cropped-saint-peters-clip-art.jpgBy Cliff Garvey

Each year on February 22nd, the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter. This feast commemorates that moment when Jesus chooses Peter to serve as the first pastor of the growing community of believers, who like him confess with faith: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16).” This feast also reminds us of the apostolic succession of bishops and popes that begins with Saint Peter and the apostles and journeys with God’s people through history.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus identifies Peter as the “rock” upon which the Church is built and gives him the “keys to the kingdom of heaven (See Matthew 16:18-19).” Jesus does not choose Peter because he is a man, or because he is a gifted preacher, or because he is perfect. The Gospels make clear that Peter, like all men and women, is a sinner, capable of betraying even his closest friend. Instead, Jesus chooses Peter because he believes with his whole heart, his imperfect heart, that Jesus is the Messiah.

As Catholic Christians, we believe that Peter is the first occupant of the chair of servant leadership that guides the Church through centuries of salvation history; through plague and persecution, reformation and renewal, tragedy and triumph, sanctity and scandal. We believe that even though cardinals vote, it is the Holy Spirit who ultimately chooses the person who becomes the pope, who sits upon the Chair of Saint Peter.

This article of faith is sometimes difficult to accept. In 2005, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, I was unhappy. I believed that the Church needed a change and that he seemed like more of the same. But when the new pope appeared and greeted the crowd gathered in Saint Peter’s Square, he said these words: “The cardinals elected me, a simple and humble laborer in the vineyard of the Lord. The fact that the Lord knows how to work and act even with insufficient instruments comforts me. Above all, I entrust myself to your prayers.”

With these words, my heart and mind were opened just enough to give the new pope a chance. What I saw and heart that night was not God’s Rottweiler, but a humble pastor. What I soon learned, over and over again, was that Pope Benedict XVI had much to teach us about faith, hope, and especially love.

Over the years, I read everything that he wrote as pope; and I shared much of his work with the spiritual reading group in my parish. Before we studied any of his writings, I urged my fellow parishioners to set aside their preconceptions, to keep an open mind, and to listen with open hearts. This group’s discussions about Pope Benedict XVI and his work were always fruitful, always challenging, and always life giving.

In Pope Benedict’s first encyclical, God is Love (2005), he writes: “Love is the light, and in the end, the only light that can illuminate a world grown dim and give us the courage needed to keep living and working. Love is possible, and we are able to practice it, because we are created in the image of God. To experience love, and in this way cause the light of God to enter into the world, this is my invitation to everyone.” Love is the only light. Love illumines a darkened world. Love gives courage. Love is possible. We can do it. We can love because God created us for love and for love alone. And Jesus shows us the way. Years later, this passage still embodies for me what the Church should be about in all that we do and say: living and sharing God’s boundless love and mercy for every person and for our suffering world.

My admiration for Pope Benedict grew when my best friend and I traveled to Assisi for the first time in 2007. We arrived one day before the Holy Father’s arrival to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the conversion of Saint Francis. By some miracle, we found places outside the diocesan cathedral where the local bishop would welcome the pope. After a long wait, the church bells began to ring, the pope appeared, and the crowd chanted: “Santotito! Santotito!” In English, this means: “Little Holy One.” The local people knew instinctively what it took so many of us so long to figure out. The brilliant theologian who was now our pope was also a simple man and a humble pastor.

As Pope Benedict passed by us, I was able to reach out and touch his hand. I touched the ring that symbolizes the papal office, the Chair of Saint Peter. In that moment, which lasted only a second or two, time seemed suspended. I felt a sudden stillness, a profound peace, and a deep consolation. I felt a strong connection with the community of believers that stretches back to the first Christians and ahead through time to the family of disciples yet to come. It remains among the most precious moments of my life.

When Pope Benedict XVI retired, I wept. But this time, I did not place expectations on the conclave that would elect a new pope. I was determined not to be disappointed; determined to trust in the Holy Spirit; determined to open my heart and mind to whatever the next pope might teach us; and determined to follow wherever he might lead us. Despite my best efforts, however, I cheered when Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina was elected pope and chose the name of my favorite saint: Francis.

Pope Francis will be long remembered for his daily homilies during the pandemic; for Laudato Si (2015), his encyclical on the environment; and for Fratelli Tutti (2020), his encyclical on human fraternity. But this pope “from the ends of the earth” may be best remembered for his emphasis on everyday holiness; his concern for the poor, the sick, and the left behind; and his ongoing work for peace, mercy, and reconciliation in our world.

It is tragic that so many of our brothers and sisters have been convinced by critics and commentators that Pope Francis is somehow a dangerous modernizer. Many of these self-proclaimed guardians of the faith claim to be more Catholic than the pope. But they often seem more interested in tearing down than in building up. They seem more interested in clicks, profits, ratings, and elections than in saving souls. Ignore them. Block them. Turn them off. Tune them out.

Listen instead for the voice that is built upon the rock of timeless faith. Listen for the voice of the one who carries the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Listen for the voice that transcends time, opens hearts, changes minds, and transforms lives. Listen for the voice that speaks of Jesus and his boundless love, mercy, and compassion for the little ones in this sorry world. Listen for the voice that speaks of living the Gospel, sharing God’s love, and rebuilding the Church. Listen for the simple voice, the humble voice, whichever voice that comes from the Chair of Saint Peter. Cling to it. Love it. Share it.

Glory to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen. Saint Peter, pray for us! Saint Francis of Assisi, pray for us! Saint Clare of Assisi, pray for us! Our Lady of the Angels, pray for us!

About the Author & Presenter

Cliff Garvey is a co-founder of the Assisi Project. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Maine, Saint John Seminary College, and the Catholic University of America. Cliff is a writer, spiritual director, retreat leader, and university lecturer. He also serves as Associate Minister of the Catholic Community of Gloucester & Rockport in Massachusetts where his ministry focuses on adult faith formation. Thank you for listening to Clinging to Peter. The Assisi Project Podcast is produced by the Assisi Project, Inc. For more information about the Assisi Project: A Fellowship of Franciscans in Spirit and our programs and ministries for adults of all ages and backgrounds, please contact Cliff Garvey at Copyright 2023. All rights reserved. May the Lord give you peace!

Art Credit: Photo: 191100668 |


About Us

Founded in 2007, the Assisi Project is a Fellowship of Franciscans in Spirit with friends and followers throughout the world. We are dedicated to helping Christian believers of all ages more faithfully live the Gospel of Christ in the spirit of Saint Francis and Saint Clare of Assisi. The Assisi Project is a non-profit, tax exempt charitable organization. All are welcome to support our ministry via PayPal or AmazonSmile (see links below); or by sending a tax-deductible donation to the Assisi Project, Post Office Box 3158, Gloucester, Massachusetts 01931-3158. For more information about the Assisi Project, please contact Cliff Garvey at May the Lord give you peace!

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In Memory of Pope Benedict XVI