Altar in St. Peter's Basilica/ Bernini masterpiece. Shutterstock

The Story Behind the Cathedra

The official chair in a cathedral serves as a symbol of the bishop

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Entering the diocesan cathedral on the Rite of Election, a catechumen was heard to say, “Wow, look at that big chair in the sanctuary.” The lay RCIA leader responded, “It’s the bishop’s chair, a very special chair.” Indeed, it is a special chair, one known as the “cathedra,” and a chair of significant importance to every Catholic.

The cathedra, according to the New Catholic Dictionary, is “the throne or chair of a bishop in a cathedral church which he occupies during solemn ceremonies. In Latin, the word is sometimes applied to denote an episcopal see. An ex-cathedra decision is an infallible pronouncement of the pope signifying that he speaks officially as Head of the Church” (Pallen and Wynne, The Universal Knowledge Foundation, 1927). In every diocesan cathedral, there is a cathedra, which makes the cathedral the bishop’s church, the most prominent church in the diocese.

From this church and his chair, a bishop carries out and proclaims the Gospel of Christ in the manner of the original Twelve Apostles. He also responds to Jesus: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:19-20).

Cathedra as a Symbol

The cathedra is the symbol of the bishop’s role as shepherd of all the Catholics in his diocese, and his teaching authority as passed on from Jesus to the original apostles and from the apostles down through the centuries to the bishops of today. As a church is built for the altar, a cathedral is built for the altar and the cathedra. The word “cathedral” is from “cathedra,” not vice versa.

The significance of a bishop and his role in the diocese was explained well by Pope Benedict XVI when he took possession of the Diocese of Rome and its cathedral on May 7, 2005: “The Bishop of Rome sits upon the Chair to bear witness to Christ. Thus, the Chair [cathedra] is the symbol of the potestas docendi, the power to teach that is an essential part of the mandate of binding and loosing which the Lord conferred upon Peter, and after him, on the Twelve. … The Chair is — let us say it again — a symbol of the power of teaching, which is the power of obedience and service so that the Word of God — the truth! — may shine out among us and show us the way of life.”

The prominence of the bishops is manifested when, during the installation ceremony, the new bishop is led to the cathedra and, upon being seated, becomes the diocesan bishop.

Every bishop, as a successor of the apostles, is part of the Church magisterium — protecting the sacred Scriptures and sacred Tradition; he is the leader of the diocese and is responsible to the pope. The bishop’s chair in the cathedral is always placed to be visible by everyone in the church, confirming that he is the leader of the diocese, the presider of the faithful in attendance, and that he is the “principal dispenser of the mysteries of God, as well as being the governors, promoters, and guardians of the entire liturgical life in the church committed to them.” (Christus Dominus, “Decree Concerning the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church,” No. 15)

Cathedra Construction

The cathedra is often large and weighty in size, indicating the vast responsibility of the one who sits in the chair. A variety of materials are used in its construction, including marble, wood and ivory. Construction includes two or three steps that lead up to the chair’s raised position. The earliest cathedra was straight-backed with a rounded top.

The cathedra is normally fixed in place, signifying the bishop’s commitment and stability; freestanding, it is often located behind the altar or on the left side of the sanctuary as viewed from the pews. Although there is a lack of specificity as to a location, it must be clearly visible to everyone. Only the diocesan bishop, or with his permission, a visiting bishop sits in the chair. The priest presider at a cathedral Mass has a separate chair apart from the bishop.

Early Christians’ Place of Worship

Until the fourth century, Christians worshipped in secret, often in the catacombs. Excavators of the catacombs have found locations of such worship services and identified seats hewn out of rock, where the leader of these services presumably sat. When the divine services were covertly held in the homes of Christians or other locations, there was likely a chair frequently designated for the leader.

When Emperor Constantine (r. 306-37) ended the religious persecutions in the fourth century, he initially turned over Roman government basilicas and other public buildings to Christians to become places of worship. The Roman basilicas were rectangular, oblong buildings with an apse at one end where Roman officials or magistrates conducted business. The officials sat on an elevated platform similar to a judge in a courtroom today. This was the cathedra, or seat of government, and a place where on occasion an emperor was crowned.

New churches built during the reign of Constantine adopted this architectural design, including the magnificent St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome. Christians modified the Roman basilicas, especially the area of the apse, into a sacred place for the liturgy, and it was here the bishop would sit in a chair (cathedra), the place of authority, behind the altar and surrounded by— but elevated above — those assisting in the divine worship service. Raising the chair gives it an aura of prominence and signals the authority of the bishop, a successor of the apostles. This building model or design continues to be used for Catholic Church construction.

In the manner of the Roman officials who sat while presiding and issuing official decrees, the bishop would sit while proclaiming the Gospel and issuing his homily, teaching those in attendance. This was not always the best situation because the size of the basilica made it difficult for people to hear the bishop when he was sitting. Whether he stood or sat, his chair became the ambo for him.

When a new parish church is dedicated by a bishop, he sits in the chair that will be that of the parish pastor. By doing so, he establishes a channel to share his teaching authority with the pastor, the individual the bishop has selected for this role.

That chair in the parish, the presider’s chair, is used by the pastor for parish liturgical activities but relinquished to the bishop when he is present. Pastors who frequently point out the importance of the chair in the parish church, as well as the cathedra in the cathedral, can help the local community remain attached to the bishop. Likewise, pastors may consider promoting any visit by the bishop to the parish as a visit from an apostle.

St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. c. 110) explained the importance of a bishop in his Letter to the Smyrnaeans: “Whereever the bishop appears, let the people be there; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”

D.D. EMMONS writes from Pennsylvania.

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The Feast of the Chair of St. Peter — Feb. 22

Every Feb. 22, the Church celebrates the feast of the Chair of St. Peter — that is, the authority that Jesus bestowed on Peter when he gave him the keys to the kingdom (cf. Mt 16:19) and told him to “feed my lambs” and “tend my sheep” (cf. Jn 21:15-17).

This, essentially, is how Christ appointed Peter as the first pope. The feast of the Chair of St. Peter reminds the universal Church that the authority Christ gave to Peter has been handed down through all the popes. It reflects 2,000 years of Church unity anchored in every era by the pope.

In St. Peter’s Basilica is the remarkable sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini of a chair, believed to be that of St. Peter, that was enshrined in the Altar of the Chair of St. Peter during the pontificate of Alexander VII (r. 1655-67). Pope Benedict XVI (r. 2005-13) spoke about the feast day and Bernini’s work during a homily Feb. 19, 2012:

“After passing through the magnificent central nave [of St. Peter’s Basilica] … the pilgrim arrives in the apse and sees before him an enormous bronze throne that seems to hover in midair, but in reality, is supported by the four statues of great Fathers of the Church from the East and West. And above the throne, surrounded by triumphant angels suspended in the air, the glory of the Holy Spirit shines through the oval window. What does this scriptural composition say to us, this product of Bernini’s genius? It represents a vision of the essence of the Church of the Petrine Magisterium. …

“The great bronze throne encloses a wooden chair from the ninth century, which was thought to be Saint Peter’s own chair and was placed above this monumental altar because of its great symbolic value.”

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