With Peter as their head, the Apostles became the foundation of the Church’s hierarchial structure which continues in their successors
At the General Audience of Wednesday, 1 July, the Holy Father continued his weekly catechesis on the mystery of the Church. In today's talk, the 37th of the series, he discussed the hierarchy of the Church and its foundation on the Twelve Apostles. The Holy Father spoke in Italian.
1. The Church, a priestly, sacramental and prophetic community, was instituted by Jesus Christ as a structured, hierarchical and ministerial society, to provide pastoral governance for the continual formation and growth of the community. The first to exercise this ministerial and pastoral role were the Twelve Apostles chosen by Jesus Christ as the visible foundation of his Church. As Vatican II says: "Jesus Christ, the eternal Shepherd, set up the holy Church by entrusting the Apostles with their mission as he himself had been sent by the Father (cf. Jn 20:21). He willed that their successors, the Bishops namely, should be the shepherds in his Church until the end of the world" (Lumen gentium, n. 18).
This passage from the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen gentium first of all reminds us of the original and unique position of the Apostles in the institutional aspect of the Church. From the Gospel story we know that Jesus called disciples to follow him and from among them he chose 12 (cf. Lk 6:13). The Gospel account informs us that for Jesus it was a decisive choice made after a night of prayer (cf. Lk 6:12); a choice made with sovereign freedom: Mark tells us that Jesus went up the mountain and summoned "those whom he wanted" (Mk 3: 13). The Gospel texts list the names of the individuals called (cf. Mk 3:16-19 and par.): an indication that their importance was perceived and acknowledged in the early Church.
2. In forming the group of the Twelve Jesus established the Church as a visible society organized to serve the Gospel and the coming of God's kingdom. The number 12 referred to the 12 tribes of Israel, and Jesus' use of it reveals his intention to create a new Israel, the new People of God established as a Church. Jesus' intention to create appears in the very word used by Mark to describe the foundation: "He appointed Twelve ... he appointed the Twelve". "Appointed" or "made" recalls the verb used in the Genesis account about the creation of the world and in Deutero-Isaiah (43:1; 44:2) about the creation of the People of God, the ancient Israel.
Peter is given a special role in the group
This creative will is also expressed in the new names given to Simon (Peter) and to James and John (sons of thunder), but also to the entire group or college considered as a whole. Indeed, St Luke writes that Jesus "chose Twelve, whom he also named Apostles" (Lk 6:13). The Twelve Apostles thus became a special, distinct socio-ecclesial reality, one which in certain aspects cannot be repeated. In their group the Apostle Peter stood out. In his regard Jesus revealed most explicitly his intention of founding a new Israel by the name he gave to Simon: the "rock" on which Jesus chose to build his Church (cf. Mt 16:18).
3. Jesus' purpose in establishing the Twelve is explained by Mark: "He appointed Twelve that they might be with him and he might send them forth to preach and to have authority to drive out demons" (Mk 3:14-15).
The first constitutive element of the Twelve, then, is their absolute adherence to Christ: they are persons called to "be with him", i.e., to follow him by leaving everything. The second element is missionary, expressed on the model of Jesus' own mission of preaching and driving out demons. The mission of the Twelve is a sharing in Christ's mission on the part of men closely joined to him as disciples, friends, confidants.
4. In the Apostles' mission the evangelist Mark emphasizes the "authority to drive out demons". It is an authority of power over evil, which means positively the authority to give people Christ's salvation, for he drives out "the ruler of this world" (Jn 12:31).
Luke confirms the meaning of this authority and the purpose in establishing the Twelve when he reports Jesus' words in conferring authority on the Apostles in the kingdom: "It is you who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer a kingdom on you, just as my Father has conferred one on me" (Lk 22:28). In this declaration too, perseverance in union with Christ is closely linked to the authority conferred in the kingdom.
This authority is pastoral, as we can see from the text on the mission specifically entrusted to Peter: "Feed my lambs.... Feed my sheep" (Jn 21: 15-17). Peter personally receives supreme authority in the pastoral mission. This mission is exercised as a participation in the authority of the one Shepherd and Teacher, Christ.
