The Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter on February 22 is unique because it mentions a chair. The usual meaning for a chair is a piece of furniture with four legs and a back for a person to sit. This feast is not about a second-class relic, a chair that St. Peter sat upon, or any other chair.
Another meaning for “chair” is the head of a group, such as at a school, the chair of the English Department. Peter was the chair of the apostles, the head of the Twelve, and as they accompanied Jesus, he was the first on the list and usually spoke on their behalf.
Jesus appointed Peter as “chair.” Jesus changed his name, which was Simon, to a new name, Peter (Mk 3:16; Lk 6:14), which means “rock.” Jesus installed Peter as chair when he declared, “Upon this rock I will build my church” (Mt 16:18). Jesus wanted Peter to be a firm foundation, a solid, unshakable footing. As chair, Jesus desired that Peter would be strong but not heavy-handed or dictatorial. He commissioned Peter as a servant leader, a shepherd, a chair who would feed his lambs and tend his sheep (see Jn 21:15-17). Jesus conferred upon Peter the authority that he would need to serve as chair when he said, “I will give you the keys,” and added, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven” (Mt 16:19).
The chair of an organization provides the vision, sets the direction, guides the process, and unifies the group, and Peter did all these, not only for the Early Church but for every generation to follow. The vision is to acknowledge the true identity of Jesus, something Peter did when he made his confession of faith, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16).
In the process of following Jesus, particularly when life is turbulent, it is essential to place one’s total trust in him and keep one’s eyes fixed on him at all times, something Peter failed to do when he walked on the water, became frightened, looked away, and began to sink (Mt 14:30). In desperation, Peter wisely cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus saved Peter that day from drowning. On Good Friday, Jesus saved Peter from his sins. Peter personally experienced Jesus as his Savior and Redeemer. As chair, Peter would teach that Jesus is our salvation, and that all who accept Jesus and follow his teaching will receive the gift of eternal salvation. His teaching is given in the first portion of the Acts of the Apostles as well as the First and Second Letters of Peter, and his instruction in Christian discipleship helped believers to hold fast to their faith, charted the path for the Church, unified it, and brought about much peace.
The chair, then, is a symbol of Peter’s office as the principal leader of the Church and teacher of the faith, and the full authority that had been given to him to serve in this capacity.
The Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter was instituted in Rome during the Fourth Century, not only to honor the first leader of the Church of Rome, but also to displace a pagan celebration known as the Parentalia. It was customary for Romans to set aside a number of days in mid to late February to remember deceased family members, especially their parents. An empty chair would be set out to commemorate the person who had once occupied it. Then on February 22, another pagan festival followed, the Charistia, which honored the surviving relatives. The Chair of St. Peter offered a Christian alternative to the pagan festivities.