In The Last Word (Harper Collins, 2005), the prominent British biblical scholar N.T. Wright (the Church of England’s retired Bishop of Durham) suggested that we think of history as a play in 5 acts. The 1st act is creation. The 2nd is the fall and sin’s consequences for the human family. The 3rd is the story of God’s Chosen People from Abraham to Jesus. The 4th is the story of Jesus, the fulfillment of God’s revelation to Israel (after whom, as Vatican II reminded us, we neither need nor expect any further revelation). That then is the foundation for our current 5th act – the present, the time of the Church, which presupposes all that preceded it, while moving forward toward out final destiny.
Historically speaking, this 5th act – the time of the Church, our time – began when the disciples were all filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Before his ascension, the Risen Lord had told them to remain in Jerusalem to await the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. The Acts of the Apostles tells us they were some 120 disciples, together with Mary and the apostles, who prayed together during that interval, that in-between transitional time, which the Church’s calendar traditionally recalls during this novena of 9 days between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost Sunday.
That traditional novena is somewhat abridged in much of the United States where the Solemnity of the Ascension is transferred to this Sunday. So, instead of celebrating the Ascension this past Thursday, much of the United States celebrated Saint Matthias instead. It was just coincidence, of course, that it was May 14, Saint Matthias' feast in the current calendar. Still, there could hardly be a more fitting saint to focus on this week. I like to think of Matthias as the patron saint of substitutes, for according to the account in Acts (the only actual mention of him in the New Testament) he was chosen by the post-Ascension, pre-Pentecost community to restore the apostolic college to its full complement of 12, replacing the betrayer Judas. Ironically, however, if instead we had celebrated the Ascension on its actual day last Thursday, while that would have meant missing Saint Matthias' feast this year, we would in fact be hearing the same account in Acts 1 of the selection of Matthias at Mass today (designated in the universal calendar as the 7th Sunday of Easter).
Apparently, one of the tasks that principally preoccupied the community during those transitional days was filling that vacancy that had been created among the 12 by the defection of Judas. Just as the nation of Israel traced itself back to the 12 sons of Jacob, likewise the Church would forever after trace itself back to the 12 official witnesses of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. Hence, the unique job description Peter proposed: it is necessary that one of the men who accompanied us the whole time the Lord Jesus came and went among us … become with us a witness to his resurrection.
The 12 would in time be succeeded collectively by the Bishops of the Church, who are our link back to the witness of the apostles. Bishops preach the word, celebrate the sacraments, and individually govern particular local Churches while collectively collaborating with Peter’s successor in governing the universal Church – thus relating the local Church to the universal Church and the universal to the local, while linking us back in time to that original Jerusalem Church. This collective foundational function of the 12 was unique to the beginning of the Church. So, except for Peter, the designated leader of the 12, there would not be individual successors to individual apostles.
After Peter, as the recognized leader of the 12, had taken the initiative in this matter and established the criteria for Matthias' selection, the whole community then proposed the candidates. Unlike contemporary politicians, they didn’t propose themselves. Then as now, it was the Church which authoritatively called individuals to ministry. Now as then, individuals don’t appoint themselves. Guided by God’s grace in their lives, individuals do indeed offer themselves for service to the Church; but their calling needs to be tested affirmed by the institutional discernment of the Church community. And the whole community's role in this is important. Just as it was the whole community that nominated Matthias, so today every local Church community, every parish congregation, needs to be alert to identify the many Matthiases that may be among us and to encourage them to respond to both the inner promptings of divine grace and to the external promptings of others.