“Cathedra”– the Chair of the Teacher

by Msgr. Michael Howell, Contributor
June 1, 2012

Cathedra of Bishop Paul Joseph Nussbaum who presided from the first St. Patrick’s Church (corner of Antelope and N. Carancahua) which was designated the cathedral at the time of the erection of the Diocese of Corpus Christi in 1912. It was also used by his successor, Bishop Emmanuel Boleslaus Ledvina, until the building and dedication of the present Corpus Christi Cathedral in 1940.  Presently this chair is used by the local priests who preside at Eucharist in the Cathedral when the bishop is not present.  
Each year on Feb. 22, the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of the “Chair of St. Peter.” It might seem rather strange to even Catholics that a day would be dedicated to honoring a chair.

Just as strange to many would be the large bronze monument in St. Peter’s Basilica that features an ornate chair held aloft by the four originally designated Doctors of the Western Church — Sts. Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome and Pope Gregory the Great. They are not medical doctors, but like those with a Ph.D. they are recognized for their theological wisdom and teaching.

But this chair, like the throne of a king, represents more than just a place to sit. While the throne of a kingdom represents the site of political power and the rule of the one who sits upon that chair, the chair of Peter represents the teaching authority of the Holy Father. This stems from ancient traditions.

Cathedra built by the Cech Mill and glass company (now Safety Glass) of Corpus Christi for the Corpus Christi Cathedral in 1940.  Bishop Ledvina, Bishop Mariano Simon Garriga and Bishop Thomas Joseph Drury presided from this chair during their tenures as the chief shepherd of the Diocese of Corpus Christi.  After renovations that followed Vatican II, Bishop Drury in the last years of his administration used a different cathedra.  This chair is still used in the Cathedral today for other ministers in the Liturgy.  
Those who taught as rabbis in the synagogue would sit to then expound on the Scriptures; as the Gospel of Luke notes, even Jesus did so when he first preached in Nazareth. Luke writes that after reading from the word of Isaiah, Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the assistant and then “sat down” before beginning his teaching (Lk 4:19).

In the early Christian tradition, the chair of the one presiding over the local church thus took on a special meaning. In the local church, which is called a diocese (such as the Diocese of Corpus Christi), the bishop as chief shepherd of that portion of the Lord’s flock also presides from a special chair that represents his authority to teach, sanctify and govern. That chair is called in the Latin language “cathedra” and the church in which the bishop’s chair resides is called the “cathedral.”

  Cathedra for Bishop Roberto O. González, OFM.  His coat of arms done in cross-stitch by a local Catholic was on the back of the chair.  Upon his appointment as Archbishop of San Juan in Puerto Rico, the coat of arms was removed from the chair and framed as a gift to him to remind him of the first diocese where he served as Ordinary.  The present coat of arms on the chair is that of his successor, Bishop Edmond Carmody, who presided from this chair.
Over the years, since the erection of the Diocese of Corpus Christi in 1912, the bishops have used a number of different chairs to serve as the “cathedra” in which they alone sit for services while they serve in the office of Ordinary of the diocese. However, in each case these chairs have been the symbol of the duties placed upon them by reason of their appointment to serve the local community we call the Diocese of Corpus Christi.

  This chair, originally in the episcopal home on Ocean Drive, was chosen by Bishop Drury to serve as his cathedra towards the end of his tenure.  It had his coat of arms (removable) on the top of the back.  It was subsequently used by Bishop Rene H. Gracida to serve as his cathedra (it still bears the diamond pattern from his coat of arms).  It is the chair presently used by Bishop Mulvey as his cathedra in the Corpus Christi Cathedral.
Many have even chosen to preach from the chair as a reminder that they are exercising both their right and their responsibility because they occupy that chair. Even when there is no bishop (including the pope as bishop of Rome) because of a death or transfer, the Church refers to the temporary absence of a shepherd as “sede vacante” (the seat being empty). Nevertheless the chair remains in the cathedral even in those times to remind the people that a shepherd will be provided by the one who is our Eternal Shepherd.

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