Father John A. Hardon, S.J. Archives
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The Church and Apostolic Authority
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
This will be the so far longest sustained theme of the retreat on the Church. We have seen how the Israel of old was already the Church in embryo. With the coming of Christ, He began forming the Church when He called the apostles. We saw that essential to the Catholic understanding of the Church is that within the Church are those originally ordained by Christ and ever since administering the sacraments. Especially the five we identified in Christs name. Without the priesthood there is no (I dont say no Catholic Church), there is no Church. The only church that the Son of God founded was the one in which having chosen twelve men He conferred on them a share in His own divine powers.
Before we go on to our present subject let me just spend another moment on the importance of seeing the Church as administering the sacraments. Christ, we believe is true God and true man. Did God have to become man to save the world? Absolutely speaking, no. A single act of His divine will would have been enough to redeem a myriad of fallen humanities. But having decided to become man, having further decided to establish a church, this church would necessarily have to participate in His own, Christs two-fold nature. The Church, like Christ is at once divine and human. The source therefore of the Churchs divine grace is Her invisible divinity. Nothing less, faith tells us than the Holy Spirit: the soul of the Church from whom the saving power of salvation comes. But like Christ, the Church is also human. And no less than the human Jesus, was the channel through which He worked His miracles, forgave sinners and conferred His grace. So it is those whom Christ has ordained, who as one of them let me tell you, are very, they are pathetically human. Yet as intrinsic to our Catholic faith as Christs two-fold nature both divine and human; so essential is our understanding of the Church as at once divine and human. The Church, were told by the second Vatican Council, is the sacrament, universal sacrament of salvation. Meaning that She has divine resources for conferring grace. But the grace is conferred through human channels. Mainly through Christs ordained priesthood.
Having said that, we go on. Consistent with the sacramental powers that Christ conferred on the apostles, he also gave them authority to teach and to govern the faithful in the Church. Our present meditation therefore will be on two subjects: The teaching and ruling authority of the apostles and their successors in the Church and the unique role of Peter and his successor the Bishop of Rome.
Very pointedly, Jesus told the eleven, (there were only eleven left at the time of the ascension) He told them to make disciples, that means make learners. A disciple is one who has learned. Well, if theyre going to be learners, there had better be somebody to teach. He told them to make disciples of all nations by quote teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. This calls for some explanation. There are two levels to the Gospels, the good news that Christ wanted the apostles to proclaim. There are mysteries of faith that require humility of mind to accept. How well I know. And there are revealed precepts which required humility of will to obey. It was the prerogative and the duty of the apostles and their successors to fulfill both responsibilities. Commonly identified with the Churchs Magisterium, or teaching authority and the Churchs legislation or ruling authority. Absolutely crucial to a Catholic understanding of the church, is this concept of apostolicity, as being divinely ordained authority.
The first thing the reformers did from Luther in 1517 on was to deny that there is any authority on earth claiming divine support for teaching and governing. We Catholics believe there is one natural authority on earth, the State. To direct and command human beings as citizens and thus ensure peace and earthly prosperity. But we also believe and we are unique, that there is a supernatural authority on earth vested in the Church and specifically in the successors of the apostles to teach and govern human beings. Not to ensure, not of course to exclude, but not for the purpose of ensuring peace and earthly prosperity, but to ensure the conferral of grace in this life and the possession of everlasting glory in the life to come. It is not in my notes, and Ill restrain myself to spend just less than a minute on the subject. What the reformers did, and the Western world has never been the same, having denied the authority of the Church to guide people in things moral, in their behavior; Protestantism gave that authority to the State. And thats where its been ever since. Thus for our Americans instead of an unquestionable authority vested in the Bishop of Rome, we have absolute unquestionable authority vested in the Supreme Court of the State. And when that court decides unborn children should be killed, 230 Americans bowed in humble obedience. I hope what Ive just said is clear. That is why in one state after another Catholics are in the vanguard challenging the authority of the State in anything having to do with the spiritual order such as deciding who has the right of life and death.
