In his insightful volume on the election of Pope Benedict XVI, the Catholic commentator George Weigel points out that February 22, known to Americans as Washington’s birthday, is known to the universal Church as the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter. The feast celebrates the apostolic service of St. Peter in Rome and is the only day on which Bernini’s sculpture, the Altar of the Chair is illuminated.
What could be dismissed as a mere coincidence of the calendar is actually replete with startling significance, particularly in the light of recent events. The juxtaposition of Washington and the Chair of St. Peter, of the worldly and spiritual, calls to mind the chasm of difference that lies between secular and spiritual perceptions of greatness. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were great men, and the figures celebrated in secular culture are indeed laudable examples of the heights to which mankind is capable of aspiring. But the Church often asks us to look deeper and calls us to attempt to understand basic human ideas such as power, greatness and importance through the lens of faith. Where human reason teaches us to value power as directly proportional to consequence, the Church asks us to consider service as an indicator of greatness. Further, she asks us to consider the possibility that the greatness of a person, his or her significance in the world, is often not so much a function of that they were able to accomplish, but what they allowed God to accomplish in them.
Where the world looks to figures of power and greatness and celebrates them in their own right, the Church asks how her great figures conformed themselves to another figure outside of themselves. She asks how St. Peter, St. Gregory the Great and Bl. John Paul II fulfilled their mission as Christians and as men called to fill the visible Christ-shaped void left in the temporal world after the Ascension. The Church calls attention to how these men were Alteri Christus, another Christ, to the faithful of their time. Moreover, the Church remembers them often in their martyrdom, but never in their births. In teaching us about true greatness and where it lies, she calls us to remember that it is important how one leaves the world and how one leaves the world. People are great because of how they departed life, whether as faithful servants of Christ or as masters of their own will. People are examples of goodness because of the way in which they fulfilled the vocation given to them, the niche carved out for them from the beginning of time. Additionally, people are great because the world is, in some marked way, better when they depart from it.
The Feast of the Chair of St. Peter and its significance to the Church’s notion of eminence can be consoling for us who are saddened by the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, a man loved as an example of quiet but iron fortitude and gentle but firm authority. We love and revere Pope Benedict, and one of his many quiet but monumental lessons may be to remind us that the office of the papacy is important not because of a single man, but because of the authority contained therein and the Divine Man in whose place each pope stands. As Americans, we laud the accomplishments of the men who held the nation’s highest office. As Catholics, we look even further beyond the man and revere the office he holds, the authority given to him by Jesus, and the manner in which he changed himself to conform to the figure of Christ. Pope Benedict’s departure forces us to realize afresh that Christ, not a single man, is in charge of the Church and that the Holy Spirit is ultimate caretaker of the faithful. Let us pray with the entire Church for the College of Cardinals, who must now decide on whose shoulders this immense task will next fall.