Today we celebrate the feast of Saint James, one of the twelve apostles of Our Divine Lord, and evidently one of his favorites. On three occasions that we know of from the gospels, Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him to be present where the others were not taken. One of those moments was the raising of the little daughter of Jairus from death; another was the magnificent moment of the transfiguration, and the third was the terrible moment of Our Lord’s agony in the Garden of Olives just after the Last Supper.
James and John were the sons of a fisherman named Zebedee and his wife, Salome. They lived and fished in Capernaum at the north end of the Sea of Galilee. They would surely have known the other set of brothers among the apostles, Peter and Andrew, who lived and fished in that same town and on that same lake.
Just recently, our Holy Father issued a statement concerning the Church. It has caused quite a bit of interest, which is good because it becomes the occasion for reflection on the basic meaning of “church” in our theology. In connection with that statement, the question was raised: why does the Holy See refer to some Christian groups as “churches,” while others are called “communities.” And the answer given by the Holy See is this: a “church” must have the power of the sacraments given to the apostles by Our Lord and passed down in unbroken succession from one generation to the next. That would apply, in addition to the Catholic Church, to the various Orthodox churches—Greek, Russian, Syrian, etc. These bodies recognize the validity of the Sacrament of Holy Orders by which men are ordained bishops, priests, and deacons, and have very carefully kept the form of this sacrament. Thus, there are true bishops, priests, and deacons outside the community of Catholicism. Our Greek Orthodox brothers have the true Mass and authentic Eucharist even though we do not receive their sacraments except in extraordinary cases since their refusal to accept the authority of the Pope places them outside full fellowship with us.
The same is true with the followers of Archbishop Lefebvre; they have very carefully kept the sacraments and apostolic succession even though they have been excommunicated for ordaining bishops to serve their own communities without the authority of the Pope. And among our Anglican and Episcopalian brothers, there are those who, having some doubt about the validity of their own ordinations, have gone to Greek Orthodox bishops for re-ordination. Thus they, too, are able to celebrate valid Masses and produce the true Eucharist.
As we celebrate this feast of one of Our Lord’s twelve apostles, we reflect upon those words in the first eucharistic prayer at Mass where we pray for “all who hold and teach the catholic faith that comes to us from the apostles.” That is what we mean when we say that the Church is apostolic—it derives its spiritual powers in unbroken succession from the original apostles. The Pope is the successor of Saint Peter, our first Pope. The other bishops are the successors of the other apostles, and thus this immense gift of sacramentality comes down from Christ our Lord to us through this continuum which we call “apostolic succession.” Let us be grateful for this, and remember that the Scriptures speak of the heavenly Jerusalem, on whose twelve entrances are written the names of the “twelve apostles of the Lamb.” Thank you for seeking God’s truth, God bless you. Father Victor Brown, O.P.
Note: This message was composed some years ago