The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 64, No 4, July-Aug 2011

Theology for the Laity

The Marks of the Church, V: APOSTOLIC

By Father Reginald Martin, O.P.

Apostolic: Missionary

       As the Nicene Creed draws to its close we profess our faith in a Church that is "apostolic" (CCC, 857). Our Catechism describes three meanings of this term. First, the Church is the result of the Apostlesí missionary activity. In St. Matthewís gospel account, Jesusí final words to His followers are the command, "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them [and] teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Mt. 28.19).

Apostolic: Faithful

       The second way in which the Church is apostolic is in its fidelity to the message it received from the apostles, a message it continues to hear, cherish, and obey. "Follow the pattern of the good words which you have heard from me," St. Paul commands Timothy, "...guard the truth that has been entrusted to you..." (2 Tim. 1:13-14).

Apostolic : Guided by Tradition

       Finally, the Church is apostolic because it is guided by the bishops, who are the successors of the apostles, chiefly the Bishop of Rome, the Pope.

       A maxim of our faith says that the Church believes as it prays. Thus, if we want to know what the Church teaches on a subject, we may begin our study by investigating our vast deposit of prayers. If we wish to know how todayís Church views itself in relation to its early leaders, we do not have to look far; one of the Prefaces for the Mass celebrated on the feasts of apostles, says,

    You are the eternal Shepherd who never leaves his flock untended. Through the apostles you watch over us and protect us always. You made them shepherds of the flock to share in the work of your Son, and from their place in heaven they guide us still.

Apostles and Disciples

       But what is an apostle? St. Luke tells us, "...when it was day he called his disciples, and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles..." (Lk. 6:13). The word "disciple" comes from the Latin word that means "to learn." The same root gives us the word "discipline." A disciple is someone who submits to the authority of another, and who learns from his teacher. The word "apostle" comes from a Greek word that means "sent." An apostle has learned enough from his teacher to act as the teacherís emissary, so St. Matthew writes, "These twelve Jesus sent out" (Mt. 10:5).

The Apostolic Mission

       As St. Matthew continues, we learn that the apostles are to "heal the sick, raise the dead, cleans lepers, cast out demons." They are also to preach, "The kingdom of heaven it at hand." As the gospel story unfolds, we see that these are the very tasks Jesus undertakes himself, so the apostles are not only sent, they are sent to do the same things Jesus did. "As the Father has sent me, even so I send you" (Jn. 5:19).

       The word "as" is one of the shortest in the English language. However, it is extremely important. It means "in the same way" or "to the same extent," so Jesus sends the apostles to perform the works Jesus Himself performs, and to preach the message Jesus Himself preaches. Moreover, they are to act and preach in precisely the same way Jesus does. In the early Church, when the apostles died, or entrusted ministry to their own disciples, the example of the apostlesí words and works became the all-important norms by which the Christian community governed its activity. Two thousand years after Christ, the example and teaching of the apostles still provides a guarantee of authenticity to Church teaching and practice.

Apostolic Succession: Continuity of Office

       All Catholics are familiar with the term, "Apostolic Succession." We usually understand this as a bishopís claim that his consecration traces itself back to apostolic hands. St. Clement, the fourth bishop of Rome, wrote of the orderliness that characterized appointments to ecclesiastical office in the early Church.

    Christ...was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ...And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first-fruits [of their labors], having first proved them by the Spirit...and afterward gave instruction that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry. (Letter to the Corinthians, 42, 44)

Continuity of Doctrine

       This historical link is important, but equally important is the "apostolic succession" that follows from it. This is the continuity in doctrine that unites present-day Church teaching to the truths expounded by the Churchís earliest teachers, some of whom, at least (e.g., St. Polycarp), had lived and worked with the apostles themselves, and, naturally, learned at their feet.

       Early Christians, no less than their present-day counterparts, found themselves surrounded by a choir of voices, each claiming to possess the truth. Because Scripture can be interpreted - or misinterpreted - in many ways, the most reliable test of a teachingís authenticity was to compare it to the tradition that the local church had received from its apostolic founders. St. Irenaeus (d. 220 A.D.) incorporated both the historical and doctrinal meanings of "apostolic succession" when he wrote

    It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known to us throughout the world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors down to our own times... (Against Heresies)

The Imitation of Christ

       Apostolic Succession is nothing more than the Churchís humbly imitating the humility of her Head, who taught, "...the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever he does, that the Son does likewise" (Jn. 5.19). Jesusí words at the Last Supper, "I am the vine, you are the branches," and the corresponding warning "as a branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me" (Jn. 15.4-5), describe intimacy of the union between Jesus and His apostles.

