"Primacy in Love": The Chair Altar of Saint
Peter's in Rome
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger - a section from his book, From Images of Hope
Anyone who, after wandering through the massive nave of Saint Peter's
Basilica, at last arrives at the final altar in the apse would probably
expect here a triumphal depiction of Saint Peter, around whose tomb the
church is built. But nothing of the kind is the case. The figure of the
Apostle does not appear among the sculptures of this altar. Instead, we
stand before an empty throne that almost seems to float but is
supported by the four figures of the great Church teachers of the West
and the East. The muted light over the throne emanates from the window
surrounded by floating angels, who conduct the rays of light downward.
What is this whole composition trying to express? What does it tell us?
It seems to me that a deep analysis of the essence of the Church lies
hidden here, is contained here, an analysis of the office of Peter. Let
us begin with the window, with its muted colors, which both gathers in
to the center and opens outward and upward. It unites the Church with
creation as a whole. It signifies through the dove of the Holy Spirit
that God is the actual source of all light. But it tells us also
something else) the Church herself is in essence, so to speak, a
window, a place of contact between the other-worldly mystery of God and
our world, the place where the world is permeable to the radiance of
his light. The Church is not there for herself, she is not an end, but
rather a point of departure beyond herself and us. The more transparent
she becomes for the other, from whom she comes and to whom she leads,
the more she fulfills her true essence. Through the window of her faith
God enters this world and awakens in us the longing for what is
greater. The Church is the place of encounter where God meets us and we
find God. It is her task to open up a world closing in on itself, to
give it the light without which it would be unlivable.
Let us look now at the next level of the altar: the empty cathedra made
of gilded bronze, in which a wooden chair from the ninth century is
embedded, held for a long time to be the cathedra of the Apostle Peter
and for this reason placed in this location. The meaning of this part
of the altar is thereby made clear. The teaching chair of Peter says
more than a picture could say. It expresses the abiding presence of the
Apostle, who as teacher remains present in his successors. The chair of
the Apostle is a sign of nobility--it is the throne of truth, which in
that hour at Caesarea became his and his successors' charge. The seat
of the one who teaches reechoes, so to speak, for our memory the word
of the Lord from the room of the Last Supper: "I have prayed for you
that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again,
strengthen your brethren" (Lk 22:32). But there is also another
remembrance connected to the chair of the Apostle: the saying of
Ignatius of Antioch, who in the year 110 in his Letter to the Romans
called the Church of Rome "the primacy of love". Primacy in faith must
be primacy in love. The two are not to be separated from each other. A
faith without love would no longer be the faith of Jesus Christ. The
idea of Saint Ignatius was however still more concrete: the word "love"
is in the language of the early Church also an expression for the
Eucharist. Eucharist originates in the love of Jesus Christ, who gave
his life for us. In the Eucharist, he evermore shares himself with us;
he places himself in our hands. Through the Eucharist he fulfills
evermore his promise that from the Cross he will draw us into his open
arms (see Jn 12:32). In Christ's embrace we are led to one another. We
are taken into the one Christ, and thereby we now also belong
reciprocally together. I can no longer consider anyone a stranger who
stands in the same contact with Christ.
These are all, however, in no way remote mystical thoughts. Eucharist
is the basic form of the Church. The Church is formed in the
eucharistic assembly. And since all assemblies of all places and all
times always belong only to the one Christ, it follows that they all
form only one single Church. They lay, so to speak, a net of
brotherhood across the world and join the near and the far to one
another so that through Christ they are all near. Now we usually tend
to think that love and order are opposites. Where there is love, order
is no longer needed because all has become self-evident. But that is a
misunderstanding of love as well as of order. True human order is
something different from the bars one places before beasts of prey so
that they are restrained. Order is respect for the other and for one's
own, which is then most loved when it is taken in its correct sense.
Thus order belongs to the Eucharist, and its order is the actual core
of the order of the Church. The empty chair that points to the primacy
in love speaks to us accordingly of the harmony between love and order.
It points in its deepest aspect to Christ as the true primate, the true
presider in love. It points to the fact that the Church has her center
in the liturgy. It tells us that the Church can remain one only from
communion with the crucified Christ. No organizational efficiency can
guarantee her unity. She can be and remain world Church only when her
unity is more than that of an organization--when she lives from Christ.
Only the eucharistic faith, only the assembly around the present Lord
can she keep for the long term. And from here she receives her order.
The Church is not ruled by majority decisions but rather through the
faith that matures in the encounter with Christ in the liturgy.
