Article 76 – Christ’s Faithful
Catechism of the Catholic Church Series
It is quite popular today for people to research their family tree.In fact, an entire industry has emerged that offers help, not only for people to acquire information on their family history and ancestry; but, with a DNA sample, people can even investigate their heritage and confirm their relationship with long deceased, sometimes well-known relatives, in a far-off lands. Similarly, the hierarchy of the Church traces its lineage, to one of the original apostles, almost like spiritual DNA. This is what we call apostolic succession. The Catholic Church is apostolic because she can point to an unbroken continuity, not only back to the time of the Apostles, but to one or more of the Apostles themselves. The Catechism (ccc 857) explains that the Church is founded on the Apostles in three ways: 1. She was and remains built on “the foundation of the Apostles,” the witnesses chosen and sent on mission by Christ himself; 2. With the help of the Spirit dwelling in her, the Church keeps and hands on the teaching, the “good deposit,” the salutary words she has heard from the apostles; 3. She continues to be taught, sanctified, and guided by the apostles until Christ’s return, through their successors in pastoral office: the college of bishops, “assisted by priests, in union with the successor of Peter, the Church’s supreme pastor” (AG 5). The Catechism relies heavily on the Second Vatican Council’s document on the ministry of bishops called “Christus Dominus.” The first few paragraphs of this document clearly identify our current bishops with their ancient counterparts. This is especially the case when considering the person of St. Peter and those who have succeeded him down to the present in the person of Pope Francis.
Present-day bishops who perform the same leadership role in the Church as that of their ancient predecessors like St. Paul are described by the Second Vatican Council as “successors of the apostles” (“Christus Dominus 6). Coming from the larger People of God and, having been judged to have had performed their priestly duties in an exemplary way, their new responsibilities include being, not only men of the Church, but men of and for all the people of God. Recognizing the presence of Christ in the life of the Church, they, like the shepherd in the Gospel account who sought the lost sheep, are to be always concerned, if not fixated, as was the shepherd in the story, on reclaiming the sheep that stray (cf. Matthew 18:12–14).
The Catechism further explains that we can even refer to Jesus as an Apostle. This sounds strange, since we seldom consider Jesus as an Apostle. In the New Testament, however, the Book of Hebrews counsels: “Therefore, holy ‘brothers [and sisters]‘ reflect on Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession” ( Heb 3:1). We discern that Jesus is an Apostle insofar as he is one who is sent: “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” ( Jn 20:21). “Jesus is the Father’s Emissary” (ccc 858). The Twelve whom he appointed “would also be his emissaries”
(ccc 858). The Apostles’ ministry is the continuation of Jesus’ mission. We recall that Jesus said to the Twelve: “he who receives you receives me” (see Mt10:40; cf. Lk 10:16). It is in this context that the Catechism considers Jesus an Apostle. The Church also teaches that “the bishops have by divine institution taken the place of the apostles as pastors of the Church” (ccc 862). By extension, “priests, in union with the successor of Peter, the Church’s supreme pastor” (AG 5), enjoy Apostolic succession as well (ccc 857). In fact, “the whole Church is apostolic, in that she remains, through the successors of St. Peter and the other apostles, in communion of faith and life with her origin: and in that she is ‘sent out’ into the whole world” (ccc 683). Who is the source of this apostolate? Christ, of course, is the source. “The fruitfulness of apostolate for ordained ministers as well as for lay people clearly depends on their vital union with Christ” (ccc 864).
Whether ordained, consecrated religious men and women, or members of the laity, all members of Mystical Body of Christ share in the apostolic mission of the Church, though in various ways. As the Catechism points out, “The Christian vocation is, of its nature, a vocation to the apostolate as well” (ccc 863). As Vatican II’s “Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity” says, we call an apostolate “every activity of the Mystical Body” that aims “to spread the Kingdom of Christ over all the earth” (“Apostolicam Actuositatem” 2).
The Catechism explains further that “in keeping with their vocations, the demands of the times and the various gifts of the Holy Spirit, the apostolate assumes the most varied forms” (ccc 864). Then, quoting the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, it tells us that charity, drawn from the Eucharist above all, is always “as it were, the soul of the whole apostolate” (Apostolicam Actuositatem 3). Finally, we turn to the Roman Missal’s preface for the Apostles at Mass to capture the tone of the relationship between Christ and the Apostolate: “For you, eternal Shepherd do not desert yourflock, but through the blessed Apostles watch over it and protect it always, so that it may be governed by those you have appointed shepherds to lead it in the name of your Son” (Roman Missal, Preface I of Apostles).