Now that we have reached the two-thousand-year mark since God, in Christ, entered our human condition, there is reason for us to remember how nothing about Christ would have been announced to the world, nor would our Blessed Lord have successfully founded His Church, were it not for a few extremely key people. These key people are the apostles, those chosen men whom our Lord instructed in His message of salvation for humanity and commissioned to form the "assembly of the faithful."
The metaphor we are all familiar with for describing the mystery of the Church, is that of a building. St. Paul speaks of the faithful as "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit" (Eph. 2:19-21).
Christ, as the cornerstone of this living temple, is the one without whom the entire edifice would collapse, each stone in the structure resting on it, no stone being able to stand without it. But intimately connected with the cornerstoneís support of the entire structure is the foundation. For the Church, the apostles have this "ground-level" placement from which the rest of the building rises. Godís construction of this temple begins, then, with Christ, but intimately connected with Him in establishing this "spiritual edifice" are the apostles. In fact so intimate is this association with Christ, that in the Gospels our Lord will speak of the apostles' mission in the world in the same breath as His own: "As the Father has sent me, even so I send you" (Jn. 20: 21). "He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives Him who sent me" (Mt. 10:40). The point here is that the transmission of Christís power and authority to the apostles was a real one. The office of apostle is in fact to continue Christís presence and activity in the Church without any reduction in His power and influence. As the Father speaks and acts through Christ, so Christ speaks and acts through the apostles.
How wonderful are the ways of God who calls men to join Him in this magnificent structure of the Church. Christ could have done everything important for the development of the Church Himself. In forming her, He could have dispensed with human participation in establishing the Church in all but the most insignificant and accidental aspects. Human sin and ignorance certainly provided ample occasion for the Lord to relegate men to responsibilities with little or no consequence. The stories of Peter in the Gospels indicate so well the kind of human weakness Christ had to deal with. Especially after his three-fold denial, one marvels that Jesus continued to work with Peter, let alone entrust him with an office of such great consequence. His choice of Peter and the rest of the apostles as a foundation for the Church is a profound statement of:
He seems to say to us through the apostles, "Let none of your personal and spiritual imperfections, not even serious sins, be the cause of your holding back from joining my work of redeeming the world. Look at the men I used to found my Church. See what I can do when anyone allows me to purge him of sin, and make him a vessel of grace."
Early in His public ministry, the Gospels record for us how Jesus called from the group of His followers twelve men. It was a decision preceded by a night of prayer, a sign of the great event that it was. These men were carefully chosen in conversation with His heavenly Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. So there was a Trinitarian exchange as a background for this choosing of the twelve, an exchange, certainly, that had been taking place in eternity long before this particular moment. Here was its temporal manifestation, as Jesus went off alone to immerse Himself in prayer, an outward sign of the attention God had given this decision from all eternity. With the entire future of the Church, with the well-being of all humanity, with the defeat of Satan, Prince of this World, all at stake, our Lord was not about to hastily and arbitrarily beckon twelve people forward: "You there, you will do, come be my apostle!" This could only be a decision that arose from the depths of the divine plan for the world.
What took place in the next three years was an intense schooling involving both the words and deeds of our Blessed Lord. Mere traveling companions they were not. A body of courtiers who served His needs they were not. They were men set aside from the rest of the disciples to be taught mysteries that in former times had been hidden, but now were to be made clear in Christ. The other disciples who followed Him in often great numbers, were a group that came and went. Some were dedicated, some were not. The apostles, on the other hand, were only rarely out of His presence. He placed them in a setting of direct, lengthy, and deep exposure. They would have His words resounding in their ears throughout the day, His deeds before their eyes from dawn to dusk. Opportunities for divine wisdom and power to settle into their minds and hearts were maximized.
And all this was done for the sake of the rest of us who have and will take our place in the Church throughout the ages. Christ took no chances with these men who would be alone responsible for setting the Church on her centuries-long course of development. They were to be formed and instructed with the utmost care. The importance of the task deserved no less. As we can now witness at the end of this second millennium, through His careful instruction of these chosen twelve, He was preparing the world for his remarkable instrument of the Catholic Church. Remarkable in its boldness, for it has not been afraid to become a part of every time and culture; in its endurance, for as the institutions of the world come and go, it continues on; in its teaching, for amid the worldís passing fashions of thought, it proclaims the same truths it always has. All this began with what we can only say was an astounding three-year period of enlightenment and grace the twelve experienced through our Blessed Lord. Judging from the Church that has emerged from this first apostolic instruction, how can Christís preparation of these men be considered anything but astounding?
