LETTERS FROM THE VATICAN: #4

First Things | 1/11/2010 | Xavier Rynne II
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“Grant, we pray, almighty God, that no tempests may disturb us, for you have set us fast on the rock of the Apostle Peter’s confession of faith. Through our Lord Jesus Christ your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

The Collect for the day, quoted above, may strike some as plaintive, with overtones of a lament. For there are manifestly tempests disturbing the Church, whose leaders are in Rome precisely because of that undeniable fact. The Altar of the Chair reminds us that the Collect’s link between the peace of the Church and its adherence to “the rock of the Apostle Peter’s confession of faith” must be taken seriously in this week’s meeting on sexual abuse. To understand why means pondering the huge bronze sculpture carefully, reflecting on its meaning as well as admiring its beauty.

Centerpiece - Bernini - Composition - Bronze - Cathedra

The centerpiece of Bernini’s composition is a bronze cathedra, or episcopal chair, which pious tradition claims to contain wooden relics of St. Peter’s “chair,” the sign of his apostolic authority. Be that as it may, what is especially noteworthy about the Altar of the Chair is its theological density. As Bernini designed it, the bronze cathedra is supported by four Doctors of the Church: St. Ambrose and St. Augustine from the West, St. Athanasius and St. John Chrysostom from the East. Their figures are, like the rest of the composition, quite enormous—and fair enough, for these were giants in the history of Christian orthodoxy. But it’s Bernini’s arrangement of them that makes the crucial theological point: for each of the Doctors “supports” the great cathedra, representing Christ’s promise to maintain and preserve the Church in truth through the Office of Peter and the College of Bishops, by a single finger. The...
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