“After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them… The whole assembly became silent…” – Acts 15:7, 13, NIV
This year’s feast of the Chair of St. Peter carries with it an air of irony, coinciding with the exactly one week mark prior to the first day said “chair” will be empty. Although the feast day is really dedicated to the relic of the original chair itself, the position which the chair represents bears much focus in the last days of the papacy of Benedict XVI.
The last quarter century has enjoyed the privilege of two strong Popes so it is with mixed feelings that we say goodbye to our dear Holy Father Pope Benedict earlier than we had expected. God has His plans and even though the chair may be empty as of next week, the chair will still be there. By Easter, we will be revelling in the selection of the new occupant of the See of Peter.
Our personal faith stories may or may not involve one or both Popes as a catalyst for meeting Jesus, but the Catholic faith is not based on the personality of John Paul II, John XXIII or Benedict XVI. The office of the Pope, whichever man is fulfilling that office, is a visible sign of unity for the Church. When commemorating the Chair of Peter, we think and thank its occupants from Peter to Benedict. We reflect on the infallible exercise of the office to greater unity – from Peter, the first Pope, declaring the admissibility of Gentiles in the Church, to Damasus I laying out a definitive Canon for Scripture, to Pius V for restoring the church from the chaos of the Reformation, and to John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and their successors for ushering in the fruition of the Second Vatican Council. In reflecting on Benedict XVI’s resignation, the media recalled the resignation of Gregory XII whose resignation healed the Great Western schism which divided the Church.
In a recent talk, the Holy Father made note of “divisions in the body of the Church” in his last Ash Wednesday homily. He sees the pastoral need to rein in the widening divisions requiring so much strength that he cannot fulfill it and its urgency so great that he cannot allow the Church to wait for his successor following his natural death to meet that need. This action in itself shows us how active the job of preserving unity really is. One approach to unity may have been to let the drifters drift off and leave a smaller but united faction, but true Catholicity cannot ignore the spiritual need of all of humanity and a Pope constantly getting up from his Chair and reaching out to grab minds and hearts back to Christ is what Pope Benedict reminds us is his role. Far from being a sedate piece of furniture on which a man sits and promulgates orders, it is a pivot point from which he gets up and draws all people of good will to their God.
In his remaining days of the current pontificate, we pray for the Pope’s intentions and during the Sede Vacante period, we pray for the Cardinals to discern clearly the Holy Spirit’s choice, so that the chair of St. Peter will be occupied again soon.
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