Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A day for leaders

For Catholics and for Americans, today is a day set aside to honor leaders. We need strong leaders.

Seal of the CSA featuring Washington
February 22nd, on our secular calendar, is the birthday of George Washington. Since 1885, it has been a federal holiday (though it was shifted in 1971 to "the third Monday in February") and it was the first federal holiday set aside to honor an individual. But for many years before its official designation as a federal holiday, Washington's birthday was considered to be an important and patriotic day. Washington was considered to be the "father" of the American republic. Even years later, as the nation was at war with itself, the leaders of the fledgling southern Confederacy looked to Washington for inspiration and sought to honor him as the father of their newly-separated government as well. In a display that many modern eyes would view as ironic, the short-lived Confederate States of America purposely chose Washington's birthday to be their "official" date of founding. On the Confederacy's seal, approved by the Confederate Congress in 1863, was inscribed an equestrian image of Washington and along the margin, the words: "The Confederate States of America: 22 February 1862."

St. Peter (icon, c. 5th century)
February 22nd, on the Church's calendar, is also an important feast day of an important "founding father" of another sort. It is the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter. Now, it may, at first, seem strange that we have a feast day seemingly dedicated to a piece of furniture. But the term's importance when we look at the name in Latin: cathedra Petri. Sound familiar? The "cathedra" of Peter... from whence we get the term "cathedral."

Let me explain. In ancient times (i.e. the time of Jesus, the Apostles and the early Church), important teachers taught sitting down and thrones were symbols of authority. Emperors, kings, judges and philosophers all sat to teach and make pronouncements. Standing was for reading, sitting was for teaching. A cathedra is an important seat on which a bishop sits. It is the throne of the bishop. And it is the symbol of a bishop's teaching authority. This is why each and every bishop has a cathedra (i.e. bishop's throne) in his home church, making that church a cathedral.

But we celebrate today not a piece of furniture, but the important role that St. Peter undertook as the first bishop (overseer) and supreme pastor of Christ's Church. The authority with which Christ entrusted Peter (Mt 16:13-20), is symbolized by his cathedra, or chair. In 2006, on this day, Pope Benedict XVI, the successor of Peter, summed up the importance of Peter's role in the Church's early years:

Which was, then, the "cathedra" if St. Peter? He, chosen by Christ as "rock" on which to build the Church (cf. Matthew 16:18), began his ministry in Jerusalem, after the ascension of the Lord and Pentecost. The first "seat" of the Church was the Cenacle, and in all probability in that room, where Mary, the Mother of Jesus, also prayed with the disciples, a special place was reserved for Simon Peter.
Subsequently, the see of Peter was Antioch, a city situated on the Oronte River in Syria, today Turkey, which at the time was the third metropolis of the Roman Empire after Rome and Alexandria in Egypt. Of that city, evangelized by Barnabas and Paul, where "for the first time the disciples were called Christians" (Acts 11:26), Peter was the first Bishop.

In fact, the Roman Martyrology, before the reform of the calendar, established also a specific celebration of the Chair of Peter at Antioch. From there, Providence led Peter to Rome, where he concluded with martyrdom his course of service to the Gospel. For this reason, the See of Rome, which had received the greatest honor, received also the task entrusted by Christ to Peter of being at the service of all the local Churches for the building and unity of the whole People of God.

In this way the See of Rome came to be known as that of the Successor of Peter, and the "cathedra" of its Bishop represented that of the apostle charged by Christ to feed all his flock. It is attested by the most ancient Fathers of the Church, as for example St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, who in his treatise "Against Heresies" describes the Church of Rome as "greatest and most ancient, known by all; … founded and constituted at Rome by the two glorious Apostles Peter and Paul"; and he adds: "With this Church, because of her outstanding superiority, the universal Church must be in agreement, that is, the faithful everywhere" (III, 3, 2-3).

So, in two ways, today, we American Catholics celebrate leadership today: leadership at the founding of our country, and leadership at the founding of the Church. Perhaps we can view this convergence as Providential. After all, we need leadership. Strong leadership. We need it in the secular realm and we need it in the spiritual realm. It is part of our DNA to rally around leaders who make difficult decisions and rally the troops. God recognizes this and, when he established his Church, he did not leave us leaderless. He advised that we be "wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Mt 10:16), but he did not tell us to be religious rogues. Instead, he placed over the nascent Church a group of leaders which he sent out (apostles) to baptize and preach the Gospel in all the world. Chief among those was Simon, who Jesus renamed Rock (i.e. Peter).

We still need strong leadership in the Church. Tough decisions must be made and the multitudes must be inspired. Fecklessness is the anti-religion and deflates the spirits of God's people. Pray for strong leaders in our Church. Pray that our bishops will lead us through the difficult spiritual terrain which surrounds us and that they will bravely stand up to the rising tide of secularism and relativism which seeks to water down and destroy our potency in the world. We need leaders with backbone. Pray for our bishops!