When you tour St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Green Bay, you’ll notice a special chair in the sanctuary. Not just any chair, but the chair — to the left of the altar — with the carved coat of arms above it and two smaller seats on either side.
This is the bishop’s cathedra — his chair of authority and teaching. The coat of arms belongs to the current bishop — David L. Ricken — who has served the Diocese of Green Bay since 2008. The coat of arms combines the bishop’s personal coat of arms with that of the Diocese of Green Bay. This coat of arms was carved in Oberammergau in Bavaria, Germany.
The cathedra is an important chair. So important, in fact that it is why the church it sits in is called a “cathedral.”
“Cathedra” comes from the Greek word “kathedra” meaning a seat or bench, and is most often translated as “a professor’s chair.”
A bishop is a teacher, as well as a leader. The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, “To the apostles and their successors, Christ has entrusted the office of teaching, sanctifying and governing in his name and by his power” (n. 873).
Many times, in the Gospels, Jesus sits down to teach — at the Sermon of the Mount in Matthew (chapters 5 to 7), or the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6:17-49, or when Mary of Bethany sits at his feet (Lk 10:38-42). Jesus even spoke of sitting and teaching when he referred to the scribes and Pharisees deriving authority from “their seat upon the chair of Moses” (Mt 23:2).
Jewish sources note that “sitting in the chair of Moses” was a metaphor for having authority under Mosaic Law. According to the Perkei Avot (the Jewish “teachings of the fathers”), a rabbi named Jose ben Joezer, who lived not long after the Apostles, noted that people should learn from the rabbis by sitting in “the dust of their feet.”
In the same way, we are called to learn from bishops. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI spoke of the cathedra in a 2006 general audience: “‘cathedra’ literally means the established seat of the bishop, … 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.”
A bishop has three important roles: he is chief teacher, he governs and he sanctifies. The cathedra reminds us of these roles, as do the pectoral cross, the mitre, his ring and the crosier he holds.
A new bishop is not fully installed in a diocese until he sits in the cathedra. And, when the pope — the chief bishop — makes an infallible statement (which is very rare), he does it ex cathedra or “from the chair.”
To speak ex cathedra holds ultimate authority and means that this particular teaching is now a dogma of the church. The ex cathedra doctrine officially dates to the First Vatican Council (in 1870), though the authority behind it is ancient. Since 1870, this ex cathedra authority — also called “papal infallibility” — has been used only once: when Pope Pius XII (in 1950) declared Mary’s bodily Assumption as an infallible teaching.
The cathedra in St. Francis Xavier Cathedral is not the first one to be used in this diocese. According to Carol Joppe, researcher at the Green Bay Diocesan Museum, it is the seventh.
- The first cathedra — upholstered in red velvet — is in the diocesan museum. It was probably used in St. Mary of the Annunciation pro-cathedral, the church used before the present cathedral was built and dedicated in 1881. Newspaper accounts from that dedication note that the “bishop’s throne” was “overhung with a canopy of purple.” That cathedra was likely also used by the first four bishops of Green Bay: Joseph Melcher, Francis Xavier Krautbauer, Frederick Kratzer and Sebastian Messmer.
- Bishop Joseph Fox was the fifth bishop of Green Bay. The carvings on his cathedra — which may also have been used by one or more of his predecessors — include the keys of St. Peter.
- The cathedra of Bishop Paul Peter Rhode was the most ornate of the Green Bay cathedrae and paid for with his own money. It was part of a major renovation of the cathedral in 1935 and cost $3,000. It was made of three tons of golden marble, with a dais of green marble from the Alps. It was upholstered in red and draped with silk that was embroidered with emblems of a bishop, such as a mitre and the bishop’s coat of arms. This cathedra — designed after the Holy Roman Emperor’s Charlemagne’s throne — was used by Bishop Rhode and his successor, Bishop Stanislaus Bona, until 1968.
- In 1968, Bishop Aloysius Wycislo was installed and seated on this marble cathedra.
- In the 1970s, a new cathedra — that looked much like a faldstool (a bishop’s portable folding chair) — took the place of the marble throne.
- A few years later, a chair dating to the early 1900s was found in the rectory attic. As a gift for Bishop Wycislo, cathedral members refurbished that chair, adding a new seat and arms. Its carved splat is adorned with papal symbols.
- Bishop (now Cardinal) Adam Maida and Bishop Robert Banks used this white-painted cathedra, as did Bishop David Zubik when he arrived here in 2003.
- In 2006, he had the cathedral refurbished and the 1970s cathedra — also refinished and now in the diocesan museum — was replaced with a larger chair. This reupholstered chair came from nearby St. John the Evangelist Church and dates to the time of Bishop Fox (who died in 1914). However, before Bishop Zubik’s time, this chair had not been used as a cathedra. (It has since been returned to St. John’s.)
- The present cathedra was selected by Bishop Ricken and is located where the first cathedra sat when the cathedral was dedicated in 1881. (Cathedrae have been placed in various spots in the sanctuary over the years.) Its side seats are used by deacons during a Mass celebrated by the bishop.
Whatever the cathedra looks like, it visibly reminds us of a bishop’s role, stated by the bishops of Vatican II, as “teachers of doctrine, ministers of sacred worship and holders of office in government” (Lumen Gentium, 20).
Carol Joppe contributed to this story.
Sources: The Catholic Encyclopedia; the Green Bay Diocesan Museum; Catechism of the Catholic Church; w2vatican.va; Jimmy Akin’s blog at ncronline.org; Etymology Online; Encyclopedia Britannica; and bible-history.com