But we should also notice how Christ chose to take this enlightenment and grace, given to the entire apostolic group, and focused it on one individual, the one He renamed "Rock." He makes Peter the bedrock that grounds His apostolic foundation. To the stability the apostles will provide for the Church, our Lord adds further stability; to insure that what He intends to remain immovable always remains immovable, He provides another anchor. And again, as with the twelve, this strengthening of Peter arises from Christís immense love for the Church. For the sake of the ChurchĎs enlightenment, Peter is blessed with the knowledge of Christ's divinity: "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven" (Mt. 16:17). For the sake of the stability of the Church, he is made the unassailable rock on which the Church is founded, against which the powers of hell will not prevail (Mt. 16:18). For the sake of the unity of the Church he is elevated to a position of authority over the rest of the apostles and disciples: "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven . . ." (Mt. 16:19). His own failings, which our Blessed Lord certainly foresaw, only permit us to announce more emphatically that Peterís special position in the Church arises from no greatness in Peter himself. In Peter and his office see Christís love for the Church! The depths of this love of Christ for the Church will never be fully appreciated among the Christians of our world until the special gifts given to Peter and the bishops of Rome, who have assumed his office, are not denied, but joyfully acknowledged and proclaimed by all.
In this setting of intense contact with Christ, the apostles were at the very fount of revelation:
The special place they have for the rest of the world as bearers of this divine revelation to humanity has been acknowledged from the very earliest days of the Church. St. Clement, who was the third or fourth successor of St. Peter as bishop of Rome and who himself knew the apostles, writes around the end of the first century:
Thus, God had made them His chosen medium for addressing the world at large. All that God wished to reveal to mankind was made known through Christ; all that Christ meant to teach the world has come to us through the apostles. He instructed them in the sacraments that He would use to pour divine power into the lives of the faithful. At the Last Supper He entrusted them with the greatest and the culmination of all the sacramental rites of His future Church, the Holy Eucharist. He arranged for them to witness the one act through which humanity is cleansed of sin and reconciled to God, His own death and resurrection. After His resurrection He gave them further teaching to proclaim to the world. Throughout their three years with Him the apostles beheld marvel after marvel, mystery after mystery, such that St. John was compelled to acknowledge at the end of his Gospel:
What had in effect happened by Godís design, and despite their own sins and failings, is that the apostles had been turned into vessels of revelation. Our Lord called them to himself as ordinary men, a tax collector, fishermen, tradesmen. He turned them loose on the world as living sources of divine knowledge, men who speak on behalf of God Himself. Christís last words to the eleven apostles who were present at his ascension express the goal to which he had been working throughout the previous three years of intense formation, the moment when he could say to them:
Because of this unique role of the apostles in Christís plan to found his Church, we say that the body of revealed knowledge God has given to mankind ended with the death of the last apostle. From the apostles the Church has received the sacred deposit of the faith (depositum fidei), found in both Sacred Scripture and Tradition.
Christís guidance of the Church through this sacred deposit is indeed a fulfillment of his promise to remain with us always, to the end of the ages. But this is not without a continued apostolic presence through which he cares for His Church as He once attended to her needs through the first apostles themselves. The apostolic nature of the Church is not something that has passed away. It continues to be one of the defining characteristics of the Church, as we profess in the Creed: "We believe in one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church." From their place in heaven, we acknowledge an ongoing care of Christ for the Church through the apostles. In the liturgy of the Mass the priest prays:
Yet, heaven is not the only source of apostolic guidance for the Church. On this earthly plane new generations of apostles have replaced the old. These we understand to be the bishops that the apostles appointed. With a view to continuing the teaching, sanctifying, and governing they had begun, and in order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church, the apostles left bishops as their successors. "They gave them their own position of teaching authority." Indeed, "the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time" (CCC, #77).
The New Testament records a number of instances where we can see how the apostles were beginning to pass on their power and authority to others. St. Luke tells us of the first council of the Church, the Council of Jerusalem, when the apostles entrusted Paul and Barnabas with a message for the Gentile community in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia (Acts, 15:22-29). We are told how the apostles initiated men in the Jerusalem church into their work through a ritual of laying on of hands (Acts 6:2-6). There are signs of how this liturgical practice then began to spread to other communities. This can be witnessed when Paul and Barnabas were sent on their mission to evangelize cities of Asia Minor. Acts of the Apostles relates how the Holy Spirit had spoken to the "prophets and teachers" in Antioch and said, "íSet apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.' Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off" (13:2-3). Later in his ministry, Paul ordains Timothy and Titus in this way as bishops for the churches in Ephesus and Crete. In writing to Timothy he reminds him to "rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands" (2 Tim. 1:6).
Apostolic succession is the theological term we use to describe what was beginning then, and has continued to take place from the apostolic period down to our own, an extension of the power and authority Christ gave to apostles. In this way Christ keeps alive the gifts He gave them for the good of the Church, namely the gifts of teaching, sanctifying, and governing. This is the Church our Lord intended to endure until His Second Coming and to be sustained by the very power and authority granted to the apostles. These same men who, although they have now taken their place with Him in glory, still continue to be through their successors, the bishops, the lasting foundation of the Church.
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