Chairs, Revolutions, and Saints

As we move into Lent in just over a week, I wanted to wrap up some topics before then so I can focus later on the spiritual strategy of that holy season. I haven’t written about the saints of the month in a while, so I wanted to start with February 1st. John Paul II beatified the 99 from Angers, France, who were martyred that dreary rainy day. They were sent to the death for their Catholic faith in 1793, during the terrible events of the French Revolution. There have been countless governments throughout history that have turned against the Catholic Church, but the French Revolution of 1789 seems to stand out in the ruthlessness and brutality of those attacks.

I distinctly remember my high school days at Jesuit High in Detroit, dutifully learning my lessons about that ill-fated Revolution. I was vaguely interested in the drama – the betrayals, the guillotining, the Reign of Terror, the stunning speed at which the Revolution overtook the nation, and perhaps most the fact that those who claimed to be mistreated by the Church (accurately or inaccurately) became the most cruel persecutors of her faithful. Life is full of irony. One such irony was that the French Revolutionaries—absolutely irrational in their rage – claimed to be guided only by the principle of Reason, which was literally made into a goddess. I also distinctly remember thinking (naively) that this was only of historical interest, and that events like those could never happen again in modern

Now I am not so sure. We certainly see countless signs and examples of that same spirit becoming alarmingly visible in our own times with the same ironies the rage and contempt that powerful institutions express against Christian views, even the most basic, such as God creating mankind male and female; the claim that they are guided by reason and science, all the while denying the most obvious scientific truths, such as a baby in the womb being a distinct person based on the genetic evidence of his or her DNA; the revolutionary zeal of destroying icons of history and Christian images and churches; the rationalization by political leaders who attempt to take away the religious liberty of Catholics and Christians by making emotional arguments that they are “haters” and “bigots” and so on. The parallels are there for all who have eyes to see.

Anyway, the martyrs of Angers, France, included 12 priests (including an 84 year old man); 3 religious sisters (nuns); four laymen and 80 laywomen. The religious sisters, who ministered to the sick in hospital, refused to take the mandated oath to renounce their Catholic faith. As they were being marched to their deaths, they began to pray the Litany of Loretto (invoking the help of Mary, the Mother of God, under her various titles), with all those condemned to die for their faith taking up the refrain.

Read more about their story at

On Monday the 22nd, we celebrate the feast of the Chair of St. Peter, the Apostle. The image above is the famous work in gold and bronze by Bernini from the 17th century, in the sanctuary area of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It consists of a beautiful throne seemingly suspended in mid-air. At its base are the four greatest doctors (teachers of doctrine) of the Church, two from the East and two from the West: Ss. Augustine, Ambrose, John Chryostom and Athanasius.

This most talented of sculptors built this magnificent work around an ancient wooden chair, believed to have been used by St. Peter himself when he came to Rome to devote his life to the spread of the Gospel. Why all the fuss about a chair? Not just for historical interest. From biblical times, the chair was a symbol of the authority of the ruler who sat in it. In the case of the pope, that refers primarily to his spiritual authority. It is a beautiful visual reminder that Our Lord entrusted to Peter and the Apostles the mission to teach all the nations all of the truths that He had taught them, including the saving power of baptism and the sacraments.

Every ordinary (bishop who governs a diocese) has his own special chair in the cathedral church of that diocese. Same reason; a symbol of his spiritual authority over that region. The chair for the priest celebrating Mass has a slightly different symbolism. It is from here that he leads prayers that are not directly related to the sacrifice of the Mass. (Those occur at the altar). That is, in those parts of the Mass where he presides over the assembly and directing their prayer, he customarily stands at the chair. But even here, he does so not just as “another member of the assembly,” but rather stands in the person of Christ. For this reason, that chair is reserved for him and is distinctive. On the rare occasions when a service is allowed to be conducted in the sanctuary without the priest (for example, a “Communion service,” when Sunday Mass in a region is not possible), the custom is to drape a stole over the empty celebrant’s chair if a deacon or lay minister leads that service from another location, to emphasize the absence of the priest.

Scroll to Top