Feast of the Chair of St. Peter celebrates Peter as teacher (March 21, 2011)

By Lois Rogers and Msgr. Sam Sirianni

In the apse at the end of the central nave in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, surmounted by Baroque embellishments created so long ago by Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini, stands a chair.

First time visitors to St. Peter’s, often regard the chair with a quizzical eye – if they realize what it is at all. On most days of the year, it melts into the framework of the grandiose monument Bernini built to enclose it.

Supported by four gigantic statues of early Doctors of the Church – St. Ambrose, St. Athanasius, St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine – this piece of furniture, overlaid in bronze, has been venerated for centuries as the Chair of St. Peter.

On Feb. 22, it will emerge from the shadows and bask in the glow of 110 candles as the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter is celebrated once again.

Said to contain fragments of an acacia wood and oak throne where St. Peter once sat and taught the faithful of ancient Rome, it has been overlaid during the centuries with ivory plaques, anchored and braced with strips of iron and bronze and venerated by countless faithful.

But the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter has much more to do with the symbolism of the chair than with the chair itself, observes Cindy Wooden of Catholic News Service.

The feast wasn’t instituted because Peter sat on this particular chair nearly two millennia ago, Wooden wrote. Rather, it was instituted as a symbol of the fact that Peter sat in Rome as bishop.

She quoted Father Diego Ravelli, an official in the Vatican almoner’s office who is writing his thesis on the feast of the Chair of St. Peter. Father Ravelli noted the ancient roots of the feast which was listed in 354 in the “Chronographia Romana,” a calendar of civic and religious observances.

Adapted from an ancient Roman memorial service honoring the head of an important family or clan, said Father Ravelli, for centuries the feast celebrated “the beginning of the episcopacy of St. Peter.”

But, as the temporal power of the pope grew and the Church suffered divisions, the focus slowly became the teaching authority or magisterium of the Church that Christ entrusted to Peter.

Shaped by tradition and spoken not only down through the centuries but for us here and now, the guiding light of the magisterium is what we celebrate today when we mark the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter.

This day is a perfect day to set aside some time to reflect on the role of the pope in the life of the Church. It’s a time to pray for pontiffs past and present and for our bishop who represents the teaching authority of the Church in our own diocese.

And for us here in the Trenton Diocese, it’s a time to recall and savor particular occasions which took place on this feast day. One of those moments was the welcoming of Bishop John M. Smith as coadjutor on Feb. 22, 1996, at the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption.

Those who went on the diocesan pilgrimage to Rome in the great jubilee year of 2000 also recall that a real highlight of that journey was joining Bishop Smith for the celebration of Mass at the Altar of the Chair of St. Peter early one rather frosty October morning.

As the last days of Ordinary Time lead us toward Ash Wednesday and Lent, it would be marvelously appropriate to reflect with your children on the last 12 months which have seen the passage of John Paul II and the beginning of the papacy of Benedict XVI.

It would be a great time to revive that tender and charming custom of decking a wall with photos of the Holy Father, past and current if you’re so inclined, and to include the Holy Father in nightly prayers.

And, if you’re looking for an entrée to serve on this feast day, there’s an actual fish – tilapia – and a real fish story about it that will delight children of all ages.

For many centuries, this fish has been known as St. Peter’s fish because of the account in Matthew 17:24-27, which tells us that Jesus asked Peter to cast his line into the lake to take the first fish that he caught, pull a coin from its mouth and then pay the required Temple tax.

The Bible did not describe the fish in question in any detail or give it a name, but the blue tilapia is native to the Sea of Galilee and has been known to carry its young in its mouth until they were large enough to leave. When the babies leave, the fish is known to fill the vacancy with small pebbles or even – in modern times – shiny, coin sized, bottle caps!

Always a cinch to prepare and adaptable to any sauce or treatment, Tilapia Franchese is especially tasty and easy to serve up.

Tilapia Franchese

  • 4 six- to eight-ounce tilapia filets
  • salt
  • pepper
  • 4 Tbsp olive oil
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • flour for dredging

Lemon Butter Sauce

  • tsp minced garlic
  • 1 tsp minced green onions
  • 2 lemons, juiced
  • 3 ounces butter
  • 2 Tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
  • 4 ounces white wine (optional)

Season the fish filets with salt and pepper. Heat a large sauté pan with olive oil until hot. Lightly dredge the fish in flour, then beaten eggs. Place in the hot oil and cook until golden brown and turn.

Add the garlic and minced green onions to the pan with the fish, sauté until the onions are translucent. Add the lemon, white wine and simmer for two or three minutes until the sauce reduces slightly. Remove the fish from the pan and place on plates. Increase the heat to medium high. Whisk in the butter until it is melted but not boiled. Remove from the heat, add the parsley, salt and pepper, distribute over the fish and serve immediately.

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