The Traditional Catholic Liturgy

Adapted from The Liturgical Year by Abbot Gueranger

Feast of St. Peter's Chains – August 1

Rome, making a god out of the man who had subjugated her, consecrated the month of August to Caesar Augustus. When Christ had delivered her, she placed at the head of this same month, as a trophy of her regained liberty, the Feast of the chains wherewith, in order to break hers, St. Peter the Vicar of Christ had once been bound. O Divine Wisdom, Who hast a better claim to reign over this month than had the adopted son of Caesar, Thou couldst not have more authentically inaugurated Thy Empire. Strength and sweetness are the attributes of Thy works, and it is in the weakness of Thy chosen ones that Thou dost triumph over the powerful. Thou Thyself, in order to give us life, didst swallow death; Simon, son of John, became a captive, to set free the world entrusted to him. First Herod, and then Nero, showed him the cost of the promise he had once received, of binding and loosing on earth as in Heaven: he had to share the love of the Supreme Shepherd, even to allowing himself, like Him, to be bound with chains for the sake of the flock, and be led "where he would not."

St. Peter in Chains Glorious chains! never will you make St. Peter's successors tremble any more than St. Peter himself; before the Herods and Neros and Caesars of all ages you will be the guarantee of the liberty of souls. With what veneration have the Christian people honored you, ever since the earliest times! One may truly say of the present Feast that its origin is lost in the darkness of ages. According to ancient monuments, St. Peter himself first consecrated on this date the basilica on the highest of the seven hills, known today as St. Peter in Chains. The name Title of Eudoxia, by which the venerable Church is often designated, seems to have arisen from certain restorations made on occasion of the events mentioned in the Breviary Lessons. As to the sacred chains which are its treasure, the earliest mention now extant of honor being paid to them occurs in the beginning of the 2nd century. Balbina, daughter of the tribune Quirinus, keeper of the prisons, had been cured by touching the chains of the holy Pope Alexander; she could not cease kissing the hands which had healed her. "Find the chains of St. Peter, and kiss them rather than these," said the Pontiff. Balbina, therefore, having fortunately found the Apostle's chains, lavished her pious veneration upon them, and afterwards gave them to the noble Theodora, sister of the Martyr, St. Hermes (Feast—August 28).

The irons which had bound the arms of the Doctor of the Gentiles, without being able to bind the word of God, were also after his martyrdom treasured more than jewels and gold. From Antioch in Syria, St. John Chrysostom, thinking with holy envy of the lands enriched by these trophies of triumphant bondage, cried out in a sublime transport: "What more magnificent than these chains? Prisoner for Christ is a more beautiful name than that of Apostle, Evangelist, or Doctor. To be bound for Christ's sake is better than to dwell in the heavens; to sit upon the twelve thrones is not so great an honor. He that loves can understand me; but who can better understand these things than the holy choir of Apostles? As for me, if I were offered my choice between these chains and the whole of Heaven, I should not hesitate; for in them is happiness. Would that I were now in those places, where it is said the chains of these admirable men are still kept! If it were given me to be set free from the care of this church, and if I had a little health, I should not hesitate to undertake such a voyage only to see St. Paul's chains. If they said to me: which would you prefer—to be the angel who delivered St. Peter or St. Peter himself in chains? I would rather be St. Peter, because of his chains."

Though always venerated in the great Basilica which enshrines his tomb, St. Paul's chain has never been made, like those of St. Peter, the object of a special Feast in the Church. This distinction was made due to the preeminence of him who alone received the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven to communicate them to others, and who alone continues, in his successors, to bind and loose with sovereign power throughout the whole world. The collection of letters of St. Gregory the Great proves how universally, in the 6th century, was spread the devotion to these holy chains, a few filings of which enclosed in gold or silver keys was the richest present the Sovereign Pontiffs were wont to offer to the principal churches, or to princes whom they wished to honor. Constantinople, at some period not clearly determined, received a portion of these precious chains; she appointed a Feast on January 16, honoring on that day the Apostle Peter, as the occupant of the first See, the foundation of the faith, the immovable basis of dogma.

The following are the lessons of the Feast in the Roman Breviary:

During the reign of Theodosius the younger, Eudocia, his wife, went to Jerusalem to fulfill a vow, and while there she was honored with many gifts, the greatest of which was an iron chain adorned with gold and precious stones, and affirmed to be that wherewith the Apostle Peter had been bound by Herod. Eudocia piously venerated this chain, and then sent it to Rome to her daughter Eudoxia. The latter took it to the Sovereign Pontiff, who in his turn showed her another chain, which had bound the same Apostle, under Nero.

When the Pontiff thus brought together the Roman chain and that which had come from Jerusalem, they joined together in such a manner that they seemed no longer two chains, but a single one, made by one same workman. On account of this miracle the holy chains began to be held in so great honor that a church at the title of Eudoxia on the Esquiline was dedicated under the name of Saint Peter ad Vincula, and the memory of its dedication was celebrated by a Feast on the Kalends of August.

St. Peter's Chains From that time Saint Peter's chains began to receive the honors of this day, instead of a pagan festival which it had been customary to celebrate. Contact with them healed the sick, and put the demons to flight. Thus in the year of salvation 969, a certain count, who was very intimate with the Emperor Otto, was taken possession of by an unclean spirit, so that he tore his flesh with his own teeth. By command of the Emperor he was taken to the Pontiff John, who had no sooner touched the count's neck with the holy chain than the wicked spirit was driven away, leaving the man entirely free. On this account devotion to the holy chains was spread throughout Rome.

Put thy feet into the fetters of Wisdom, and thy neck into her chains, said the Holy Ghost under the ancient alliance… and be not grieved with her bands… For in the latter end thou shalt find rest in her, and she shall be turned to thy joy. Then shall her fetters be a strong defence for thee… and her bands are a healthful binding. Thou shalt put her on as a robe of glory (Eccli. 6:25-32). Incarnate Wisdom, applying the prophecy to the Prince of the Apostles, declared that in testimony of his love, the day would come when he should suffer constraint and bondage. The trial of St. Peter was a convincing one for eternal Wisdom, who proportions her requirements to the measure of her own love. But St. Peter, too, found her faithful; in the days of the formidable combat, wherein she wished to show her power in his weakness, she did not leave him in bands; in her arms he slept so calm a sleep in Herod's prison; and, going down with him into the pit of Nero, she faithfully kept him company up to the hour when, subjecting the persecutors to the persecuted, she placed the scepter in his hands, and on his brow the triple crown.

From the throne where thou, St. Peter, reignest with the Man-God in Heaven, as thou didst follow Him on earth in trials and anguish, loosen our bands, which—alas—are not glorious ones such as thine; break these fetters of sin which bind us to Satan, these ties of all the passions which prevent us from soaring towards God. The world, more than ever enslaved in the infatuation of its false liberties which make it forget the only true freedom, demands more "rights" now than in the times of pagan Caesars: be once more its deliverer, now that thou art more powerful than ever. May Rome, especially, now fallen the lower because precipitated from a greater height, learn again the emancipating power which lies in thy chains; they had become a rallying standard for her faithful children not long ago (Archconfraternity of St. Peter's Chains, erected June 18, 1867). Make good the word once uttered by her poets, that "encircled with these chains, she will ever be free" (Arator. De Act. Apost., L. 1, v. 1070-1076).

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