The Petrine service is primacy in love, which means care for the fact
that the Church takes her measure from the Eucharist. She becomes all
the more united, the more she lives from the eucharistic dimension and
the more she remains true in the Eucharist to the dimension of the
tradition of faith. Love will also mature from unity, love that is
directed to the world. The Eucharist is based on the act of love of
Jesus Christ unto death. That means, too, that anyone who views pain as
something that should be abolished or at least left to others is
someone incapable of love. "Primacy in love": we spoke in the beginning
about the empty throne, but now it is apparent that the "throne" of the
Eucharist is not a throne of lordship but rather the hard chair of the
one who serves.
Let us now look at the third level of the altar, at the Fathers who
bear the throne of serving. The two teachers of the East, Chrysostom
and Athanasius, embody together with the Latin Fathers Ambrose and
Augustine the entirety of the tradition and thus the fullness of the
faith of the one Church. Two considerations are important here: love
stands on faith. It collapses when man lacks orientation. It falls
apart when man can no longer perceive God. Like and with love, order
and justice also stand on faith; authority in the Church stands on
faith. The Church cannot conceive for herself how she wants to be
ordered. She can only try ever more clearly to understand the inner
call of faith and to live from faith. She does not need the majority
principle, which always has something atrocious about it: the
subordinated part must bend to the decision of the majority for the
sake of peace even when this decision is perhaps misguided or even
destructive. In human arrangements, there is perhaps no alternative.
But in the Church the binding to faith protects all of us: each is
bound to faith, and in this respect the sacramental order guarantees
more freedom than could be given by those who would subject the Church
to the majority principle.
A second consideration is needed here: the Church Fathers appear as the
guarantors of loyalty to Sacred Scripture. The hypotheses of human
interpretation waver. They cannot carry the throne. The life-sustaining
power of the scriptural word is interpreted and applied in the faith
that the Fathers and the great councils have learned from that word.
The one who holds to this has found what gives secure ground in times
Finally, now, we must not forget the whole for the parts. For the three
levels of the altar take us into a movement that is ascent and descent
at the same time. Faith leads to love. Here it becomes evident whether
it is faith at all. A dark, complaining, egotistic faith is false
faith. Whoever discovers Christ, whoever discovers the worldwide net of
love that he has cast in the Eucharist, must be joyful and must become
a giver himself. Faith leads to love, and only through love do we
attain to the heights of the window, to the view to the living God, to
contact with the streaming light of the Holy Spirit. Thus the two
directions permeate each other. The light comes from God, flows
downward awakening faith and love, in order then to take us up the
ladder that leads from faith to love and to the light of the eternal.
The inner dynamic into which the altar draws us allows finally a last
element to become understandable. The window of the Holy Spirit does
not stand there on its own. It is surrounded by the overflowing
fullness of angels, by a choir of joy. That is to say, God is never
alone. That would contradict his essence. Love is participation,
community, joy. This perception allows still another thought to emerge.
Sound joins the light. We think we hear them singing, these angels, for
we cannot imagine these streams of joy to be silent or as talking idly
or shouting. They can be perceived only as praise in which harmony and
diversity unite. "Yet you are... enthroned on the praises of Israel",
we read in the psalm (22:3). Praise is likewise the cloud of joy
through which God comes and which bears him as its companion into this
world. Liturgy is therefore the eternal light shining into our world.
It is God's joy, sounding into our world. And it is at the same time
our feeling about the consoling glow of this light out of the depth of
our questions and confusion, climbing up the ladder that leads from
faith to love, thereby opening the view to hope.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:
• On the Papacy, John Paul II, and the Nature of the Church From God
and the World: A Conversation with Peter Seewald | Joseph Cardinal
• Peter and Succession From Called To Communion: Understanding the
Church Today | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
• Foreword to U.M. Lang's Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in
Liturgical Prayer | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
• For "Many" or For "All"? | From God Is Near Us | Joseph Cardinal
• Music and Liturgy | From The Spirit of the Liturgy | Joseph Cardinal
• The Altar and the Direction of Liturgical Prayer | From The Spirit of
the Liturgy | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
• Walking To Heaven Backward | Interview with Father Jonathan Robinson
of the Oratory
• Rite and Liturgy | Denis Crouan, STD
• The Liturgy Lived: The Divinization of Man | Jean Corbon, OP
• The Mass of Vatican II | Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.
• Liturgy, Catechesis, and Conversion | Barbara Morgan
• Understanding The Hierarchy of Truths | Douglas Bushman, STL
• The Eucharist: Source and Summit of Christian Spirituality | Mark
Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, was for over two decades the
Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope
John Paul II. He is a renowned theologian and author of numerous books.
A mini-bio and full listing of his books published by Ignatius Press
are available on his IgnatiusInsight.com Author Page.