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Jesus, Founder of the Ministerial Structure of the Church

General Audience — June 22, 1988

In the previous reflection, we said that the whole mission of Jesus of Nazareth, his teaching, the miracles he wrought, up to the supreme miracle of the resurrection (the sign of Jonah the prophet), were aimed at "gathering" people together. This "assembly" of the new People of God constitutes the first outline of the Church. By the will and institution of Christ, the kingdom of God, initiated with the coming and with the messianic mission of Christ, is brought into being and continues throughout human history in the Church. Jesus of Nazareth announced the Gospel to all those who followed and listened to him. But at the same time he called some in a special way to follow him in order to be prepared by him for a future mission. Such was the calling of Philip (cf. Jn 1:43), of Simon (cf. Lk 5:10), and also of Levi, the publican. Even to the latter Christ addressed "follow me" (cf. Lk 5:27-28).

Of particular importance for us is the fact that among his disciples Jesus chose the Twelve, a choice that had also the character of an "institution." In this regard Mark's Gospel used the term "appointed" (in Greek epoiesen), a verb that the Greek text of the Septuagint used also for the work of creation. For this the original Hebrew text uses the word bara, which has no exact equivalent in Greek. Bara expresses what only God himself "does," by creating from nothing. In any case the Greek expression epoiesen is sufficiently eloquent in reference to the Twelve. It speaks of their institution as a decisive act of Christ who had produced a new reality. The functions or tasks which the Twelve received are a consequence of what they became by virtue of Christ's institution (instituted—made).

The way in which Jesus chose the Twelve is also significant. "Jesus went out into the hills to pray; and all night he continued in prayer to God. And when it was day, he called his disciples, and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles" (Lk 6:12-13). Then follow the names of those chosen: Simon, to whom Jesus gave the name Peter, James and John (Mark specifies that they were sons of Zebedee and that Jesus surnamed them Boanerges, which means "sons of thunder"), Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, "who became the traitor" (Lk 6:16). The lists of the Twelve found in the Synoptic Gospels and in the Acts of the Apostles agree, notwithstanding some slight differences.

Jesus himself will speak one day of this choice of the Twelve, emphasizing what moved him to do so: "You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you..." (Jn 15:16); and then he will add, "If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you" (Jn 15:19).

Jesus appointed the Twelve "that they might be with him," and "to send them to preach and to have authority to cast out demons" (Mk 3:14-15). They were chosen and appointed for a precise mission. They are people who are sent (apostles). In John's test we read further: "You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should abide" (Jn 15:16). This fruit is designated in another place by the image of fishing, when Jesus, after the miraculous catch of fish, said to Peter who was excited by the miraculous event, "Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men" (Lk 5:10).

Jesus set the mission of the apostles in a line of continuity with his own mission when, in his priestly prayer at the Last Supper, he said to the Father, "As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world" (Jn 17:18). In this context we can understand those other words of Jesus: "I confer a kingdom on you, just as my Father has conferred one on me" (Lk 22:29). Jesus did not simply say to the apostles, "The mystery of the kingdom of God has been granted to you" (Mk 4:11), as though it were granted merely by way of cognition. But he "handed over" to the apostles the kingdom which he himself had initiated with his messianic mission on earth. This kingdom conferred on the Son by the Father is the fulfillment of the promises already given in the old covenant. The very number of twelve apostles corresponds in Christ's words to the twelve tribes of Israel. "You who have followed me, in the new age, when the Son of Man is seated on his throne of glory, will yourselves sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Mt 19:28; cf. also Lk 22:30). The apostles, "the Twelve," as the beginning of the new Israel, are at the same time "placed" in the eschatological perspective of the call of the whole people of God.

After the resurrection, before definitively sending out the apostles into the whole world, Christ linked to their service the administration of the sacraments of Baptism (cf. Mt 28:18-20), of the Eucharist (cf. Mk 14:22-24 and parallel passages), and Reconciliation (cf. Jn 20:22-23), instituted by him as salvific signs of grace. The apostles are therefore endowed with priestly and pastoral authority in the Church.

In the next reflection we shall speak of the sacramental structure of the Church. Here we wish to point out the institution of the ministerial structure, linked to the apostles and later to the apostolic succession in the Church. In this regard we must also recall the words in which Jesus described and later instituted the particular ministry of Peter: "And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Mt 16:18-19). These images reflect and indicate the idea of the Church-kingdom of God endowed with a ministerial structure, such as it was in the mind of Jesus.

The questions of ministry and at the same time of the hierarchical system of the Church will be examined in greater detail in the following series of ecclesiological reflections. Here it is fitting to point out merely a significant detail regarding the sad experience of Christ's passion and death on the cross. Foreseeing Peter's denial, Jesus said to him, "But I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren" (Lk 22:32). Later, after the resurrection, having obtained from Peter the threefold confession of love ("Lord, you know that I love you"), Jesus definitively confirmed Peter's universal pastoral mission: "Feed my sheep..." (cf. Jn 21:15-17).

We can therefore say that the respective Gospel passages clearly indicate that Jesus Christ handed over to the apostles the kingdom and the mission which he himself had received from the Father. At the same time he instituted the fundamental structure of his Church in which this kingdom of God, through the continuation of Christ's messianic mission, must be realized among all the nations of the earth as the messianic and eschatological fulfillment of God's eternal promises. Jesus' last words to the apostles before his return to the Father express in a definitive manner the reality and dimensions of that institution: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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; and behold, I am with you always, to the end of the world" (Mt 28:18-20; also Lk 24:47-48).