As we approach the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord, it is an appropriate time to reflect upon Christ’s words which he spoke just prior to that moment when he “was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God” (Mk 16:19).
By F. K. Bartels
10 May 2010
In Mark’s gospel, immediately before Jesus ascends into heaven, he entrusts the eleven apostles with a task of momentous gravity: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned” (16:15-16).
What must have passed through the minds of the apostles as they heard our Lord say these stunning words? For the task he placed before them was of such great magnitude that it is unimaginable as to how a small band of eleven men should even begin to complete it. Jesus did not merely say, “go forth and proclaim the gospel to those few who you should meet”; rather, he commanded his apostles to “go into the whole world,” and proclaim it to “every creature.”
The last words recorded in Matthew’s gospel belong to our beloved Savior, where we again hear of the task given to the eleven: “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” (28:19).
In reading Matthew we find at least two differences from Mark. First, the eleven are to make “disciples of all nations.” Second, it is God himself who will provide the means and the strength in order to accomplish what seems an entirely impossible task: “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (28:20).
It is obvious that Christ’s promise to be with the eleven “until the end of the age” extends beyond the apostles themselves. This fact is evident by virtue of our Lord’s obvious concern for future generations of men and women; i.e., since God loves all his children, he would certainly desire that those not yet born have access to the fullness of truth the apostles were to proclaim. Further, as we all know, the apostles—with the exception of St. John—would soon suffer martyrdom.
“St. Peter and the other apostles were mortal, but the mission given them was to be carried out until the end of time” (The Teaching Of Christ: A Catholic Catechism For Adults, 173). Vatican II reminds us that, “For this reason the apostles took care to appoint successors in this hierarchically structured society” (LG 20; cf. Acts 20:25-27; 2 Tim. 4:6).
Apostolic Succession: An Indispensable Path Of Continuity And Authority
Devout Catholics are, of course, aware of apostolic succession within the Catholic Church, which provides for a line of authoritative continuity between St. Peter, the First Bishop of Rome and the other apostles, and the present Vicar of Christ, Pope Benedict XVI and the bishops of the Church in communion with him.
The necessity and reality of apostolic succession is, however, not so plainly obvious to everyone. Therefore it is helpful to reflect on what the Christian religion might be like if Christ had not founded the Catholic Church and sent his Spirit upon her in order to guide her infallibly into all truth (see Jn. 16:13; 1 Tim. 3:15).
First, it may seem rather pointless to bring up the fact that men nearly always tend to muddle things, nevertheless it seems there are many today who overlook such a reality. Point to any purely man-made institution in history, and one will quickly find it did not remain long free of corruption, nor did it survive for any considerable period of time. The same can be said of nations and civilizations.
What might the Christian religion be like two-thousand years removed from Christ and his apostles had our Lord not founded a divinely guided, infallible Catholic Church in order to insure that his Deposit of Faith remained intact and uncorrupted? Would the seven sacraments exist? Would we to this day be able to avail ourselves of the wondrous graces of the sacrament of Reconciliation (see Jn. 20:23), which, as the early Church Fathers often attested, is the “plank of salvation offered after the shipwreck of sin”? Would we have Eucharist, in which we receive, as did the apostles at the Last Supper, Christ’s body, blood, soul and divinity?
Or would we have some bizarre, adulterated mixture of the Christian religion and the many relativized notions of modern man? We could very well have, for instance, Christians worshipping “Mother Earth”; or adhering to disturbing, ill-conceived heresies such as Predestinarianism; or perhaps having severely muddled such doctrines as the Holy Trinity, in which God himself revealed to his Catholic Church the innermost secret of his life of Trinitarian Love.
Second, there are those who believe that Sacred Scripture alone guarantees orthodoxy and orthopraxy, providing in and of itself the sole and infallible rule of faith. The reality is, however, that we would likely have no reliable biblical source at all if it were not for the Catholic Church dogmatically proclaiming which books were the Inspired Word of God and therefore to be included in the canon of the Bible (Evidence from the fourth century indicates the Church accepted the same 73 canon as it does today. See the decree of Pope Damasus in 382, and the Council of Hippo in 393 and Carthage in 397).
