The recent announcement of Pope Benedict XVI's abdication from the papacy, effective February 28, 2013, makes the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter all the more relevant. February 22nd is the day the universal church celebrates the Petrine Ministry. The Latin word for chair is cathedra, hence, the church where the local bishop’s chair resides is called a cathedral. The Pope is a bishop, the bishop of Rome. His chair, cathedra, is a symbol of his authority. During the Roman Empire, Caesar sat on a chair and his officials, especially his governors, had similar chairs. Whenever the ruler sat on that chair, it was like a judge sitting on his chair behind the bench: this is official business. The chair later became a throne in Mediaeval times when kings and queens ruled Europe but the simple chair remained a powerful symbol nonetheless. Judges sat on a chair as did Governors. When the Governor sat in the chair, his decrees and decisions had the weight of Caesar behind them. When he stood up, he was a fellow citizen but when he sat in the official chair, his words had full authority.
The Christian church adopted this symbolism from the Roman culture and bishops had chairs upon which they sat when exercising their teaching (magisterial) or governing (hierarchical) authority. The Pope is not just the Bishop of Rome but Supreme Head and Pastor of the Universal Church.
The Chair of St. Peter at St. John Lateran (The Pope’s Cathedral)
Jesus entrusted supreme, full, immediate and universal authority to Saint Peter and his successors in Matthew 16:18-19 “thou art Peter and upon this rock I shall build my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.”
Obviously, Jesus did not literally hand Peter a set of keys but the symbolism of those keys speaks volumes. Since antiquity, kings had chancellors and prime ministers to whom they entrusted keys. Usually, there was a key to the King’s treasury where the gold was stored. Taxes were collected and the official kept the King’s gold under lock with a key only he held. The official had the authority to gather more gold (collect taxes) and to disperse some of the treasury (pay bills, reward allies, help the poor). Another key the same official held was to the prison where the King’s enemies would be kept. He could lock up criminals but he could also release them for clemency. Hence, the official had the power to lock and unlock; to bind and to loose.
Saint Peter was given the keys of the kingdom of heaven, not to an earthly treasure nor to an earthly prison, either. Instead, the unique Petrine ministry would be infallible teaching authority and supreme governing authority over the entire church.
The Pope enjoys the charism of extraordinary infallibility when he makes an EX CATHEDRA (from the chair) pronouncement on matters of faith and morals. So far, only two popes (of 266) have made such solemn definitions. Pope Pius IX in 1854 infallibly defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, and Pope Pius XII in 1950 infallibly defined the dogma of the Assumption of Mary.
Popes also exercise infallibility when they canonize a saint and when they confirm any dogma being solemnly defined by an Ecumenical Council they convened and presided over.
Infallibility simply means free from error. It is not the same as inspiration, which was a divine gift of the Holy Spirit given to the sacred authors of Scripture. Infallibility does not mean the pope is perfect. He is not impeccable (incapable of sinning), either. It does mean that the Holy Spirit protects the Church by preventing him from formally teaching error on matters of faith and morals to the whole church. Infallibility protects the continuity of truth. Prudential judgments are not infallible, so the pope’s preference in the World Soccer Cup is his own opinion and nothing more.
Pope Benedict XVI is resigning because his physical health is deteriorating to the extent he can no longer serve the Church at his best. He is not just another efficient German, he is a loving father who sees he can no longer care for the needs of his children and must relinquish the responsibility to someone else. The common good of the Church comes first. Being supreme pastor and shepherd involves teaching the truth, governing with justice and compassion and offering reverent worship. The Pope shepherds the People of God as the Vicar of Christ. His chair represents his authority to teach and govern, but his most sublime office is that of priest, which he most aptly exercises every time he is at the altar. Nevertheless, we have this special blessing every February 22nd to thank Our Lord for giving us the ministry of the Pope by honoring the Chair of Saint Peter. As Successor to Peter, the Holy Father cares for the flock and guides it to its destiny.