Apostles entrusted with specific duties
The supreme authority entrusted to Peter does not nullify the authority conferred on the other Apostles in the kingdom. The pastoral mission is shared by the Twelve under the authority of a single, universal Shepherd, who is the agent and representative of the Good Shepherd, Christ.
5. These are the specific duties which are inherent in the mission entrusted by Jesus Christ to the Twelve:
a) the mission and authority to evangelize all nations, as the three Synoptics clearly attest (cf. Mt 28:18-20; Mk 16: 16-18; Lk 24:45-48). Among them, Matthew emphasizes the relationship established by Jesus himself between his messianic power and the mandate he conferred on the Apostles: "All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations" (Mt 28:18). The Apostles can and must fulfil their mission because of Christ's power which will be manifested in them.
b) the mission and power to baptize (Mt 28:29), as a fulfilment of Christ's command, with a baptism in the name of the holy Trinity (ibid.). Since it is tied to Christ's paschal mystery, it is also considered in the Acts of the Apostles as baptism in the name of Jesus (cf. Acts 2:38; 8: 16).
c) the mission and power to celebrate the Eucharist: "Do this in memory of me" (Lk 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24-25). The charge to do again what Jesus did at the Last Supper by consecrating bread and wine implies a power of the highest degree; to say in Christ's name: "This is my Body", "This is my Blood", is to be identified with Christ, as it were, in the sacramental act.
d) the mission and power to forgive sins (Jn 20:22-23). The Apostles share in the power which the Son of man has to forgive sins on earth (cf. Mk 2:10): that power which in Jesus' public life astonished the crowd. The evangelist Matthew tells us that they "glorified God who had given such authority to human beings" (Mt 9:8).
6. To fulfil this mission the Apostles received, in addition to authority, the special gift of the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn 20: 21-22), which was manifested at Pentecost as Jesus had promised (cf. Acts 1.8) In virtue of this gift, from Pentecost on they began to fulfil the command to evangelize all nations. In the Constitution Lumen gentium the Second Vatican Council tells us: "By preaching the Gospel everywhere, welcomed and received under the influence of the Holy Spirit by those who hear it, the Apostles gather together the universal Church, which the Lord founded upon the Apostles and built upon blessed Peter their leader, the chief corner-stone being Christ Jesus himself (cf. Rv 21:14; Mt 16:18; Eph 2:20)" (Lumen gentium, n. 19).
7. The mission of the Twelve included a foundational role reserved to them which would not be inherited by others: being eyewitnesses of Christ's life, death and resurrection (cf. Lk 24:28), handing on his message to the early community as the link between divine Revelation and the Church, and for that very reason, initiating the Church in the name and power of Christ under the action of the Holy Spirit. Because of their function the Twelve Apostles represent a uniquely important group in the Church defined by the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed as apostolic (Credo unam, sanctum, catholicam et "apostolicam" Ecclesiam), due to this unbreakable link with the Twelve. This is also the reason why the Church has introduced into the liturgy and reserved special, solemn celebrations in honour of the Apostles.
8. Nevertheless, Jesus conferred on the Apostles a mission to evangelize all nations, and this takes a very long time, a time which indeed will last "until the end of the age" (Mt 28:20). The Apostles understood that it was Christ's will that they provide for successors, who, as their heirs and representatives, would continue their mission. Thus they set up "Bishops and deacons" in the various communities "and arranged that after their death these other approved men would be successors in their ministry" ( 1 Clem. 44:2; cf. 42:1-4).
Apostles are me origin of the sacred hierarchy
In this way Christ established a hierarchical and ministerial structure in the Church, one formed by the Apostles and their successors: a structure which did not originate from an antecedent, already established community, but was created directly by him. The Apostles were at one and the same time the seeds of the new Israel and the origin of the sacred hierarchy, as we read in the Council's Constitution Ad genies (n. 5). Therefore, this structure belongs to the Church's very nature, according to the divine plan fulfilled by Jesus. According to the same plan, this structure has an essential role in the whole development of the Christian community, from the day of Pentecost until the end of time, when in the heavenly Jerusalem all the elect will fully share in the "new life" forever.
L'Osservatore Romano July 8, 1992