We go on. Once conferred by the master, this authority on the apostles, before His ascension into heaven, they began to exercise their authority without apology. Whatever else the Acts of the Apostles, the letters of Saint Paul in what we call the Catholic epistles may be called, they are manifestations of authoritative teachings and governing in the early Church. Peter and Paul, James and John, Jude, Timothy and Titus were either among the original twelve or had hands laid on them by an apostle. And they never apologized for telling people what to believe and what to do. Why apologize? If you have the authority, use it! Nothing could be more plain than Pauls declaration to Timothy. This is Paul writing to Timothy. Before God and before Christ Jesus who is to be judge of the living and the dead I put this duty before you. In the name of His appearing and of His Kingdom and welcome or unwelcome insist on it. Refute falsehood, correct error, call to obedience but do all with patience and with the intention of teaching. The time is sure to come when far from being content with sound teaching, people will be avid for the latest novelty and collect themselves a whole series of teachers according to their own tastes. And then instead of listening to the truth, they will turn to myths. Unquote, the unapologetic Paul, telling Timothy dont you dare apologize for your authority. Use it.
Shortly after our present Holy Father was elected to the Papacy. There was a most unusual editorial in of all places the not-so-Catholic and hardly Christian Newsweek Magazine. I say unusual editorial. It was one page long. Its in my files in Washington. The writer tells everyone in authority in our country, president, governors, congressmen, mothers and fathers to look to Pope John Paul II. Ah here is a man, the writer says, after my own heart. He knows hes got the authority and he uses it. Then the closing injunction: let me tell you, if you have the authority, either use it or lose it. Not bad!
That was Saint Paul. Evidently Saint Paul had no doubt who in the Church has the authority to teach and command: those whom Christ chose to be His apostles and their successors in the episcopate.
So much for that, now, part II of our meditation on apostolic authority: The dominant role of Simon Peter. If all the apostles were given the right to teach and govern the followers of Christ one among them was chosen to be their head. The correct translation of the Aramaic name Cephas which Jesus gave to Simon, means rock. No pebble this, it was rock. And my Protestant theological competitors all kinds of learned dribble on the distinction between petros and petra. Forget it. In Aramaic there is no distinction. Cephas means nothing else but a great big boulder. Its not even just a rock, its a boulder! Youd never dream what crosses my mind as I walk from here to my residence. I see hanging over the cliff a huge boulder and I say to myself, with a whispering prayer, Lord, keep that boulder in place! Theres a residence Im afraid within falling distance of that boulder. That is Cephas. Christ spoke Aramaic. In virtue of this name which describes his position in the Church Simon Peter shares in the durable solidity and unbreakable fidelity of Yahweh. And Jesus is Yahweh.
As the Gospels show, Peter was not chosen because of his exceptional character or outstanding virtue. I can almost see him smiling as much as disembodied spirits can smile in heaven listening to this poor rendition about the papal primacy. Quite the contrary of being outstanding, Simon, (lets save the word Peter for later on) Simon was boastful and presumptuous. He was weak and lacking in courage. Nevertheless, throughout the New Testament beginning with Christs public life, Simon has a priority that is unmistakable. And because of his great importance today and Ill have to say this because I have a special vow of loyalty to the Vicar of Christ. I wont even apologize for the, I cant believe it, nine ways in which the New Testament shows that Simon Peter was recognized as the head.
First, Peter was the first disciple named as being called by Christ along with his brother Andrew. Actually, and chronologically, Andrew was called first. But Matthew wouldnt dare put Andrew before Peter. He knew better. Better contradict chronology than contradict Peters dignity. Peter is always listed first. He was not the first called and he surely wasnt the most holy.
Second, in all the lists of the apostles hidden in the New Testament not only is he listed first but he is said to have been the first to have been chosen by the master. Get the difference? There is a first and there is a first. This firstness we have now come to call the Primacy. He is first because he is the most important.
Third, even when the three closest friends of Jesus are privileged to witness what the others did not hear or see; for example the transfiguration or the agony in the garden, Peter is always mentioned before James and John.
