Witnesses of These Things: Apostolic Succession and Our New Bishop, 3rd Sunday of Easter (B), May 4, 2003

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Espirito Santo Parish, Fall River, MA
Third Sunday of Easter, Year B
May 4, 2003
Acts 2:42-47; 1Pet1:3-9; Jn 20:1-9

1) “You are witnesses of these things.” In today’s Gospel, we see how Jesus was putting the final touches in the preparation of his apostles to take his Gospel to the world. He had already spent three years with them, teaching them, sending them out to preach in his name, to cure the sick, to raise the dead. He had already shown them the example of service. He had already ordained them priests and given them the ability to bring down his body and blood to the altars on Holy Thursday. He had already given them the ability to forgive and retain sins on Easter Sunday evening. He had already shown them that the model to follow, living for God and dying out of love for God and for others. In today’s Gospel, we see how he finishes his preparations.

2) He started by wishing them peace again, eating in front of them and showing them his wounds so that they would know that they were not hallucinating, but that Jesus really had risen. Then St. Luke tells us that Jesus did two very important things. First, he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, so that they would understand that “everything written about [him] in the law of Moses and in the prophets and psalms must be fulfilled.” Jesus had to do this because the apostles had not gotten the connections Jesus had talked about before, which now, after his resurrection, they would finally be able to understand. Now they would understand the real meaning of the existence of Adam and Eve and the consequences of original sin. Now they would get the real meaning of what happened to Abel, killed by his brother Cain. Abel was a type, a forerunner, of Jesus, who, though innocent, was killed by his brothers. Now they would be able to grasp the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, the only Son, who carried the wood for the sacrifice, and who the Lamb was that God would provide, Jesus, the Lamb of God. Now they would be able to understand the real exodus, the real passover, which wasn’t just from Egypt through the Red Sea to the promised land, but from this life, through death, into eternal life. Jesus opened their minds to understand how all of Sacred Scripture had pointed to him. Just as Jesus did with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, to whom he said, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?,” Jesus, “ beginning with Moses and all the prophets, interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” We’re told in that scene that the disciples hearts were burning as they felt incredible consolation that comes from contact with the Truth, who is Jesus. Jesus continues to open up the Sacred Scriptures for us at every Mass, teaching us in the Gospel.

3) Jesus concluded this first thing by summarizing and giving the apostles their full mission: “Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” Their mission was to go and witness to Jesus, to preach about Jesus, about his suffering out of love, about his resurrection and about the call to repentance through the forgiveness of sins. And we see how well they had listened to Jesus and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, followed his marching orders. A couple of months after this instruction by Jesus, we see St. Peter in today’s first reading preaching exactly what Jesus said. “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. … I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.” St. Peter traces the prophecies about Jesus from the beginning, he calls them to repentance through the forgiveness of sins and states boldly that the apostles are witnesses of all of these things. This was Jesus’ plan from the beginning for his Church. Jesus could have stayed around forever and proclaimed the Gospel himself, but out of love, he wanted to give his Church a share in that greatest of all missions, the continuation of the Lord’s own mission of the salvation of our brothers and sisters. He founded his Church and gave it the structure in his selection, training, ordaining and sending of his apostles.

4) But just like Jesus died and ascended into heaven, one day, too, those first apostles died and were given their eternal reward. The mission Jesus gave them he didn’t want to die with them, so they formed and selected others, to carry on this mission that Jesus had given them. We see what St. Paul himself said: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” Paul passed on what he had received and learned from Christ and his apostles. In the case of St. Matthias, we have another very clear example of what we call apostolic succession. He was chosen to take Judas’ place among the apostles. We read in the Acts of the Apostles, “In those days Peter stood up among the believers and said, “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus — for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” … So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us — one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.” Eventually these successors, these witnesses to Christ’s living presence, would, too, die. They selected others. And those selected others. And they selected others all the way down to our present day. There are lists in every see. In the diocese of Rome, they treasure the lists of the successors of the Pope, from St. Peter himself, to St. Linus, to St. Anacletus, to St. Clement all the way down to the 263rd successor, Pope John Paul II. Other dioceses throughout the world treasure these lists as well, which allow those ordained to trace their having been sent out all the way back to the action of the Lord Jesus himself in the upper room.

5) This week something very important happened in the history of our following the Lord Jesus. The Holy Spirit and the Holy Father chose for us the man to succeed Bishop Sean O’Malley as our Shepherd and become the seventh bishop in the 99 years of the Diocese of Fall River. Our new bishop is from Somerset, Msgr. George Coleman, who has been a priest for 39 years, having served in parishes here in Fall River, in New Bedford, in Centerville, and in Sandwich, as well as being in charge of Catholic schools in the Diocese and vicar general to Bishop O’Malley for the past 9 years. Bishop-elect Coleman is a very good priest who, with God’s grace and our prayers, will become an excellent shepherd. Since he studied to be a priest in Rome, he is fluent in Italian and Latin, but over the past several years he has worked diligently, because of the needs of the diocese, to learn both Portuguese and Spanish. Some day soon he will be here and we’ll be able to see how well he’s done in his language skills.

6) But what I want to focus on is why this appointment is so important. Many people might look at his appointment as an interesting curiosity, something that grabs headlines on Thursday in the local newspapers, but something that will impact them far less than Governor Romney’s election last year, or President Bush’s two years ago, or even a new boss at work. But this appointment is, in view of what is most real and most important, far more eventful than any of those, because it has everything to do with our eternal life, in comparison with which our life in this world will be a brief second compared to a lifetime. Msgr. Coleman will soon be ordained a successor to the apostles. He will become a witness to Jesus in our midst. He will be the one who ordains priests and makes sure they’re holy and worthy to serve you. He will be the one who sanctifies the oils that are used to anoint those on the deathbeds and send them to God, he will be the one who blesses the Sacred Chrism which strengthens us with the Holy Spirit at Confirmation, he will be the chief teacher of Christ in this parish, in this diocese. As Christ said to the first apostles, “He who hears you, hears me,” to hear the Lord we will need to listen to Bishop-elect Coleman. He will be high priest of the diocese, bringing down Jesus to our altars, giving priests the power to forgive your sins and make heaven possible. He will be the chief administrator of the diocese, assigning priests to parishes, founding new parishes, closing others. He is the one that Christ will entrust principally with his own mission of the salvation of souls, with the salvation of your soul and mine.

7) Obviously this mission far exceeds anyone’s human capacities. But just as God strengthened the first apostles, he will strengthen Bishop-elect Coleman. It’s been a rough time recently for bishops in America. We have been very fortunate to have had some great bishops in the relatively short history of this diocese. Bishop-elect Coleman is worthy of that apostolic line. But his mission is not something he can do on his own. He needs all of our help, he needs of us to witness to Christ, to build up the body of Christ, the Church, together. He will over the course of his time confirm many of our young people to be witnesses of Christ; they need to give fearless witness. He will, I pray every day, ordain some of our boys priests. He will preach Christ’s own words to us. But we’ve got to respond with faith, just like his own family in Somerset responded, just like the Christian faithful have responded throughout the centuries. His appointment this week is yet one more sign of God’s tender love and care. The Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, has sent him to us and we need to thank the Lord and to pray that Bishop-elect Coleman will fulfill well the task that the Lord has given him.

8 ) At this Mass, I will give Bishop Elect Coleman the final word. He has a special appeal to all of us to take care of the poor and needy in our midst through Catholic Charities. Please listen attentively to him. Jesus repeats this morning about him what he said about the first apostles, “Whoever hears you, hears me!” Therefore let’s listen well.