The True and Complete Christian Religion Is Not The Religion Of A Book
As important and sacred as the Inspired Word of God is, the true Christian religion in its fullness is not, cannot, nor ever will be the religion of a book. God’s Revelation came to a people, the People of God; it was first Christ’s teaching given to the apostles, which, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, was preached to the nations. The New Testament was written out of, from, and as a product of the Deposit of Faith given to the apostles and entrusted to the Catholic Church Christ founded. Therefore, it was first the Church, then the new testament; it was first Sacred Tradition which, in combination with the Magisterium (teaching authority) of the Church, held and guarded God’s Revelation in its fullness. That Revelation the sacred authors of Scripture wrote under the the breath of the Holy Spirit is the Inspired Word of God; yet it does not represent God’s Revelation to his People in its completeness and totality, but rather a portion of it.
Pope Paul VI, in an address to the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1974, had this to say: “You are aware that Holy Scripture, and in particular the New Testament, took shape within the community of the people of God, of the Church gathered around the apostles. It was the latter who, formed in the school of Jesus and having become witnesses of his Resurrection, transmitted his actions and his teachings, explaining the salvific meaning of the events they had witnessed. It is right to say, therefore, that if it was the Word of God that summoned and brought forth the Church, it was the Church, for its part, that was in a certain way, the womb of the holy Scriptures, that Church which in those Scriptures expressed and recognized, for all future generations, her faith, her hope, her rule of life in this world. The studies of the last decades have contributed notably to highlighting the close relationship and bond that unite the Scriptures with the Church indissolubly . . . Does not the hermeneutic function . . . invite the exegete to go beyond the research for the “pure original text” and remember that it is the Church, a living community, that ‘actualizes’ its message for contemporary man?”
As Reverend Thomas McGovern points out in Magisterium, Scripture and Catholic Exegetes, the written word contained in the Bible has limits: “The Bible, like any other written text subject to the limitations of human language, is open to a variety of interpretations, since the written word cannot encapsulate the whole of reality; this is particularly the case when human language is used to articulate the unfathomable mysteries of the triune God. The salvific truths of divine Revelation, culminating in the Person and life of Christ, constitute a reality which surpasses the historical dimension of the redaction of the books of Scripture. Consequently, it is to be expected that some aspects of the totality of Revelation would not be expressed clearly, with all their implications, in the biblical text. Thus it is necessary to have recourse to the living and total reality of Revelation, of which the [Catholic] Church is in possession by divine design, in order to clarify and explicate the deep riches of the written word.”
The Catholic Church Guards And Transmits The Fullness Of Truth To Her Children
In the living Tradition of the Catholic Church, in combination with Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium (teaching authority of the Church), is contained the “living and total reality of God’s Revelation,” which is the fullness of truth. This living and total reality is the treasure of God’s gift to man. Apart from the Church and her living Tradition which breathes God’s Revelation to all generations, the fullness of truth man so fervently craves and needs is inaccessible at best; at worst, tainted and corrupted with an admixture of falseness. It is clear from the N.T. that our Lord Jesus Christ, in his infinite wisdom, foresaw such a situation and thus established a divine and human hierarchical institution that would continue until the end of the age.
“It is quite clear from the New Testament that Christ chose leaders for His Church and gave them powers of teaching, ruling and sanctifying. The apostles, it is true, had certain gifts and duties associated with their unique role as Christ’s companions and as the foundation on which the Church was built at the start. But they had other roles which, by the will of Christ, and in accord with the continuing guidance of His Spirit, were to be carried on in the Church through all ages” (Teaching of Christ, 395).
It is so unfortunate that so many fail to look for and embrace the beauty of the Catholic Church Christ so wisely and lovingly established in the midst of the world. Many trudge through each day, their heart aching for happiness, their intellect craving that Truth for which there are no words to describe, distracted by careers and material objects and caught up in a life of chaotic and unwholesome troubles, while all along the treasure of truth found in Christ’s Bride is right there before them, as a beacon of light set on a hill which shines to the ends of the Earth.
Our Lord said to his apostles, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned.” Come to the Bride of Christ, listen to her words of truth, let the apostles’ successors proclaim the gospel in its fullness to you.
“In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on heigh shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Lk. 14:78-79).
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Photo Credit: Collage compiled by Deacon Frederick Bartels from public domain photos.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.