President's Day... Pope's Day
Of course, the observance commemorates the 22 February 1732 birth of the "Father of the Country," George Washington. While Washington's birthday has been marked as a national holiday since at least 1796 -- the final year of his presidency -- subsequent years saw Abraham Lincoln's 12 February birthday added to the calendar as a separate civil observance. In the late 1960s, the Lincoln holiday was suppressed, but Washington's anniversary widely became dubbed "President's Day" in the years since.
In keeping with the house custom on the great feasts of state, it wouldn't be President's Day 'round here if we didn't revisit the famous "Prayer for the Nation" written and first delivered in 1791 by the father of American Catholicism -- the nation's first bishop, John Carroll of Baltimore:
We pray, Thee O Almighty and Eternal God! Who through Jesus Christ hast revealed Thy glory to all nations, to preserve the works of Thy mercy, that Thy Church, being spread through the whole world, may continue with unchanging faith in the confession of Thy Name.In 1790, Washington addressed a letter to American Catholics expressing his supportive hope "that your fellow-citizens will not forget the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of their Revolution, and the establishment of your Government, or the important assistance which they received from a nation [i.e. France] in which the Roman Catholic faith is professed."
We pray Thee, who alone art good and holy, to endow with heavenly knowledge, sincere zeal, and sanctity of life, our chief bishop, Pope N., the Vicar of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the government of his Church; our own bishop, N., all other bishops, prelates, and pastors of the Church; and especially those who are appointed to exercise amongst us the functions of the holy ministry, and conduct Thy people into the ways of salvation.
We pray Thee O God of might, wisdom, and justice! Through whom authority is rightly administered, laws are enacted, and judgment decreed, assist with Thy Holy Spirit of counsel and fortitude the President of these United States, that his administration may be conducted in righteousness, and be eminently useful to Thy people over whom he presides; by encouraging due respect for virtue and religion; by a faithful execution of the laws in justice and mercy; and by restraining vice and immorality. Let the light of Thy divine wisdom direct the deliberations of Congress, and shine forth in all the proceedings and laws framed for our rule and government, so that they may tend to the preservation of peace, the promotion of national happiness, the increase of industry, sobriety, and useful knowledge; and may perpetuate to us the blessing of equal liberty.
We pray for his excellency, the governor of this state , for the members of the assembly, for all judges, magistrates, and other officers who are appointed to guard our political welfare, that they may be enabled, by Thy powerful protection, to discharge the duties of their respective stations with honesty and ability.
We recommend likewise, to Thy unbounded mercy, all our brethren and fellow citizens throughout the United States, that they may be blessed in the knowledge and sanctified in the observance of Thy most holy law; that they may be preserved in union, and in that peace which the world cannot give; and after enjoying the blessings of this life, be admitted to those which are eternal.
Finally, we pray to Thee, O Lord of mercy, to remember the souls of Thy servants departed who are gone before us with the sign of faith and repose in the sleep of peace; the souls of our parents, relatives, and friends; of those who, when living, were members of this congregation, and particularly of such as are lately deceased; of all benefactors who, by their donations or legacies to this Church, witnessed their zeal for the decency of divine worship and proved their claim to our grateful and charitable remembrance.
To these, O Lord, and to all that rest in Christ, grant, we beseech Thee, a place of refreshment, light, and everlasting peace, through the same Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior. Amen.
Aided by the contribution of the early church on these shores -- a community that then numbered some 25,000 souls (served by 22 priests) scattered across the 13 new states -- the first Commander-in-Chief said that, "America, under the smiles of a Divine Providence, the protection of a good government, and the cultivation of manners, morals, and piety, cannot fail of attaining an uncommon degree of eminence, in literature, commerce, agriculture, improvements at home and respectability abroad."
The founding father added his prayer that "the members of your Society in America, animated alone by the pure spirit of Christianity, and still conducting themselves as the faithful subjects of our free government, enjoy every temporal and spiritual felicity."
Yet in our own time, reflecting the reality that leadership in every age has its glaring moral deficiencies, this year's civic feast marks the first President's Day that the site of Washington's official residence in the nation's pre-DC capital is open as a memorial to the slaves he kept there.
When he died in 1799, the first President had over 300 slaves at his Mount Vernon home, making provision for their freedom only after his wife's death.
Every 22 February sees the ecclesial equivalent of President's Day: the ancient feast of the Chair of Peter, symbolizing the universal jurisdiction of the Pope of Rome.
Of course, this year's "Pope's Day" has a particular resonance given the impending beatification of the second-longest reigning pontiff in church history. And on the feast's first observance following his election as the Chair's 265th occupant, Benedict XVI devoted his General Audience catechesis of 22 February 2006 to explaining the celebration's history and meaning.
