When Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre was ceremonially led to the cathedra (the bishop’s chair) and handed his pastoral staff during his installation March 30, he became the seventh bishop of the Archdiocese of Louisville to use the historic chair.
The cathedra is the symbol of the bishops’ authority and Archbishop Fabre’s was brought to the Kentucky International Convention Center for the Mass of Installation.
It was newly upholstered and embroidered with the archbishop’s coat of arms for the occasion. There is nothing new, though, about the chair itself; it dates back at least 150 years.
The first to use the wooden chair with padded maroon upholstery was Bishop William George McCloskey, who led the then-Diocese of Louisville from 1868 until 1909.
Tim Tomes, archivist of the Archdiocese of Louisville, said every bishop since Bishop McCloskey has used this cathedra, though other more modern chairs were used for a while after the Second Vatican Council.
“When the Cathedral of the Assumption was renovated in the early 1970s to reflect the reforms brought forth by the Vatican II council, Archbishop Thomas J. McDonough began using a more modern styled cathedra, as did Archbishop (Thomas C.) Kelly,” he said. “About 20 years later, during the mid-1990’s renovation, the gothic-style cathedra was returned to use, elevated and centered on the rear reredos wall.”
He noted that the cathedra is placed behind the altar, facing the people, similar to the placement of Pope Francis’ cathedra, as the Bishop of Rome, at the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran in Rome.
On the feast of the Chair of St. Peter in 2006, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI explained the significance of the cathedra.
“ ‘Cathedra’ literally means the established seat of the bishop, placed in the mother church of a diocese which, for this reason, is known as a ‘cathedral;’ it is the symbol of the bishop’s authority and in particular, of his ‘magisterium,’ that is, the evangelical teaching which, as a successor of the Apostles, he is called to safeguard and to transmit to the Christian Community,” he said.
“When a Bishop takes possession of the particular church that has been entrusted to him, wearing his mitre and holding the pastoral staff, he sits on the cathedra. From this seat, as teacher and pastor, he will guide the journey of the faithful in faith, hope and charity.”
He noted that the first “seat” was the Upper Room “and it is likely that a special place was reserved for Simon Peter in that room where Mary, Mother of Jesus, also prayed with the disciples.”