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 Primacy of Jesus, the Primacy of Love
- by John Mallon, Contributing Editor, Inside the Vatican
Far from being a mere moral system or philosophy by a teacher from the past, Catholicism is a relationship with a person—a love affair, a romance, a marriage, a friendship, with the Man, Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. Some may say this downplays Christ’s role as Lord, but I disagree—it enhances it. True reverence flows from intimacy. The better we truly know and love someone the more we will reverence them.
Anyone truly in love speaks of their beloved with reverence. Love is a mode of knowing and this knowledge attained through love creates admiration, affection, respect, wonder, and yes, reverence. Christ is the Bridegroom who said, “I do not speak to you as slaves, I call you my friends.”
On the day before he was elected to the Chair of Peter, then-Cardinal Ratzinger in his April 18 homily at the conclave’s opening Mass said these words: “Let us now look at the Gospel, from whose riches I would like to draw only two small observations. The Lord addresses these wonderful words to us: ‘I no longer speak of you as slaves... Instead, I call you friends’ (Jn 15:15).”
He also said, “To our weak minds, to our weak hands, he entrusts his truth—the mystery of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; the mystery of God who ‘so loved the world that he gave his only Son’ (Jn 3:16). He made us his friends—and how do we respond?”
And then: “The second element Jesus uses to define friendship is the communion of wills. For the Romans ‘idem velle — idem nolle’ [same desires, same dislikes] was also the definition of friendship. “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (Jn 15:14).
And, “a mature adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceit from truth.”
Suddenly, in the midst of this sublime homily, the future Pope exclaimed, in a manner reminiscent of the sudden exclamations in the Epistles of St. Paul, “Thank you, Jesus, for your friendship!”
Another translation of the quote from John 15:14 cited above is commonly, “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” We can conclude that keeping the Commandments issues naturally from our love of Jesus. Indeed, what else? A person truly in love actually fears doing something that would hurt the beloved or create distance in the relationship.
To a husband truly in love infidelity is horrific and unthinkable, not because it will get him “in trouble” but because of his love for his wife. This motivation of genuine fear of harming this precious love is referred to as filial fear, whereas the fear of simply “getting in trouble” is called servile fear. In his homily the Holy Father called this filial fear “a mature adult faith.”
The virtue of “fear of the Lord” has been reduced in modern times to mere awe due to the apparent “negative” connotations of the word “fear” in English. But its meaning is much larger and more beautiful.
Who would say a natural healthy dread of hurting someone we love is “negative”? Nevertheless, the late Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper says that servile fear of the Lord is better than no fear of the Lord at all, but filial fear is superior, more mature (see Pieper’s book, On Hope). Children fear running afoul of their parents until they grow up and learn the wisdom of their parents’ discipline of them. Again, a mature adult faith is what we seek.
More than anything, a lover dreads whatever will harm his marriage, be it with a spouse or with the Lord, namely, sin. Magisterial Church teachings come from Christ. A truly mature Catholic husband is informed and knows that contraception, for example, will harm his marriage, first of all by harming his wife physically, in the case of oral contraceptives, and in the case of barrier methods it will harm their love metaphysically by coming between their intimacy and total self-gift.
I once heard a young man say, “Using a condom is like kissing through a screen door!” Though I doubt he said this in defense of Catholic teaching, the analogy is a good one. Love longs for union and for that union to bear fruit. Catholic teaching always supports love in its higher form, not giving in to a terrible pragmatism that often passes for love. If true love were present in a relationship there would be no fornication or adultery because sin always harms love.
For readers of this magazine, much of what is said here is nothing new but it needs to be shouted from the housetops, because we are seeing a backlash to the grievous harm done to the Church in the past 40 years by dissent, which, in an ironic form of legalism, has pushed for a greater laxity in the Church’s moral teachings.
This backlash is taking the form of a new embrace of the opposite error to laxity: rigidity. Both errors are expressions of the aforementioned servile fear of punishment rather than the filial fear which issues from love and intimacy with Jesus. The dissenter attempts to alleviate the servile fear by denying or downplaying the possibility of punishment, while the embrace of rigidity focuses unduly on punishment. The Catholic in love with Jesus knows that sin is its own punishment and any distance from the Lord caused by sin is agony in itself. Thankfully, the Lord always stands ready to forgive at the asking.
The solution to the ideological Left/Right split that currently haunts the Church (and the rest of the world) is Jesus Christ. Following Christ in the Church is not a “middle of the road” path by any means, but Christ is the center of everything, and it is He to whom we should flee, front and center before the Tabernacle, not falling out the windows on the left or the right side of the Church.
Morality falls into place in the embrace of the true Bridegroom who is always embracing His Body, the Church. Knowing Jesus Christ in an intimate relationship of friendship and love is the answer to the opposite errors of excessive moral laxity and excessive moral rigidity. In Christ we are at home.
Isaiah spoke to this in his prophetic utterance: “The Lord will give you the bread you need and the water for which you thirst. No longer will your Teacher hide himself, but with your own eyes you shall see your Teacher, while from behind, a voice shall sound in your ears: ‘This is the way; walk in it,’ when you would turn to the right or to the left.” (Is. 30:20-21)
John Mallon is a Contributing Editor to Inside the Vatican magazine. He also has regular columns on the website Catholic.Org. An archive of Mr. Mallon's work also appears here: http://www.petersvoice.com/mallon/index.html. You can reach Mr. Mallon at email@example.com.