The Church’s First Decision
The Church’s first decision (of consequence, anyway) concerned the first successor to the Apostles. That would be the choice of today’s saint, St. Matthias, whom the Apostles designated to take the vacant place of Judas among the twelve. How the Apostles came to their decision gives us an enlightening look at the first days of the Church.
It’s interesting, by the way, that our scriptural sources actually tell us very little about St. Mathias himself. The only place his name appears is in the passage in the Acts of the Apostles that describes his election:
In those days Peter stood up among the brethren (the company of persons was in all about a hundred and twenty), and said, “Brethren, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David, concerning Judas who was guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us, and was allotted his share in this ministry . . . For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘Let his habitation become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it’; and ‘His office let another take.’ So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us–one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.”
And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed and said, “Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men, show which one of these two thou hast chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside, to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was enrolled with the eleven apostles. (Acts 1:15-26)
The Holy Spirit Guides
Notice that we have very little personal information about St. Mathias himself. Aside from the fact of his election, all we know is that he had follwed Jesus since the beginning of his ministry. That’s all. Now, as an Apostle Mathias was ipso facto an important person. And yes, there are various traditions identifying him with other names that come up in the New Testament, and about his ministry and martyrdom. The passage above, however, is the only canonical information we have. Which is to say that whatever importance he had in his own time, his significance for us lies in the very fact and manner of his selection.
So, what do we see in this passage? We see Peter taking the initiative: he presides and authoritatively interprets Scripture. Everyone understands that the Apostles hold an office that someone must fill when another relinquishes it. They all acknowledge that the Holy Spirit guides their choice. We also have concrete confirmation that Jesus’ mission didn’t pass from the world when he ascended into Heaven. Now his followers wo
uld carry it forward in his place.
The Early Church is Catholic
This passage and others like it were very important to me at the time of my reversion to the Church after my exile among the secular humanists. One of the first things I did following my own initial conversion experience was to read through the New Testament. I could see that the Church in this passage not just the Early Church. This was the Catholic Church with Pope and Bishops already in place just a few days after the Ascension.
Not only that, it’s clear that they were already exercising magisterial authority, with the help of the Third Person of the Trinity. And this is before the full outpouring of the Holy Spirit a few days later at Pentacost. It confirmed for me that if I wanted to set aside my disordered life and follow Jesus, I also needed to submit to the authority of the Church that He had established from the beginning.
That’s not to say that we owe unthinking obedience to all pronouncements from persons holding positions of authority in the Church. I discuss this topic at length in “What Do We Do When Our Priest Is A Communist?” Part I & Part II). Let’s remember that the passage from the Acts of the Apostles above tells us chiefly about the need to fill a vacant office. It doesn’t much concern itself about the personal qualities of the new Apostle Mathias. The holders of office come and go, but the office itself remains. Furthermore, it retains the authority it has received from none other than Jesus Christ himself.
“As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” (John 20:21)
“The Great Commission” by Szymon Czechowicz, 1758
The Great Commission
That is in fact one of the salient themes of the Feast of the Ascension as well. Jesus is withdrawing his direct, human presence so that his followers can take over the leadership of his mission. It is clear that the authority they are to exercise is his, not their own. They are acting under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. For instance, in John’s Gospel we read:
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:21-23)
and also in Matthew’s Gospel:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
So, yes, today’s feast honors one of the first Apostles and, in fact the very first successor to the Apostles. It is also a timely reminder that malfeasance on the part of an office holder doesn’t undo that essential office. Not even evil on the scale of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus himself can do that. Most of all, it shows us the Church in action. We see, in its infancy, the same Church we have today.
Concluding Prayer from today’s Liturgy of the Hours:
Who assigned St. Mathias
a place in the college of Apostles,
grant us, through his intercession, that,
rejoicing at how your love has been allotted to us,
we may merit to be numbered among the elect.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ. Your Son,
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
One God, for ever and ever,