Thursday, May 15, 2014

Apostolic Succession: Thoughts on the Feast of St. Matthias, 14 May

Yesterday was the Feast of St. Matthias, the one chosen in Acts 1:15-26 to take the place of Judas among the Twelve.  I preached on how this demonstrates Apostolic Succession, and what that means for our faith today.  This is an extended version of what I preached about, more in the form of reflections than the homily was.

Here's the text, according to the Douay-Rheims version:

In those days Peter rising up in the midst of the brethren, said (now the number of persons together was about an hundred and twenty): Men, brethren, the scripture must needs be fulfilled, which the Holy Ghost spoke before by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who was the leader of them that apprehended Jesus: Who was numbered with us, and had obtained part of this ministry...  For it is written in the book of Psalms: Let their habitation become desolate, and let there be none to dwell therein [Ps 69 (68):26]. And his bishopric [Vulg "episcopatum;" LXX "επισκοπήν, episcopen"] let another take [Ps 109 (108):8]. Wherefore of these men who have companied with us, all the time that the Lord Jesus came in and went out among us, Beginning from the baptism of John, until the day wherein he was taken up from us, one of these must be made a witness with us of his resurrection. And they appointed two, Joseph, called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. And praying, they said: Thou, Lord, who knowest the heart of all men, shew whether of these two thou hast chosen, To take the place of this ministry and apostleship, from which Judas hath by transgression fallen, that he might go to his own place. And they gave them lot, and the lot fell upon Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.

This passage clearly shows us the criteria in the minds of the earliest disciples, including the Apostles, even before Pentecost, of what would come to be called "apostolic succession."  I've highlighted the key passages:
  • Peter rising up... - It's Peter's role as the leader of the Twelve to take this action.  Right from the beginning, Peter has a distinctive leadership among the Apostles, rooted in the events of Mt 16:18-19 ("You are Peter, and on this rock...") and Jn 21:15-17 ("Do you love me? Feed my sheep." (thrice)).  The first several chapters of Acts bear this out.  When Peter eventually becomes Bishop of Rome, this headship will be exercised by his successors, Linus, Cletus, Clement (e.g., in his Letter to the Corinthians), etc., and become the basis of papal authority over the whole Church.
  • ...the scripture must needs be fulfilled... - The action described here is explicitly understood to be divinely inspired, both in the action of the Holy Spirit among the community prompting Peter's leadership, the community's responses, and the eventual choice of Matthias - note, again, this is before Pentecost! - and in the Scriptural foundation now revealed to be a prophetic preparation for this moment.  God is in charge, and therefore the whole doctrine of apostolic succession is "of God."
  • And his bishopric let another take... - The divine shape of the office of bishop is, in is essence, also rooted in Scripture and in the use Christ and (here) the Holy Spirit make of it.  Peter uses Ps 109 to call the position held by Judas and now to be given to another the "episcopate."  In the Greek and in the Latin, the connotation is not generic, such as "manager" for us today is generic, but something with more specific, even if still flexible, outlines, function, and purpose.  
  • of these must be made a witness... - part of the essence of the office being given is that of witness, of one who can proclaim the Good News and the Kingdom as an eyewitness and credible testifier.  
  • ...a witness with us... - the unity of the Twelve in this mission, among themselves and together with Peter their leader, is paramount.  This is still true today; see e.g., Lumen Gentium 18: "This Sacred Council, following closely in the footsteps of the First Vatican Council, with that Council teaches and declares that Jesus Christ, the eternal Shepherd, established His holy Church, having sent forth the apostles as He Himself had been sent by the Father; and He willed that their successors, namely the bishops, should be shepherds in His Church even to the consummation of the world. And in order that the episcopate itself might be one and undivided, He placed Blessed Peter over the other apostles..." etc.
  • ...a witness with us of his resurrection. - The bedrock of the Gospel is the Resurrection of Christ from the dead.  It's not just that Jesus worked miracles, or taught a moral law, or challenged corrupt or lax religious authority, but most especially that He died and rose for us, that makes Christianity what it is.  One cannot proclaim or follow Christ without proclaiming and following the (hope of) the Resurrection.  Knowing and following the Lord Jesus must make this kind of difference in one's life.  
  • ...take the place of this ministry and apostleship... - Again, Peter and the Apostles are giving this task of proclaiming a specific authority and shape with this sort of terminology.  Their role in the Church is different from that of other disciples, even if they are still disciples first, as Ignatius of Antioch would say (Letter to the Romans, 4).  "Ministry," in particular, although it can often be a more generic word, takes on a specific, non-generic connotation in relation to the Resurrection of Christ, and the proclamation of that Good News by the Church (see e.g. Paul's usage in Rom 15:16: "That I should be the minister of Christ Jesus among the Gentiles: sanctifying the gospel of God, that the oblation of the Gentiles may be made acceptable and sanctified in the Holy Ghost.")  Here, Gospel proclamation and Eucharistic sacrifice are explicitly linked in "the ministry of Christ."
  • ...he was numbered with the eleven apostles. - In other words, Matthias held an equal position with the other Apostles, under the leadership of Peter, even though he was given this position by them, and not, as they originally were or as Paul would be, by Christ Himself.  The fullness of Christ gifts to the Apostles are still held by Matthias - and by extension, by all those chosen by the Apostles and by their successors.
What all of this shows is the critical importance of the doctrine of apostolic succession for the Catholic faith.  Jesus Christ gave specific teachings, spiritual gifts and powers, and a share in His own authority to the Twelve.  They in turned passed the same "inheritance" on, intact and unchanged, to Matthias and others (e.g. Timothy, etc.).  They in turn used the gifts for the same purpose (i.e. "ministry," namely, proclamation of the Good News, leadership of the Church in unity under Peter and his eventual successors, and the sacraments (e.g., baptism, Acts 2:38; Confirmation, Acts 8:14-17; Eucharist, Acts 2:46, I Cor 11:20; anointing, Jas 5:14-15; ordaining by laying on of hands, Acts 6:6, I Tim 5:22; witnessing marriages "in the Lord," I Cor 7:39; forgiving sins (but private auricular confession becomes normal for the use of this power only later), Acts 3:19, 26; 4:4...).