Below is a full translation, taken from the house archives.
Dear Brothers and Sisters!-30-
The Latin liturgy celebrates today the feast of the Chair of St. Peter. It comes from a very ancient tradition, chronicled at Rome from the end of the 4th century, which renders thanks to God for the mission entrusted to the Apostle Peter and to his successors. The "cathedra," literally, is the fixed seat of the Bishop, found in the mother church in a diocese, which for this reason is called "cathedral," and is the symbol of the authority of the Bishop and, in particular, of his "magisterium," the evangelical teaching which he, as a successor of the Apostles, is called to maintain and pass on to the Christian community. When the Bishop takes possession of the particular Church entrusted to him, he, wearing the mitre and carrying the pastoral staff, is seated in the cathedra. From that seat he will guide, as teacher and pastor, the path of the faithful in faith, in hope and in love.
What was, then, the "cathedra" of St. Peter? Chosen by Christ as the "rock" on which the Church was built, he began his ministry in Jerusalem, after the Ascension of the Lord and Pentecost. The first "see" of the Church was the Cenacle, and it's likely that in that room, where also Mary, the mother of Jesus, prayed together with the disciples, a special place was reserved for Simon Peter. Successively, the see of Peter became Antioch, a city situated on the Oronte River, in Syria, today in Turkey, in that time the third metropolis of the Roman empire after Rome and Alexandria in Egypt. From that city, evangalized by Barnabas and Paul, where "for the first time the disciples were called Christians" (Acts 11:26), where the name Christian was born for us, Peter was the first bishop, so that the Roman Martyrology, before the reform of the calendar, also provided for a specific celebration of the Chair of Peter at Antioch. From there, Providence brought Peter to Rome. Therefore we have the road from Jerusalem, the newborn Church, to Antioch, the first center of the Church recounted by the Pagans and still united with the Church which proceeded from the Jews. Then Peter came to Rome, center of the Empire, symbol of the "Orbis" -- the "Urbs" [city] which expresses the "Orbis" [world] of the earth -- where he concluded with his martyrdom his course in the service of the Gospel. For this, the see of Rome, which received the greatest honor, is also accorded the honors entrusted by Christ to Peter to be at the service of all the particular Churches for the building up and the unity of the entire People of God.
The see of Rome, after this movement of St. Peter, became recognized as that of the successor of Peter, and the "cathedra" of its bishop represented that of the Apostle charged by Christ to feed his flock. This is attested to by the most ancient Fathers of the Church, for example St. Iraneus, bishop of Lyon, but living in Asia Minor, who in his treatise Against heresies described the Church of Rome as "the greatest and most ancient, known of all;... founded and built at Rome by the two most glorious apostles Peter and Paul"; and then: "With this Church, for its outstanding superiority, must be accorded to it the Church universal, the faithful in every place" (III, 3, 2-3). Tertullian, a little later, for his part, affirms: "How blessed is this Church of Rome! For it the apostles poured out, with their blood, the whole of doctrine." The chair of the Bishop of Rome represents, therefore, not only its service to the Roman community, but its mission of watching over the entire People of God.
To celebrate the "Cathedra" of Peter, as we do today, means, then, to attribute to it a strong spiritual significance and to recognize it as a privileged sign of the love of God, the good and eternal Shepherd, who wishes to gather the entire Church and guide it along the way of salvation. Among the many testimonies of the Fathers, I'd like to report that of St. Jerome, who wrote in a letter of his to the Bishop of Rome, is particularly interesting because it makes an explicit reference to the "chair" of Peter, presented it as the sure grounding of truth and of peace. As Jerome wrote: "I decided to consult the chair of Peter, where is found that faith which the mouth of an Apostle exalted; I come then to ask nourishment for my soul, where once was received the garment of Christ. I don't follow a primate other than Christ; for this reason, I place myself in communion with your blessedness, that is, with the chair of Peter. I know that on this rock is built the Church" (Letters I, 15, 1-2).
Dear Brothers and Sisters, in the apse of St. Peter's Basilica, as you know, can be found the monument to the Chair of the Apostle, Bernini's eldest work, realized in the form of a great bronze throne, held up by statues of four Doctors of the Church, two of the west, St. Augustine and St. Ambrose, two of the east, St. John Chrysostom and St. Athanasius. I invite you to stand in front of this suggested work, which today is probably decorated admirably by many candles, and pray in a particular way for the ministry which God has entrusted to me. Raising our gaze to the alabaster window which opens over the Chair, invoking the Holy Spirit, may he always sustain with his light and strength my daily service to all the Church. [Applause] For this, and for your devoted attention, I thank you from my heart.