What’s the difference between a bishop’s chair and a throne, and which one is in our Saint Francis de Sales Church sanctuary?
Theologically, every active Catholic diocese or archdiocese has only one Diocesan Bishop, one cathedral, and one cathedra or throne. According to Denis McNamara, Associate Director at the Liturgical Institute of the University of Saint Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary – and expert on ecclesiastical furniture — “the cathedra is really a theological concept (seat of authority for a diocese) that gets externalized (cathedra).” Like the throne of a monarch, it’s a physical object that represents an idea. The cathedral is the church that houses the cathedra.
Our chair is not the Philadelphia archdiocesan cathedra. So what is it?
At consecration, each new bishop is appointed to his own unique diocese. All three of our long-ago bishops (Bishop Crane, Bishop Lamb, Bishop McShea) were titular bishops, which means each received the title to an inactive ancient diocese without associated duties, territory, cathedral, or throne. He could then assist in the Philadelphia Archdiocese but was not, by technicality, a local bishop.
But all bishops — even those holding title to obsolete districts — still need to sit down from time to time! McNamara remarks that “you often see chairs with a bishop’s coats of arms on them…in his office or home… (they were very fond of doing this in the 1920s). But that did not replace the one cathedra in the diocese.” He further notes that “Cardinal Mundelein’s dining room chair here on campus has his coat of arms on it. And it’s just where he ate dinner!”
Our mystery chair bears the insignia of Bishop Crane, our second pastor, who became Titular Bishop of Curium (ancient Cyprus) in 1921. Its crosses and scrollwork match the ornamentation of our church, and a scallop-shell design on the front, just below the seat cushion, resembles decorations in the original parish Baptistry (today’s Adoration Chapel). This decoration suggests a possible purpose, recalling that ancient European baptistries were sometimes furnished with a special chair to be used by a bishop administering the sacrament of Confirmation.
Our church is just one of several bishop-associated churches in Philadelphia. Before coming to Saint Francis de Sales in 1903, our Reverend Crane was assistant priest to Bishop Prendergast at St. Malachy. Bishop McCormick became Bishop while at St. Stephen’s in 1947 – our then pastor Bishop Lamb attended the consecration. Bishop Gerald McDevitt served at St. Alice in Upper Darby from 1962, and subsequent bishops have found their homes at various suburban churches.
Historical context: it makes a difference!