The cathedra

Most people have a favorite chair. Some may recall the comedy “All in the Family.” Archie Bunker had his favorite chair and no one else was permitted to sit in it. There were hilarious situations in which he “invited” family and guests to remove themselves from his chair. The chair became such a symbol of him and that popular sitcom that it became part of a National Museum in Washington, D.C.

One of my favorite comedies is the “Big Bang Theory.” In this TV sitcom, Dr. Sheldon Cooper has his special spot on the sofa. God forbid anyone invade his space.

Occasionally he will explain to others why this is the only space in the apartment that is acceptable for him. Location, breeze, warmth, television access etc., are the reasons he chose this spot in the apartment and will accept no other. Countless episodes have centered on this issue. 

I can recall an episode when Penny, the next door neighbor, accidently shot a paint gun at his cushion. This caused great trauma, not only how to clean the accidental paint damage, but how to explain it. While it does seem trivial, it provided an interesting episode. Only Cooper could react in a manner that would elicit such comedy and distress.

The Catholic Church has its special chairs as well. 

One of the most famous is located in St. Peter’s Basilica behind the main altar. It is called the Altar of the Chair. Above the altar is a large sculpture which supposedly contains the Chair of St. Peter. The chair is enclosed in a sculpted bronze casing that was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and executed between 1647 and 1653. Inside the chair is a wooden throne, which, according to tradition, was used by St. Peter.

A quick search in Wikipedia describes the chair: “Like many medieval reliquaries it takes the form of the relic it protects, in this case a chair. Symbolically, the chair Bernini designed had no earthly counterpart in actual contemporary furnishings. It is formed entirely of scrolling members, enclosing a coved panel where the upholstery pattern is rendered as a low relief of Christ giving the keys to Peter. Large angelic figures flank an openwork panel beneath a highly realistic bronze seat cushion, vividly empty: the relic is encased within. The cathedra is lofted on splayed scrolling bars that appear to be effortlessly supported by four over-life-sized bronze Doctors of the Church: Western doctors St. Ambrose and St. Augustine of Hippo on the outsides, wearing miters, and Eastern doctors St. John Chrysostom and St. Athanasius on the insides, both bare-headed. The cathedra appears to hover over the altar in the basilica’s apse.” 

There is a feast called the Chair of Peter. It is celebrated throughout the Universal Church on February 22. However, it is understood that the feast celebrates the unity of the Church with the successor of St. Peter, the pope, not a chair. It is a day to recall that the Catholic Church is united under one bishop — the Bishop of Rome — the Holy Father. Today that person is Pope Francis.

Each diocese has a special chair. It is called the cathedra. The cathedra is located in the cathedral church of a diocese. The name cathedral comes from the fact that within its walls is the cathedra. It is the chair from which the bishop of a diocese presides over the entire diocese. Attached to the back of the chair is found the coat of arms of the bishop. 

In the Cathedral of the Diocese of Fall River, the cathedra is found in the center of the sanctuary. It was moved there from the side during the renovation of the cathedral some years ago.

The cathedral is where Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha was installed at Bishop of Fall River this week. In the first part of the installation rite, the Consultors of the Diocese viewed the letter from Pope Francis naming Bishop da Cunha as bishop of Fall River. The Cardinal Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal O’Malley, and the Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Carlos Vigano, then led Bishop da Cunha to his place at the cathedra and presented him with his crozier. 

While this is a simple ceremony, it is filled with much theological meaning. It symbolizes the continuation of the Church, having a successor of the Apostles to lead the Diocese. It signifies that the bishop has the teaching and leadership role in the diocese. It reminds us that he presides over all the churches in the diocese. 

The cathedra is only used by the bishop. The pastor or rector of the cathedral sits in another chair when he presides over the Liturgy.

Every pastor presides in the name of the bishop when he sits in the presider’s chair in his parish. When the bishop comes to the parish he uses the main celebrant’s chair.

Since the Diocese of Fall River was founded in 1904, this is the eighth time a new bishop has been installed in the Diocese of Fall River. In this way, Bishop da Cunha officially began his ministry among us. 

Adding to the importance and historicity of the event, this was the first time three former bishops of Fall River — Archbishop Cronin, Cardinal O’Malley and Bishop Coleman — witnessed the ceremony. I am sure they wish him well as he builds upon all that they have done and leads us in new ways to know and love God.

We, too, wish him well and assure him of our prayers as he begins to serve as our bishop. May God grant him many good years filled with much health and happiness.

Anchor columnist Msgr. Oliveira is pastor of St. Mary’s Parish in New Bedford and director of the diocesan Propagation of the Faith and Permanent Diaconate offices.

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts