Pope Benedict XVI announced a Year of Faith, Oct. 11, 2012–Nov. 24, 2013, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican Council II (1962). The purpose of the Year of Faith is to reflect on the Council’s teaching in order to bring about personal conversion and a renewal of the Church (Porta Fidei, Nos. 5-6.
As Pope Blessed John XXIII explained in his convocation of the Council, Vatican II was meant to equip the Church for evangelization in the modern world:
The Church is now called upon to take the perennial, vital, divine power of the Gospel and inject it into the veins of the human society of today, which glories in its recent scientific and technological advances, at the same time that it is suffering damage to its social order, which some people have tried to repair without God’s assistance (Humanae Salutis, No. 3).
The Bible and the Church
|An excellent way for priests to observe the Year of Faith is to read the Acts of the Apostles. W.P. Wittman photo
Among the notable achievements of Vatican II was the promotion of the Bible in the life of the Church. According to the Council’s directive, “Access to sacred Scripture ought to be open wide to the Christian faithful” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 131). This applied particularly to priests, who “should immerse themselves in the Scriptures by constant reading and diligent study” (Presbyterorum Ordinis, No. 19). Recently, Pope Benedict XVI has reiterated these points, emphasizing the sanctifying power of scriptural meditation and prayer (Verbum Domini, Nos. 72-87).
In light of Vatican II’s teaching on the Bible, an excellent way for priests to observe the Year of Faith is to read the Acts of the Apostles. This spiritual exercise brings together the Council’s teaching on the Bible and the Church. Indeed, Acts narrates the story of the Church: It is the chronicle of the first generation of Christians, and a portrait of what the Church is to be in every age.
By reading Acts, priests will deepen their appreciation for the Church as God’s instrument of salvation. They will also see that their own ministry, with all of its joys and difficulties, stands in continuity with that of the Apostles. On a practical level, Acts is a good read. While its various speeches contain theological reflection, the mostly narrative work moves along swiftly. It features tales of persecution (cf. 4:18; 5:18; 7:58; 8:1; 16:19–23; 18:12), miraculous prison breaks (cf. 5:17–20; 12:3–11; 16:25–34), daring escapes (cf. 9:23–25; 17:10), riots (cf. 13:50; 14:5; 17:5–8, 13; 19:23–40; 21:27–36; 23:6–10), and even a harrowing shipwreck (cf. 27:13–44).
The Church’s Nature and Mission
We read in Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: “Since the Church, in Christ, is in the nature of a sacrament — a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all men — she here proposes, for the benefit of the faithful and of the whole world, to set forth. . .her own nature and universal mission” (Lumen Gentium, No. 1).
The sacramental nature of the Church, and her worldwide mission, is evident throughout the Acts of the Apostles; these categories provide a handy frame for organizing the content of the work. Acts begins with the birth of the Church at Pentecost (nature), and continues with the spread of the Gospel (mission). This “outward-bound” narrative structure is announced at the beginning, when Christ says to the Apostles: “You will receive power when the holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8). Thus, Acts describes the movement of the Gospel from Jerusalem (cf. 1:13–7:60), to Judea and Samaria (including Palestine and Syria) (cf. 8:1–12:25), across Asia Minor and Greece (cf. 13:1–21:14), all the way to Rome (cf. 21:15–28:31).
Looking at Acts as a whole, we can say that the purpose of the Church is to continue the work of Christ. Phrased another way, the Lord commissions the Apostles as his witnesses (cf. 1:8). The continuity between Christ and the Church has a literary foundation, for, unique in the New Testament, Acts is the second volume of a two-volume work (the first being the Gospel of Luke) (cf. Acts 1:1). Accordingly, Sts. Peter and Paul teach the crowds, heal the sick, expel demons (cf. 5:16; 16:18; 19:11–12), and even raise the dead (cf. 9:40; 20:10) — just as Christ did. Likewise, the Apostles and other disciples suffer like Christ. Peter and Paul come before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem (cf. 4:5–22; 5:17–42; 22:30–23:11), and the account of St. Stephen’s martyrdom (cf. 7:54, 59–60) parallels that of Christ’s Passion.
The bridge between Luke and Acts, and between Christ and the Church, is the Ascension (cf. Lk 24:51; Acts 1:9). Here, Christ’s bodily departure does not indicate His absence; rather, Christ is now present in the Church. As Saul (Paul) discovers at his conversion, Christ is closely identified with His Church: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5; cf. 22:8; 26:15). Thus, to use the language of Vatican II, the Church is the sacrament — the sign and instrument — of Jesus Christ (CCC, Nos. 774-776).
With the Ascension of the Lord, the Holy Spirit takes center stage. He plays the leading role in the Church by providing inspiration, guidance, and support. In Acts — and nowhere else in the New Testament — the Holy Spirit speaks directly to certain people: Philip the deacon (cf. 8:29), Peter (cf. 11:12), and Paul and the other disciples gathered at Antioch (cf. 13:2).
We can explain the Holy Spirit’s role in the Church by tracing the four “marks” — “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” — throughout Acts. Notably, Vatican II developed various biblical images of the Church (LG, No. 6); it also reaffirmed the marks of the Creed in continuity with earlier Councils (LG, No. 8).
