On February 22nd the Church celebrates the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter. The word “chair” in this context symbolizes authority, specifically of St. Peter, the first pope, and all of his successors. Thus to celebrate St. Peter’s chair is to celebrate the authority of the pope.
In the modern era, authority, obedience, and freedom, are misunderstood. Authority is not based on a master-slave relationship of imposing a person's will upon another. Rather, true authority comes from God the Father and is exercised as a parent-child relationship. All authority comes from Him, and He has established those in authority through providence (see Romans 13:1-2). Authorities are gifted their authority by God and must understand that they have been entrusted with God’s own children, just as a teacher should understand that their students are entrusted to them by their parents. If a good human father has his children’s best interest and flourishing in mind, even more so does God the Father (see Matthew 7:9-11, Luke 11:11-13).
A natural question arises, then, about tyrants and despots, right? If the president of a country abuses his authority, then he does not understand that authority comes from the Father. Laws enacted because of those abuses would run contrary to God’s law as revealed by the Holy Spirit through the Church’s tradition. Such regulations, then, would have to be disobeyed, for “it is better to obey God rather than man”(see Acts 5:29). The many evils that have happened throughout history because of tyrants, despots, and dictators, are allowed to occur because God is powerful enough to pull great good from them. The finest example is the death of the Son, Jesus Christ, at the hands of the Roman government, which lead to our redemption. As the prophet Isaiah says: “His ways are above our ways, His thoughts are above our thoughts.”
Authority is related to fatherhood, as obedience is to sonship. Those in authority are given it by the Father. Those under their authority should respond as loyal sons. This is not a blind obedience, but one in which communication is an essential part. The word “obey” comes from the Latin word “to (ob) listen (audire).” Listening is an active process of dialogue, a conversation back and forth, with clarifying questions; as the Lord says through the prophet Isaiah: “Come now, let us reason together.” The Son of God gives us an example of this in the Gospels when He goes on His own to pray: to speak with and listen to His Father. The prime example of this in the Gospels is when Jesus agonizes in the garden crying out “Abba, Father, not what I will, but what you will.” Indeed, as St. Paul says in his letter to the Philippians: “He was obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”
Once again, authority is an act of the Father’s guiding providential will, whose goal is your flourishing. For as St. Irenaeus says: “The glory of God is man fully alive.” Obedience is a child of God trusting in their Father’s action, through those in authority. Freedom, then, is the relation between the two, the ability to act in accordance with trust and obedience to God, so that you might be perfect as your Father is perfect (see Matthew 5:48). Anything else, except an impossible degree of trust in God, is a destructive submission to the slavery of sin.
Fortunately, we are not on our own, for, as the Angel Gabriel declared unto Mary in Luke’s Gospel: “Nothing is impossible with God.” In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul affirms this by saying: “You have not been given a spirit of slavery that leads you to fear, you have been given a Spirit of adoption, which leads you to cry out ‘Abba Father’.” These are the same words Christ called out when He was most obedient to His Father. These words lead to obedience unto death that St. Paul spoke of in his letter to the Philippians. Yet, because of this, He was highly exalted, and raised from the dead (see Philippians 2). This level of freedom, to live in accord with the Father’s will as a child of God, through the Spirit of adoption (the Holy Spirit), is the freedom of the children of God that St. Paul speaks of in His letter to the Romans.
While all authorities are given their sphere of influence by God, the highest authority on earth was established by God the Son to be the visible head of His own authority over His kingdom: The pope -- the one who reigns from the Chair of St. Peter as his successor. St. Peter is told by Christ that he will be the rock on which the Church is built, his are the keys of the Kingdom, whatever he binds on earth shall be bound in heaven, whatever shall be loosed on earth, shall be loosed in heaven (see Matthew 16). Christ established an office which serves as the guarantee of faithfulness to His own teaching throughout time. Obedience to the teaching of Christ manifested through the pope, and the bishops in union with him, throughout history, is the key to freedom -- the key to our flourishing. To echo St. Clement: “The Father sent the Son, the Son sent the Apostles, who then sent the bishops as their successors. Thus, to obey them is to obey the Father.”
The Chair of St. Peter represents the highest authority on earth because it represents the pope. The papacy was instituted by Christ to be the visible head of the Church, which is the Kingdom of God. God’s kingdom encompasses all creation. Therefore the pope is the visible head of all creation. All that are in authority, especially the pope, receives that authority from the Father. We should be obedient to that authority as a faithful child. This can, and often times must include dialogue with the Father. In the case of the pope, this would mean seeking to understand and implement the teachings of the Church in your life. This obedience leads to our flourishing, which means that obedience to God-given authorities is the truest sense of freedom. Therefore, true freedom is obedience to the Church.
Tyson was born and raised in California, USA. He received a Bachelor's and Master's degree in theology from Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. He is currently a postulant for the Franciscan TORs in Loretto, Pennsylvania and is there praying his way to becoming a Franciscan Friar with the TORs. Having spent nearly a month in Gibraltar during the summer of 2016, he has developed a special love for the people of the Rock.