Therefore, we must recognize the fact that the Church exists from its beginning in Christ, in its fullness!  (See CCC 771ff.)  Christ gives everything necessary to the Church, in the beginning, completely.  Now, granted, there is the historical work of "unpacking" the fullness of this gift, doctrinally, sacramentally and liturgically, and in evangelization of the whole world, and indeed that unpacking continues even today.  But it is the unfolding of what has already been given, not the creation or invention of new divine gifts and revelations.

It's precisely this apostolic succession that ensures that we're dealing with the same divine deposit of faith, and not inventing new things for ourselves.  This is the essential argument of Irenaeus against Gnosticism, for example, and it has been deployed many times.  If the Eucharist does not come from the hands of Christ Himself at the Last Supper, then the Church invented it, and it is not essential or divinely intended.  If Holy Orders do not come from the hands and will of Christ Himself, through the Apostles (choosing Matthias, choosing the Seven in Acts 6, Paul choosing Timothy, etc), then the Church invented these roles and rules, and they are not essential or divinely intended.  And so forth.  This is exactly what we mean when we say in the Creed that we believe the Church to be "apostolic" as one of its defining realities.

This doctrine is part of the faith we receive in baptism, but it is not, in the strict sense, a "mystery."  It is not impenetrable, nor does it exceed reason to consider in what way, precisely, as recorded in the New Testament and as lived out in the history of the Church, the concrete and tangible gifts of ministry were given by Christ to the Apostles, and were used by them in the first three decades of the Church, and were handed on intact by them to their successors, to be used still further for the building up of the Church, and so on.  It is entirely rational and historical to grasp this part of the faith, and to apply it to the realities of the seven Sacraments, the Church's worship in general, the moral life, and the life of charity.  The great apologists of the second century - e.g., Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria - did exactly that in defending apostolicity against both Roman (pagan) syncretism and Gnostic mythologization, and others since have imitated them.