According to Acts, “When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together” (2:1). Since the term “church” designates an “assembly” (CCC, No. 751) the Apostles and others form the Church by virtue of their unity. Then, with the arrival of the Holy Spirit, this unity intensifies as it accommodates plurality. Acts describes this phenomenon in terms of the miraculous ability to speak, and to hear, the proclamation of Jesus Christ in various “tongues” or languages (cf. 2:4, 6, 8). Thus:
We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God (2:9–11).
We can summarize the Pentecost event with reference to the teaching of Vatican II: “By communicating his Spirit, Christ mystically constitutes as His body those brothers of His who are called together from every nation” (LG, No. 7).
Following Pentecost, the unifying power of the Holy Spirit is revealed by the testimony of the Church, whose members “had everything in common” (4:32). Later, the Spirit guides the resolution of the controversy surrounding Gentile conversion at the “Council of Jerusalem” (cf. 15:28), and appoints leaders — literally, “overseers” or “bishops” (in Greek: episkopoi) — to govern the Church (cf. 20:28).
Regarding the second “mark” (holy) of the Church, we can say, quite simply, that the Holy Spirit makes the Church holy, for the saving work of Christ culminates in the gift of the Spirit (LG, No. 4), whom the Lord calls, “the promise of the Father” (1:4). And so Peter declares at Pentecost: “Exalted at the right hand of God, He received the promise of the holy Spirit from the Father and poured it forth” (2:33). The holiness of the Church consists in remaining close to the source of holiness, which is the death and Resurrection of the Lord (LG, No. 39). We have already noted that Christ is present in His Church. As a sign of His ongoing presence, the ascended Lord, in Acts, directly addresses Paul (cf. 9:5–6; 18:9–10; 22:7–8; 23:11; 26:14–18) and Ananias (cf. 9:10–16).
Concerning the third mark of the Church — “catholicity” (universality) — Vatican II teaches that Christ “sent His life-giving Spirit upon his disciples and through Him set up his Body, which is the Church, as the universal sacrament of salvation” (CCC, No. 832). Thus, the Catechism explains that the Church is catholic in a double and related sense: (1) she has received the fullness of the means of salvation; and, therefore, (2) she is the instrument of salvation for all people (CCC, Nos. 830-831). According to Vatican II, “The Church on earth is by its very nature missionary” (Ad Gentes, No. 2).
In Acts, it is precisely after Pentecost that the Apostles begin to preach, baptize, celebrate the Eucharist, and confer the Holy Spirit:
Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice, and proclaimed to them, “Let the whole house of Israel know for certain that God made Him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and they asked Peter and the other apostles, “What are we to do, my brothers?” Peter (said) to them, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the holy Spirit.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand persons were added that day. They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers (cf. 2:14,36–38,41–42) — (CCC, 1086).
Furthermore, Vatican II teaches that the Holy Spirit “bestows upon her [the Church] various hierarchic and charismatic gifts, and in this way directs her” (CCC, No. 768). In Acts, several figures are “filled with the Holy Spirit,” and thereby prophesy or speak in God’s name; others proclaim the Gospel (cf. 4:8–12, 31; 6:3, 5; 7:55–57; 11:24; 13:9–11). As we have seen, the Holy Spirit is responsible for appointing Church leaders (cf. 20:28). He also inspires Christian disciples to spread the Gospel (cf. 2:4; 4:8; 5:31), and he guides missionaries like Philip (cf. 8:29, 39), Barnabas, Paul and Timothy (cf. 13:2, 4; 16:6–7; 20:22–23) —(CCC, No. 852).
Concerning the fourth mark, the Church is apostolic because: (1) her original members are the Apostles; (2) she transmits the Gospel that she has received from the Apostles by means of Scripture, doctrine, and the sacraments; and (3) she is guided by the successors of the Apostles, who are the bishops (apostolic succession) (CCC, No. 857).
The Apostles are the link between Christ and the Church; their testimony underscores the reality of the Lord’s saving work. For this reason, Peter declares in his Pentecost speech that, “This man God raised (on) the third day and granted that He be visible, not to all the people, but to us, the witnesses chosen by God in advance, who ate and drank with Him after He rose from the dead. He commissioned us to preach to the people and testify that He is the one appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead” (10:40–42) (CCC, No. 860).
As Jesus’ ministry continues in the Church, so the ministry of the Church continued after the death of the twelve Apostles. Already in infancy, the Church grew rapidly, as we see in Acts (cf. 2:41, 47; 4:4; 6:1; 9:31; 11:21; 14:21; 16:5). In response to this development, the Apostles commission official assistants, beginning with the seven deacons (cf. 6:1–6). Later, disciples such as Barnabas, Silas, John Mark, Timothy and Priscilla and Aquila accompany St. Paul on his missionary journeys (see, for example, 12:25; 15:40; 16:1–4; 18:1–2). In this way, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles share their God-given office, in various ways and degrees, with other members of the Church (cf. 20:28) (CCC, No. 861).
