In 1846, Blessed Pius IX was elected Pope. That event marked the beginning of a truly remarkable time in church history — a golden age of the papacy. From that time until now, the Church has been blessed with probably the longest series of excellent popes that have been given to her in her two-thousand year history. Of the eleven popes since 1846, one of them is already a canonized saint (Pius X) and two are beatified (Pius IX and John XXIII.) All of them are held in very high esteem and have been beautiful examples to the Church and the world. In particular, I want to mention Pope Pius XII, who has been so vilified and condemned by some, but whose reputation grows with each passing year, and who will go down in history as one of the great protectors of the Jews during the Nazi holocaust — although some very misguided people have accused him of not doing enough to save Europe’s Jews from Hitler.
I speak of this today because we celebrate what is called “the chair of Saint Peter” on February 22. It is interesting that in at least three areas of human activity, some form of seat is used as a symbol of the very important work performed by the occupant of that seat. In countries where there is a king or queen, we speak of “the throne,” not meaning simply the piece of furniture itself, but rather the kingly power exercised by its occupant. In judicial matters, we speak of “the bench” in the same way. And in the Church we speak of “the chair — the chair of Saint Peter.”
Our Divine Lord founded a Church to distribute to all humankind until the end of time the redemption won by him by his atoning death on the cross and then his resurrection to new life. And he willed to build that Church upon the authority which he gave to Peter, the head of the apostles, and his successors. Saint Peter has been designated by a number of titles, each of them meaning a slightly different aspect of the tremendous role of the man and his successors. Jesus said to Peter early on in Our Lord’s public ministry: “Up until now, you have been catching fish. One day you will catch men.” Then Our Lord told him, “You are Rock (which is what Peter means) and upon this Rock I will build my Church.” And finally, after Christ’s resurrection, he asked St. Peter three times: “Do you love me?” That was to give Peter the opportunity to make amends for having three times denied Jesus on that terrible night before Our Lord’s death. And each time that Peter proclaimed his love for Jesus, Our Lord said to him, “Feed my lambs; take care of my sheep; feed my sheep.” So Our Blessed Lord confers three titles and three commissions upon Peter: he is to be a fisher of men, a rock foundation for the Church, and a shepherd of God’s people.
Let us reflect frequently upon the enormity of the gift of the papacy, and how great is the service which it performs for the Church and the world. And let us also be aware that we are living in this golden age of the papacy, which is still going on with the splendid pontificate of Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. May the Lord sustain him, grant him strength and courage and wisdom to be the Fisher, the Rock, and the Shepherd of God’s people. Thank you for seeking God’s truth. God bless you. Father Victor Brown, O.P.
Note: This message was composed some years ago.