Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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The chair: symbol of the priest as presider
by Father Jan Larson
(From the Feb. 25, 2010 edition of the Inland Register)
The rules for the proper celebration of the Mass state that the priest’s chair in the church is not used by a lay person who presides at a service of the word with Communion or a Sunday celebration in the absence of a priest. At first this rule might seem to be a needless bit of clericalism, suggesting perhaps that lay persons are not worthy to sit in the priest’s chair. However, reserving the priest’s chair exclusively for the ordained priest or deacon is neither clericalism nor some sort of liturgical elitism. True, the practical thing to do is for a lay presider to use the presider’s chair. But good liturgy cannot be determined by practical matters, but by the symbolism that is to be found in liturgical persons, actions and objects. After all, if practicality were the determining factor, we would not use candles, vestments, or a number of other ritual components that Catholics cherish in their rich liturgical tradition.
The symbolism of the priest’s chair is derived from the bishop’s chair found in every cathedral. In fact, the word “cathedral” comes from cathedra,a word that means “chair.” The bishop’s chair is a liturgical symbol of his teaching office and his pastoral leadership, as well as a sign of the unity of believers in the faith that the bishop proclaims as chief shepherd. A priest who presides at liturgy in a parish does so as an extension of the bishop’s own priestly ministry, and so the chair assumes a symbolism analogous to that of the bishop’s cathedra. A bishop may preach the homily from his cathedra, and the priest celebrant may preach the homily standing at his chair, or at the ambo or at some other suitable place.
As a priest presiding at a cathedral would not use the bishop’s chair, but would use some other special chair, so in a parish liturgy a lay presider would use a chair other than the priest’s. If this distinction was not made, then the ancient symbolism of the chair would unravel. This is true when any special objects in the liturgy – altar, ambo, etc. – are used for purposes for which they were not intended.
The priest’s chair should be located so that the priest can be seen by all in the assembly. It is not supposed to look like a throne, or be remote or grandiose, although the appearance of the chair “reflects the dignity of the one who leads the community in the person of Christ.” Accordingly, the priest celebrant’s chair is distinguished from the seating for other ministers by its design and placement.
I once read a comment from a liturgical author who stated that an empty chair has no symbolism. On the contrary. An empty cathedra at a cathedral liturgy is a powerful symbolic statement that the chief shepherd is not present with the assembly. In a symbolic statement that may be even more powerful and critical in our days, the empty priest’s chair at a Sunday celebration in the absence of a priest is a loud cry that something is wrong, that the numbers of ordained people, essential for any celebration of the Eucharist, are insufficient.
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)