But contrast this understanding of faith against the most common assumption or model of the modern world, namely, "evolution."  Modern thought implicitly assumes that everything follows the pattern of evolution gleaned from biology - of more primitive things becoming more complex over time, following certain common patterns and driven not by clear purpose or teleology, but by "survival" or "fitness" in a specific context, or by mere self-perpetuation in some form.  Nearly every example of adaptation or change over time is squeezed in this evolutionary model, regardless of whether that actually helps understanding or not.

Darwin might look like a prophet, but he's a poor theologian.
In terms of Church history, the imposition of the evolutionary model since the 19th century has led to many "non-traditional" arguments and conclusions, some of which are extremely damaging to the faith.  For a lesser example, arguments that Mark's Gospel is earlier than Matthew's essentially boil down to the claim that it must be earlier because it's shorter (= the more primitive form). (There's a bit more to the argument than that, especially that so much of Mark is in Matthew, but not as much in reverse.  Still, some good arguments for Matthew's being earlier are not given as much attention, because they don't fit the model.)  There are many other, more serious ways in which the imposition of the evolutionary model distorts our understanding of faith.  Most insidious is the idea that opposes "the Jesus of history" (primitive form) against "the Christ of faith" (later complex form), and ends with denying the divinity of Jesus itself!

In terms of the doctrine of apostolic succession, especially, the evolutionary model is completely the wrong one to use.  Still, it is all too common to assume that more primitive forms of ministry must have preceded later forms, such that, in the first decades of the Church, it's not really possible to talk of "bishops," of Peter as "Pope," of the "sacraments" (apart from baptism, and the "breaking of bread," which is not yet the "Eucharist"), of a coherent body of doctrine (apart from a few elements labelled "the primitive kerygma"), etc.  The dissimilarities between the earliest Church and the "post-Apostolic" Church are just too great, it is argued, to use these later terms and institutions to describe what's going on in the "primitive form" of the earliest Church.  If these fit even in the earliest Church, then they're not really primitive forms - but, it's just impossible (it is assumed) to explain how fully developed forms of things can exist without more primitive predecessors.

But the problem with this conclusion is precisely that it is not consonant with faith in Christ, as noted above.  If Christ did not will and give the essential aspects of these things to the Apostles, then they are not constitutive of the Church!  If they are not willed and given by Christ to the Apostles, then there is no divine power behind them.  Baptism doesn't really wash away sins, it's just a symbol.  Priestly ordination doesn't really give a man a sacred power to change bread and wine into Christ's own Body and Blood, it's just a symbol of leadership, possibly even a corrupt and politicized one.  The faith which is proclaimed doesn't have to be the same one that was proclaimed by earlier generations of Christians; it can even contradict what was previously believed.  Even Scripture itself is undermined, since divine authorship is incompatible with the evolutionary model, and the Canon of the New Testament is therefore a political side-effect of Church history, and thus also one which a new politics could redefine.  In the end, imposing an evolutionary model on the Church destroys apostolic succession and many other central doctrines, and makes us all into feckless false believers in empty, meaningless symbols.

I ended my homily with an exhortation to ask the intercession of St. Matthias and the other Apostles to increase our faith and strengthen our witness.  If we don't believe in a robust doctrine of the Church and her dependance on Christ and the Apostles, if we don't accept that there is a true and unchanging apostolic deposit of faith which we must believe, live, and transmit to others unchanged, then in the end, we don't really believe in Christ as "the one Mediator between God and men."  God save us from such a puny and selfish thing!
"Christ taking leave of the Apostles," Duccio di Buoninsegna ca. 1311, in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena

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