Fourth, pardon me for saying this. I dug through the New Testament to find all kinds of ways in which Peter was first. My number four you may smile at. It was Peters boat that Christ used. I checked the Gospel text. It belonged to Peter. And on that dramatic occasion when both Jesus and Peter were in arrears on their tax, Christ worked, he might have just worked a miracle for himself, and told Peter Simon sorry, either you work a miracle or earn the money. But Christ did not. Christ could not have dramatized the intimacy of Peter, and this is Peter before his conversion, and himself, than by having Peter, remember? Find just the money they needed, both of them, to pay the tribute. Evangelists dont say what the other apostles thought.
Fifth, Christ told Peter that Satan has tried to sift you as wheat but I have prayed for you Simon that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, (anticipating Peters conversion) you strengthen your brothers. I havent counted the number of times, but I wager to say that the single most quoted text by the present Holy Father is this passage especially when he talks to Bishops. The Bishops are his brothers in the episcopate. But as there was only one Peter in Apostolic times there is only one successor of Peter in our times. And the faith of Bishops is being shaken and how it is being shaken. In a recent conversation with Archbishop OConnor of New York I told him Archbishop, you know what I think what the church in our country mainly needs is more Saint John Fishers. Bishops who are ready to shed their blood in professing the faith. The Archbishop told me, I agree. But let me tell you something. I believe being Archbishop of New York today makes heavier demands than just once and for all being beheaded as was John Fisher. Every call in the last five months that Ive received from New York tells me that the Archbishop of New York is being persecuted as never before in the history of New York City by the media, the newspapers. With a most demonic hatred, trying to break down his courage. Thats why in my fifth evidence of Christ having chosen to lead the apostles I give the quotation that our present Holy Father is constantly reminding his fellow bishops. Look, like Peter Im a sinner. I dont deserve the office Ive got, but by Christs choice, I am Peters successor. And my duty to you Bishops is to strengthen your faith Period. Thats the reason why the present Bishop of Rome is traveling all over the world. And not just once but now so many times. To strengthen as Christ his master told Peter he should do. Strengthen the faith of his fellow bishops. Peter remember, leave it to Peter objected. He was kind of offended that Jesus would tell him when you are converted, when you come back to your senses. He objected, Lord, Im ready to go with you to prison and to death Christ smiled sadly and predicted Peters triple denial. In Gods providence, we may say there had to be a Simon who denied his master in order that our faith in Peter would not be based on the virtue of a human being. What a stark contrast between human frailty in Simon, and the divinely conferred primatial authority of Peter. What we believe in is not a human being. We believe in a human being indeed but vested with the very rite of God Himself to teach the universe.
Sixth evidence, after His resurrection, we are told Christ appeared to Peter alone before He appeared to the other apostles. And it is especially satisfying to note that the ones who tell us that are Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians 15:5. And Luke in his Gospel 24:34. Talk about being forgiven. Right? Or being reinstated. Peter had the privilege of having the master risen from the dead first appear to him.
Seven, the promise of the primacy was made to Peter as the Saviors response to Peters profession of faith in Jesus divinity and Messiahship. I dare say the most controverted and opposed text in the bible by those who deny Papal authority. Matthew 16: 17-19. Remember? Weve heard it so often. By the sixteenth chapter all kinds of opinions were in circulation about who Jesus was. So Jesus asked them, the group. Who do people say the Son of Man is? And they told him, some say he is John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets. Thats part one. Then He turned to them, But who do you say I am? Peter didnt have to wait for a signal. He knew it was his responsibility to speak for the others. Then Simon Peter spoke up. Jesus did not ask Simon remember? The Greek is plural, Who do you my disciples or apostles, Who do you say that I am? Simon, I dont even think he had to step forward, knowing him, I think he was always in front. Simon Peter spoke up. You are the Christ he said, the son of the living God. Now Jesus knew His Simon. So then Jesus replied. Simon, son of Jonah, youre a happy man because it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven. Thats what Christ promises the successors of Peter. It is not their native intelligence. Our present Holy Father had the reputation for being one of the four greatest intellectuals in Europe before his election to the papacy. No, the bishop of Rome as successor to Peter, like Peter, is assured divine illumination.
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