       Our Catechism observes that this union is "both the mandate for [the apostlesí] mission and the power to carry it out" (CCC, 859). The Churchís union with Christ is meant to be fruitful. The tradition of Apostolic Succession allows us to hear Jesusí words to His apostles and realize that He intends our union with Him, no less than His union with them, to "bear much fruit" (Jn. 15.5).

A Mission for Today

       The Catechism is unequivocal when it states that the apostolic mission of the Church continues in the present day. The whole Church is apostolic because she remains, through the successors of St. Peter and the other apostles, in communion of faith and life with her origin: and that she is "sent out" into the whole world. All members of the Church share in this mission, though in various ways. "The Christian vocation is, of its nature, a vocation to the apostolate as well. Indeed, we call an apostolate "every activity of the Mystical Body" that aims "to spread the Kingdom of Christ over all the earth."" (CCC, 863, and quoting the Vatican document, Apostolicam Actuositatem)

       The Catechismís definition of "apostolate" as "every activity of the Mystical Body" challenges each member of the Church to examine her or his life, and to assume responsibility for extending Christís Kingdom in ways that are appropriate to the individual.

Richness in Diversity
    The very differences which the Lord has willed to put between the members of his body serve its unity and mission. For in the Church there is diversity of ministry but unity of mission. To the apostles and their successors Christ has entrusted the office of teaching, sanctifying, and governing in his name and by his power. But the laity are made to share in the priestly, prophetical, and kingly office of Christ; they have, therefore, in the Church and in the world, their own assignment in the mission to the whole People of God. (CCC, 873, quoting Apostolicam Actuositatem)

The Lay Apostolate

       The special apostolic vocation of the laity is to "illumine and order all temporal things with which they are closely associated that these may always be effected and grow...to the glory of the Creator and Redeemer" (CCC, 898). To lay Catholics falls the immense responsibility of touching the political and economic systems that govern our civil lives, and transforming these systems to reflect the values of Godís Kingdom. Pope Pius XII said, "Lay believers are in the front line of Church life; for them the Church is the animating principle of human society." The Constitution on the Church echoes and amplifies these words when it acknowledges "Their activity in ecclesial communities is so necessary that, for the most part, the apostolate of pastors cannot be fully effective without it" (CCC, 900).

       The lay apostolate exercises itself in many ways, and individuals are called to serve the Church in formal ways as liturgical ministers, catechists, and teachers. Those who have the proper qualifications - and the personal strength - should accept or seek positions in civil government. But each of these activities requires a certain freedom and leisure, which many faithful Catholics simply do not enjoy.

Prayer : The Universal Ministry

       Age, health, family responsibilities, and the demands of modern-day work may all limit the active ministry of the lay apostle. One ministry is always at hand, however, and that is the ministry of prayer. "Pray constantly," St. Paul commands the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 5.17), words we should take to heart, as well. And if we cannot find time for formal prayer, then we may lift up our activity as an offering to God who blesses honest labor. Above all, we must never forget the abiding presence of Christ. In Matthewís account of the gospel, Jesusí last words to His apostles are, "lo, I am with you always" (Mt. 28:20), a promise with the potential to sanctify every moment of our day.

The Example of Mary

       One of the titles by which we honor Mary is "Queen of Apostles," a name that may seem ill-suited to someone not known for her travels or her writings. Mary, however, is the only person in the Scripture present at every significant moment in the life of Jesus and the early Church. She is also the first to preach the Good News of the Incarnation. If the lay apostolate, as the Vatican Council reminds us, is to redeem civil life by preaching the presence of Godís mercy and justice in our midst, then we can find no better example of apostolic ministry.

       Maryís declaration, "My soul magnifies the Lord," is a powerful proclamation that God has taken on the dusty stuff of our mortality to "cast down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly" (Lk 1: 46-55). If we wonder how we, Godís humble creation, can magnify our Creator, we need to recall that magnifying glasses not only make things larger; they are capable of focusing light powerfully enough to ignite a fire. We can find no better example of Christian apostleship than Mary, and we can have no better image of our apostolic vocation than to consider our lives the instruments by which we set the world aflame with the Light of Christís love.


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