Today we have the feast day of the apostles Saints Philip (my confirmation patron) and James (the Lesser, not James the Greater, brother of St John the Evangelist). Why as Catholics do we venerate the apostles as the foundation stones of the Church? Why do we give high respect to our diocesan bishop and pay close attention to their teaching on faith and morals?
Well, it all to do with our sense of how Jesus wanted his work to be continued after he ascended into heaven 40 days after the Resurrection. On this occasion he did not give us a leather bound bible complete with Old and New Testaments as our sole blue print. Rather he passed on his mission into the hands of the Apostles. This is clearly evident in the Great Commission given on Ascension Thursday: “Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matt 28:16-20.
With specific reference to the New Testament, it was the Apostles and their successors (second and later generations of bishops/(elders)) who primarily wrote and decided what writings were included in the sacred canon of scripture: e.g. the decision to include the Book of Revelation in the NT wasn’t made until 397AD. The Catholic Church believes that if its teaching office – and in particular its chief pastors – had such a key influence in the Bible’s composition, then it should also have an important role to play in its proper interpretation among the faithful. It goes without saying that our Protestant brothers and sisters in general give primacy to a personal interpretation of scripture.
We believe that the forgiveness of sin and the sacrament of confession came about as a result of Jesus’ appearance to the Apostles in the Upper Room on Easter Sunday evening: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Those whose sins you forgive they are forgiven, those whose sins you retain they are retained.’ John 20:22-23. Earlier on in the Last Supper, Jesus gave the mandate to the Apostles to celebrate the Eucharist: ‘Do this in memory of me’ as we hear at Mass every Sunday. We also see the Last Supper at that time when Jesus instituted the priesthood and the sacrament of Holy Orders by which his mandate to the initial Apostles would be handed down to successive generations of bishops, indeed to our own time.
Of equal importance is the fact that after Pentecost the Apostles spread throughout the known world of the time and founded churches of which they became chief shepherd/pastor. For example St James who we are celebrating today led the church of Jerusalem and was martyred there in 62AD. St Philip according to tradition started churches in Greece, Phrygia, and Syria. St Peter became the head of the church in Rome. The bishops currently in these dioceses are continuing the same mission as was given by Christ to their Apostolic founders.
The Apostles to whom Jesus entrusted his world-wide mission were far from perfect in their human qualities as we know only too well from the New Testament. Two thousand years later nothing much has changed with regard to their successors.