There are times in the course of the Church’s liturgical year when there are two rather different celebrations of the same Christian mystery on two separate days.
For example, both the Second Sunday of Lent and the feast of the Transfiguration celebrate the transformation of Jesus which Peter, James and John witnessed on Mount Tabor. But on the Second Sunday of Lent there is a special focus on how the transfiguration prepared these apostles for the Cross. The special preface for this Sunday says:
He had already prepared them for His approaching death. He wanted to teach them through the law and the Prophets that the promised Christ had first to suffer and so come to the glory of His resurrection.
In contrast, the feast of the Transfiguration also mentions how this mystery is a sign of our destiny. Its proper preface reads:
He revealed His glory to the disciples to strengthen them for the scandal of the cross. His glory shone from a body like our own, to show that the Church, which is the body of Christ, would one day share His glory.
Another example is that both Holy Thursday and the solemnity of Corpus Christi celebrate the Eucharist. Now Holy Thursday commemorates not only the institution of the Eucharist but also institution of the ordained priesthood and shows their connection with Christ’s death on the Cross. The washing of the feet shows how our reception of the Eucharist is meant to foster our practice of fraternal charity. For that day the Church recommends Preface of the Holy Eucharist I:
He is the true and eternal priest who established this unending sacrifice. He offered himself as a victim for our deliverance and taught us to make this offering in His memory. As we eat His body which He gave for us, we grow in strength. As we drink His blood which He poured out for us, we are washed clean.
On Corpus Christi, however, the Eucharist is seen as a sacrifice of praise to God and as a gift to us from the Risen Christ. For that day the Church recommends Preface of the Holy Eucharist II:
At the last supper, as He sat at table with His apostles, He offered Himself to You as the spotless Lamb, the acceptable gift that gives You perfect praise. Christ has given us this memorial of His passion to bring us its saving power until the end of time. In this great sacrament You feed Your people and strengthen them in holiness, so that the human family may come to walk in the light of one faith, in one communion of love. We come then to this wonderful sacrament to be fed at Your table and grow into the likeness of the risen Christ.
Now, on Feb. 22 the Church celebrates the feast of the Chair of Peter the Apostle, and on Nov. 9 she celebrates the feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran, which the Liturgy of the Hours describes as “a sign of devotion to and of unity with the Chair of Peter.” Is there any real difference between these two feasts?
The feasts do, of course, have different historical origins. The history of the November feast is more straightforward. It began in the diocese of Rome as an annual commemoration of the dedication of the Lateran Basilica. From the fourth to the 15th century, the Pope resided at the Lateran Palace, so “the Lateran” had the connotations that “the Vatican” has today. In more recent times, this feast was extended to the whole of the Latin Church to show that all churches of the Latin Rite look to the Lateran as their mother church because it is the Holy Father’s cathedral.
The February feast has a much more complicated history. Until 1960, the Church celebrated two feasts of the Chair of Peter. The feast of St. Peter’s Chair at Rome was on Jan 18, and the feast of St. Peter’s Chair at Antioch was on Feb. 22. The two feasts reflect the history of the early Church: when the Jews started to persecute the Church in Jerusalem, Peter first moved to Antioch and began to lead the Church from there. A few years later, Peter moved to Rome, and that became the center of the Church until the present day.
According to Cardinal Ildefonso Schuster, there was already in the fourth century a liturgical celebration on Feb. 22 to honor the Chair of Peter at Rome. It seems to have arisen in contrast to the celebrations when each Roman emperor was formally enthroned. The Christians would acknowledge the emperor as their leader in civic life, but they looked to the Bishop of Rome, the successor of St. Peter, to be their guide in the whole of life. By the sixth century, this feast seems to have disappeared from the Roman calendar, perhaps because in 476 the office of Roman emperor had been abolished. The feast was, however, celebrated in Gaul on Jan. 18 as a sign that the Gallican Church accepted the leadership of the Pope and did not claim to be a national church on a par with the church at Rome.
In the 11th century, the feast of the Chair of Peter appeared once again in the Roman calendar, only this time on Jan. 18. It now signified that the church at Rome is the center of all the churches in Western Europe. In 1558, between sessions of the Council of Trent, Pope Paul IV decreed that the feast be celebrated throughout the Catholic world. As Dom Gueranger has pointed out, this was to counter the Protestant claim that Peter never reached Rome and could not have founded the Church there.
To summarize, the feast first showed that the Pope stood above the Roman emperor, then showed that all the regional churches of Western Europe pledge their allegiance to the Pope, then showed that the authentic Christian churches are the ones that acknowledge the Pope as the legitimate successor of St. Peter and head of the Church on earth.
In 1960, the feast of the Chair of Peter at Antioch was suppressed, and the feast of the Chair of Peter at Rome was moved from Jan. 18 to its current date of Feb. 22. The appropriate preface for that day is the Preface of Apostles I:
You are the eternal shepherd Who never leaves His flock untended. Through the apostles you watch over us and protect us always. You made them shepherds of the flock to share in the work of Your Son, and from their place in heaven they guide us still.
The apostles in general and St. Peter in particular are seen in a paternal role. Hence the successor of St. Peter is “to watch over us and protect us...to guide us.” By guarding the patrimony of the faith, the Pope makes sure that Christians reject any errors which would compromise the Gospel in all its fulness.
In contrast, the preface used for the feast of St. John Lateran is the Preface for the Dedication of the Church II:
Your house is a house of prayer, and Your presence makes it a place of blessing. You give us grace upon grace to build the temple of Your Spirit, creating its beauty from the holiness of our lives. Your house of prayer is also the promise of the Church in heaven. Here Your love is always at work, preparing the Church on earth for its heavenly glory as the sinless bride of Christ, the joyful mother of a great company of saints.
This preface looks on the Church as a mother and sees the Papacy in a kind of maternal role, gathering God’s children scattered over the face of the earth into one family.
In short, the one who sits in the Chair of Peter is meant not only to defend and guide, but also to create an earthly home for God’s people. Both feasts celebrate the fact that Christ continues to shepherd His faithful people in a special way through the ministry of the Bishop of Rome. This is a mystery with many facets, and these two separate feasts, one in February and one in November, help us to see first one side, then another of the gift which is the Papacy. TP
Father Rzeczkowski, O.P., writes from writes from the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.