besides Our Lord; they are subordinate to Our Lord. Their doctrine is none other than that of their Master, but their very Master’s itself. […]
“Our Lord then is foundation and St. Peter also, but with so notable a difference that with respect to the one the other may be said not to be it. For Our Lord is foundation and founder, foundation without other foundation; foundation of the natural, Mosaic and Evangelic Church, foundation perpetual and immortal, foundation of the Militant and Triumphant, foundation by His own nature, foundation of our faith, hope and charity, and of the efficacy of the Sacraments.
“St. Peter is foundation, not founder, of the whole Church; foundation but founded on another foundation, which is Our Lord; foundation of the Evangelic Church alone, foundation subject to succession, foundation of the Militant, not of the Triumphant, foundation by participation, ministerial not absolute foundation. In fine, administrator and not lord, and in no way the foundation of our faith, hope and charity, nor of the efficacy of the Sacraments.
“A difference so great as this makes the one unable, in comparison, to be called a foundation by the side of the other, whilst, however, taken by itself, it can be called a foundation, in order to pay proper regard to the Holy Word.
“So, although He is the Good Shepherd, He gives us shepherds under himself, between whom and His Majesty there is so great a difference that He declares himself to be the only Shepherd!”5
The power of the keys
19 “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.”
The key of command was a symbol of royalty in Israel and was customarily so large that it could be hoisted to the shoulders (cf. Is 22:22).
In this passage, Our Lord gives St. Peter the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. By using the plural, He indicates the charge entrusted to the governor of the royal palace, a kind of steward entitled to administer the goods as the second man below the prince.
Therefore, it was the delegation of a vicarious power granted to the first Pope in favour of the Church Militant, since everything he binds or loosens on earth will be bound or loosed in Heaven; in other words, it will have consequences in eternity for the faithful journeying in this world.
It should be noted that the Divine Master gives Peter the power to bind and loose, metaphorical expressions that seem not to be in harmony with the image of the keys, which open and close. In reality, it will be the Redemption that took place on Calvary that will unlock the gates of Heaven. The Petrine office will consist of inclining souls towards salvation or preventing them from accessing forgiveness.
This is why it either loosens them from their guilt and the clutches of the devil, giving them the means for attaining the eternal prize; or it binds them, barring them from sacramental life and therefore closing the doors to the Eternal Kingdom for them.
III – Catholicism: The Certainty of the Truth
The feast of the Chair of Peter recalls to the Church’s mind the priceless gift of pontifical infallibility, which is the foundation of the Catholic Faith, making it possible for the faithful to trust with complete certainty in the words of truth declared by the Popes in a solemn or definitive way.
Our Lord Jesus Christ, who founded the Church on Peter, and built it as an impregnable fortress, continues to guard and guide it. The victory will go to those who trust Him!
This is the rock chosen by Christ to build His Church. And though men may attack the most precious deposit of the Faith, seeking to obscure or destroy it, they will not succeed. The pontifical teachings will always resound as the voice of the authentic Shepherd in the interior ears of the sheep chosen by the Lord.
Therefore, even in times of crisis and bewilderment, let us fly from discouragement, certain that individuals pass away, with their fallacies and deceptions, but the truth remains.
Our Lord Jesus Christ, who founded the Church on Peter, and built it as an impregnable fortress, continues to guard and guide His Church. The victory will go to those who trust Him! ◊
1 The great St. Jerome, addressing the Bishop of Rome, expressed himself thus: “I thought I should consult the Chair of Peter and the faith praised by the apostolic mouth, and seek nourishment for my soul there where I once received the garment of Christ. […] I, who follow no other primacy than that of Christ, unite myself in communion with Your Holiness, that is, with the Chair of Peter. I know that the Church is built on this rock” (ST. JEROME. Epístola 15. a Dámaso, n.1-2. In: Obras Completas. Madrid: BAC, 2013, t.Xa, p.73; 75).
2 FIRST VATICAN COUNCIL. Pastor æternus: DH 3074.
3 Idem, 3070.
4 ST. LEO II. Carta “Regi regum” ao Imperador Constantino IV: DH 563.
5 ST. FRANCIS DE SALES. The Catholic Controversy. P.II, art. 6, ch.2. In: Library of St. Francis de Sales. London: Burns & Oates, 1909, Vol.III, p.245-247.