Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
From Images of Hope
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 Petrine service is primacy in love, which means care for the fact that the Church takes her measure from the Eucharist. She becomes all the more united, the more she lives from the eucharistic dimension and the more she remains true in the Eucharist to the dimension of the tradition of faith. Love will also mature from unity, love that is directed to the world. The Eucharist is based on the act of love of Jesus Christ unto death. That means, too, that anyone who views pain as something that should be abolished or at least left to others is someone incapable of love. “Primacy in love”: we spoke in the beginning about the empty throne, but now it is apparent that the “throne” of the Eucharist is not a throne of lordship but rather the hard chair of the one who serves.
Let us now look at the third level of the altar, at the Fathers who bear the throne of serving. The two teachers of the East, Chrysostom and Athanasius, embody together with the Latin Fathers Ambrose and Augustine the entirety of the tradition and thus the fullness of the faith of the one Church. Two considerations are important here: love stands on faith. It collapses when man lacks orientation. It falls apart when man can no longer perceive God. Like and with love, order and justice also stand on faith; authority in the Church stands on faith. The Church cannot conceive for herself how she wants to be ordered. She can only try ever more clearly to understand the inner call of faith and to live from faith. She does not need the majority principle, which always has something atrocious about it: the subordinated part must bend to the decision of the majority for the sake of peace even when this decision is perhaps misguided or even destructive. In human arrangements, there is perhaps no alternative. But in the Church the binding to faith protects all of us: each is bound to faith, and in this respect the sacramental order guarantees more freedom than could be given by those who would subject the Church to the majority principle.
A second consideration is needed here: the Church Fathers appear as the guarantors of loyalty to Sacred Scripture. The hypotheses of human interpretation waver. They cannot carry the throne. The life-sustaining power of the scriptural word is interpreted and applied in the faith that the Fathers and the great councils have learned from that word. The one who holds to this has found what gives secure ground in times of change.
Finally, now, we must not forget the whole for the parts. For the three levels of the altar take us into a movement that is ascent and descent at the same time. Faith leads to love. Here it becomes evident whether it is faith at all. A dark, complaining, egotistic faith is false faith. Whoever discovers Christ, whoever discovers the worldwide net of love that he has cast in the Eucharist, must be joyful and must become a giver himself. Faith leads to love, and only through love do we attain to the heights of the window, to the view to the living God, to contact with the streaming light of the Holy Spirit. Thus the two directions permeate each other. The light comes from God, flows downward awakening faith and love, in order then to take us up the ladder that leads from faith to love and to the light of the eternal.
The inner dynamic into which the altar draws us allows finally a last element to become understandable. The window of the Holy Spirit does not stand there on its own. It is surrounded by the overflowing fullness of angels, by a choir of joy. That is to say, God is never alone. That would contradict his essence. Love is participation, community, joy. This perception allows still another thought to emerge. Sound joins the light. We think we hear them singing, these angels, for we cannot imagine these streams of joy to be silent or as talking idly or shouting. They can be perceived only as praise in which harmony and diversity unite. “Yet you are… enthroned on the praises of Israel”, we read in the psalm (22:3). Praise is likewise the cloud of joy through which God comes and which bears him as its companion into this world. Liturgy is therefore the eternal light shining into our world. It is God’s joy, sounding into our world. And it is at the same time our feeling about the consoling glow of this light out of the depth of our questions and confusion, climbing up the ladder that leads from faith to love, thereby opening the view to hope.