Our bishop will ordain deacons this Saturday, including two admirable young men who spent summers at our humble southwest-Virginia parishes in years past. Next year, God willing, Bishop will ordain these gentlemen to the priesthood. Theodore Cardinal McCarrick ordained me a deacon seventeen years ago yesterday. He ordained me a priest fifteen years ago next Thursday.
I bring all this up a propos of today’s feast. At Holy Mass today we commemorate the election of St. Matthias as the twelfth Apostle. As we read in Acts, after an election supervised by St. Peter, Matthias took the place vacated by Judas.
In the Collect for today’s Mass, we pray about the “college” of the Apostles. Jacob had twelve sons in the Promised Land, the founders of Israel’s twelve tribes. The new People of God, the Church of Christ, also began with a fraternity of twelve brother Apostles. Eleven can make up a soccer team (Go Mexico! in the Copa Mundial). But we needed twelve to start the Church.
In the Protestant world, people tend to think of a clergyman as a learned Bible scholar, qualified by his education and his natural talents to teach people about the Word of God. We Catholics would certainly agree that a clergyman ought to have a good theological education. And we preachers need to work constantly on our teaching skills.
But a careful reading of the New Testament shows that you cannot define a clergyman as a scholar of the Bible. Because the first Christian clergymen wrote the New Testament. The Bible as we know it now did not exist–until some of our Church’s original clergymen finished it and organized it.
So we have to go deeper, in order to define what the “apostolic ministry” is. The apostolic ministry has to do with the authority that lies behind a man’s words. A learned scholar speaks on his own authority. On the other hand, an apostle of Christ speaks the Word of Christ with the authority of Christ.
The Catechism expresses it like this, in para. 875:
No one…can proclaim the Gospel to himself… No one can give himself the mandate and the mission to proclaim the Gospel. The one sent by the Lord does not speak and act on his own authority, but by virtue of Christ’s authority; not as a member of the community, but speaking to it in the name of Christ. No one can bestow grace on himself; it must be given and offered.
It comes down to this: We have received a gift. God united the human race with Himself, in the Person of Jesus Christ. Christ gave Himself to us, and that Gift of Christ Himself comes to us, here and now, through the apostolic ministry.
This gift given us through the apostolic ministry equals or surpasses in value the gift of our having been created in the first place. We did not produce ourselves; God created us. In the same way, we did not “produce” the Christ, our Savior, and the High Priest of the world. God gave us the Christ, through the apostolic ministry.
This does not mean that no one can ever disagree with a single word that a deacon, priest, or bishop says. The sacrament of Holy Orders does not preserve us clergymen from the dunderheadedness that afflicts the human race in general.
The infallibility that the sacrament of Holy Orders does give us–it is actually much, much more humbling, because it is so much more exquisitely beautiful. Anyone can disagree with a priest or bishop, except when he says: I absolve you, or This is My Body and This is My Blood. That is Christ speaking, speaking infallible truth.
The living Son of God, risen from the dead, speaking now through the apostolic ministry. He could have chosen any means that He wanted, to stay close to His people through the ages—He is God, after all. He chose the Mass, the Blessed Sacrament, the silent Host.