The altar of the Chair of St. Peter in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is a masterpiece by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. NOMADFRA / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

The Chair of St. Peter

Feast inspires contemplation of our role as priests

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This past September, I had the awesome experience of vesting a good friend in his deaconate ordination. Michael Bissex is a seminarian for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York, and alongside his classmates from the Pontifical North American College (NAC), he was ordained a deacon at the altar of the Chair of St. Peter in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. This was a bit of a homecoming for me, because I had just finished my fifth year at the NAC last June. Having returned to the United States and begun my full-time parish ministry, I returned to Rome and walked into St. Peter’s Basilica that morning with a fresh perspective, eager to celebrate with my friend, Mike, reconnect with old friends and see how God would use this experience to renew the graces of my own ordination.

Each year begins for the seminary community of the NAC by gathering around this altar as the fourth-year theologians lay down their lives and take up the Book of the Gospel. The day stands as a highlight for the entire community and a fitting orientation to the coming year of studies, formation, fraternity and service. For the seminarians, it is a graced moment of joy and celebration with their friends that rekindles the excitement and hope of their own ordinations to come, and for the other deacons and the priests of the seminary community it is a reminder of the vocation each of us has received and accepted — an awesome vocation that is lived out in humility and in service.
 

Altar in St. Peter’s

For those who haven’t had a chance to see the altar of the Chair of St. Peter, it is an impressive sight. The altar itself stands behind the main altar of St. Peter’s Basilica. It is relatively simple and flanked on either side by typical wooden pews. Behind and above the altar of the Chair emerges an elegant darkened bronze chair, encasing what is believed to be the relic of an actual wooden chair used by St. Peter as the Bishop of Rome. This chair is the traditional cathedra of St. Peter’s Basilica and is larger than life, supported by four Doctors of the Church: Ambrose and Augustine of Hippo toward the west and John Chrysostom and Athanasius toward the east. Immediately above this chair is the famous amber stained-glass window of the Holy Spirit. Encircling this alabaster window are hundreds of bronze angels, and shooting out from the dove past the angels are golden rays of light. Again, it is impressive.
 

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What stands out as being most impressive about that morning in St. Peter’s Basilica, though, isn’t the artwork. The most impressive part of that morning was the continuation of what the artwork symbolizes in the ordination of my friend and his classmates as they promised to, like St. Peter and the Church Fathers after him, carry the light of the Holy Spirit out from that place by announcing the Gospel in a life of service. The artwork represents the rippling continuation of a deeply personal relationship of fidelity and generous service as the Holy Spirit sends Peter out to announce the Gospel. And then Peter, in turn, hands the Good News to the Fathers who then went out and passed the light of faith on to the next generation and so forth.
 

Recommitment

That morning, I was able to witness my friend, Mike, with whom I had shared the journey of seminary for several years, complete with its moments of laughter, questioning and excitement to be with and serve God’s people, as he received the Book of the Gospels and was sent out from that place to share it with others. As he was ordained, Mike joined in that long line of heralds who are called and sent to go out and preach the Gospel. As I vested Mike, I was reminded of how God uses regular, ordinary people to be the messengers of his Good News to the world. And it was a reminder to me of my own role as a priest of Baltimore to stay connected with those who have gone before me — from whom I have received so much. The experience refreshed the grace of God that I had received in my own ordination and inspired me to recommit myself to sharing that grace and the Good News of Jesus Christ to the people to whom I have been sent in the city of Baltimore.

Father Josh Laws was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Baltimore in 2015. He is associate pastor at Our Lady of Victory Church in Baltimore.