One of the things I remember from my days of studying first year Latin with the legendary Fr. Arthur Walters, S.J. ‘18 (that’s 1918) is the importance that figures of speech had in the way Roman authors would communicate their thoughts. In fact, the back of our textbook listed, defined, and described many of the figures of speech used by people like Caesar, Cicero, and Pliny.
Two of those figures of speech are metonymy and synecdoche. These are often intertwined in the same term or phrase, as in “the Pentagon” which can be a symbol of the Department of Defense (metonymy) as well as a part of the whole complex of military bureaucracy (synecdoche). Fun stuff, right?
Well, it seems that on Tuesday the Church, in celebrating the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, has made use of both metonymy and synecdoche. The Chair of St. Peter is, on the one hand, a symbol of the papacy, and on the other hand, a part of the entire world of papal theology. Thus the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter is a celebration not of a piece of furniture, but of the multifaceted gift that is the papacy.
Hanging in the midst of the Bernini altarpiece in St. Peter’s Basilica is an actual chair, encased in bronze, that was a gift from Emperor Charles II to Pope John VIII in A.D. 875. This is one of three chairs that, at different times in the early history of the Church, were alleged to be the actual chair of St. Peter. The other two are no longer extant, but this one has been examined and has been shown to be no older than the 6th Century A.D.
As with some other relics from the time of the Apostles, this one is not what people claimed it to be, but that does not take away its symbolic significance. The Latin term for chair is cathedra and the church where a bishop has his chair is thus known as a cathedral. Ignoring the fact that the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome is St. John Lateran, the symbolism still fits. The chair above the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica reminds everyone who sees it that Peter is the preeminent bishop of the Universal Church.
But that particular cathedra or chair also reminds us of the many facets of the papacy that have sprung from that original preeminence, including the role of the pope embedded in the phrase ex cathedra.
The First Vatican Council explicitly declared what had been implicitly taught and believed since the earliest days of the papacy: that the pope, as inhabitant of the Chair of St. Peter, was given the authority to make infallible statements in matters of faith and morals. This authority was summarized in the phrase ex cathedra, “from the chair.” When the pope speaks as the successor to St. Peter, as the present manifestation of the one who symbolically sits in the chair, then he is speaking ex cathedra.
The celebration of the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter is multifaceted. It reminds us not only of the symbolic references embedded in the use of different figures of speech, but of the two thousand year old gift that Jesus gave to His Church. That gift of the papacy, though ancient, is ever new and shall remain so even until the end of this world when the Chair of St. Peter shall be no more, perfectly and completely subsumed in the eternal Throne of Christ.
Not officially defined as such until the First Vatican Council, the dogmatic teaching of papal infallibility in matters of faith and morals is a part of the Deposit of Faith handed down from the Apostolic Church. The phrase associated with the exercise of this papal privilege - ex cathedra, “from the chair” - is itself an example of synecdoche’s cousin metonymy.