Overall, we see in Acts that the Holy Spirit constitutes the Church: “[The church] was being built up and walked in the fear of the Lord, and with the consolation of the Holy Spirit it grew in numbers” (9:31).
Encouragement for Priests
In Acts, the Church has to deal with unforeseen circumstances: Christ’s Ascension (cf. 1:10–11), disputes between Hebrew-speaking and Greek-speaking Jews over temporal goods (cf. 6:1), the question of whether Gentiles who become Christians ought to observe the Mosaic Law (cf. 15:1–29), and persecution (see, for example, 8:1). Likewise, Vatican II declared that, owing to the changed circumstances of modernity, the Church ought to be renewed so that she could function effectively in this new environment.1 Specifically, the Council recognized the contemporary challenges facing priests: “A most important and increasingly difficult role is being assigned to this order in the renewal of Christ’s Church,” because of the “often vastly changed circumstances of the pastoral and human scene” (Presbyterorum Ordinis, No. 1).
We will now consider one of the Council’s insights regarding the priesthood, and how this relates to the Acts of the Apostles. According to the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, “Priests will acquire holiness in their own distinctive way of exercising their functions sincerely and tirelessly in the Spirit of Christ” (Presbyterorum Ordinis, No. 13). In other words, priests are meant to grow in holiness by doing their work — living their vocation — well. Everything necessary for holiness is right in front of us.
Here we can think of all things that we do, day in and day out: praying, especially the Liturgy of the Hours; celebrating the Mass; hearing confessions; anointing the sick; preparing couples for marriage; celebrating funerals; writing homilies; managing the parish staff; meeting with parishioners; attending meetings of parish committees; collaborating with our diocese or religious order on sundry projects, and teaching the faith to children, young people, and adults.
Significantly, Vatican II exhorted priests to conduct their work — all of the above tasks — “in the Spirit of Christ.” Not only does this mean imitating the Lord’s example through personal effort, but also allowing the Holy Spirit to work from within. We have noted that, in Acts, the Spirit plays the main role in the Church. In this regard, it is noteworthy that the text refers to Him as the “Spirit of Jesus” (16:7; cf. 5:9; 8:39). For, as we have seen in connection with Pentecost, the Spirit enables the Church to continue the work of Christ; the Spirit empowers the Apostles, and their successors, to be the Lord’s witnesses.
Here, we can draw strength from the example of St. Paul. (Along with the Holy Spirit and St. Peter, he is the chief protagonist of Acts, particularly in the second half of the work [cf. 11:19–28:31].) We know from Acts that Paul was a priest; the text mentions twice that he celebrated the Eucharist (cf. 20:11; 28:35). The great missionary Apostle not only had a relationship with Christ — the Lord Jesus speaks to him at his conversion (cf. 9:5–6; cf. 22:7–8; 26:14–18), during his missionary travels (cf. 18:9–10) and in prison (cf. 23:11) — but also with the Holy Spirit.
Indeed, the Spirit commissions Paul, along with Barnabas, “for the work to which I have called them” (13:3). During Paul’s second missionary journey, the Holy Spirit actually prevents Timothy and him from proclaiming the Gospel in the Roman province of Asia (cf. 16:6–7). (No explicit reason is given for this.) At the end of his third missionary journey, Paul explains to the presbyters (priests) of Ephesus that the Holy Spirit is leading him to Jerusalem (cf. 20:22). Paul’s relationship with the Spirit is so intimate that he says the following: “What will happen to me there I do not know, except that in one city after another the holy Spirit has been warning me that imprisonment and hardships await me” (20:22–23). (Paul’s Jewish adversaries will apprehend him in Jerusalem [cf. 21:27]; appealing his case directly to the Roman emperor [cf. 25:11], Paul will make his way to Rome [cf. 28:14]. Acts does not mention Paul’s martyrdom there, although this is the ancient tradition of the Church.)
Paul’s reliance on the Holy Spirit is crucial for his work as an Apostle. He says so, in Acts, using words that echo his own writings: “I consider life of no importance to me, if only I may finish my course and the ministry I received from the Lord Jesus, to bear witness to the gospel of God’s grace” (20:24; cf. Phil 1:21; Eph 3:2, 7; 2 Tm 4:7). Here is a compelling example for priests: to perform, in the language of Vatican II, “sincerely and tirelessly,” the ministry entrusted to us — always in the “Spirit of Christ.”
Pope Benedict’s letter on the Year of Faith contains three references to the Acts of the Apostles. The title of the document, Porta Fidei (door of faith), is drawn from one of them: “They called the church together and reported what God had done with them and how He had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles” (14:27). Acts tells the story of the Church — in the beginning and in every age. As the Church of today celebrates this Year of Faith, we who are priests find inspiration for our ministry in Acts as we continue the work of the Apostles.
1 Most of the documents of Vatican Council II begin by acknowledging the new circumstances of modernity, and the Church’s need to respond to them. The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World is noteworthy: “Ours is a new age of history, with critical and swift upheavals spreading gradually to all corners of the earth” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 3).
FATHER MARQUES is a priest of the Diocese of Richmond and is pastor of Sacred Heart parish in Danville, Va.