Ascension, Bishops and the Church

When was the Church founded? Many would say that it emerged from the opened side of Jesus on the cross, like a new Eve from the new Adam. Others point to Pentecost when, with Peter’s great sermon, the Church began its mission of evangelization.[1] No one to my knowledge has suggested the Ascension, but Luke’s Gospel, like the others, presents it as the occasion on which Jesus entrusted to the Apostles the universal proclamation of the Good News: “Thus it is written, that the Christ is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations. … You are witnesses of these things.”[2]

The novena between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost may thus be regarded as a time of withdrawal and prayer during which the nascent Church, under the leadership of the Apostles, prepared itself for the coming of the Holy Spirit: “All these [Apostles] with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.”[3] The Church has ever since continued this twofold pattern of prayer and action, under the guidance and direction of our bishops and the pope. We would do well, then, to consider how, and to what extent the pope and his fellow bishops are the successors of the Apostles and also to locate their special role in the context of the universal Church.

I was once required to ponder these matters by a challenge from a Protestant minister. He based his rejection of the Church as hierarchical on the parallel passage in Mark: “Go into the whole world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation. . . . And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name . . . they will pick up serpents and if the drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them.”[4] “Since you claim,” he said, that your bishops are the successors of the Apostles, let them prove it by handling venomous snakes and drinking coffee laced with arsenic.” It was easy, at one level, to demolish his statement, for Saint Mark’s text applies, not primarily to the Apostles but to whomsoever “believes and is baptised,” that is, to every Christian. Hence, as my interlocuter professed to follow the Bible to the letter, I pointed out that he should be the one to prove his faith by experimenting with snakes and arsenic. My riposte, naturally, had no effect on him, but it set me thinking. For the fact is that our bishops do not duplicate in all respects the vocation of the Apostles. For instance, the basis of the commissioning of the Apostles was their having encountered the risen Lord.[5] Obviously, that cannot be passed on; and thus, we may expect that other aspects of the Apostles’ role in the Church would also be absent in the bishops, including emerging unscathed from an encounter with a poisonous snake or beverage. What, then, is their peculiar function? It is simply this: to proclaim and preserve the deposit of the faith: “O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you.”[6]

In order that the full and vital Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the Apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority.[7]

In short, they exercise apostolic authority in the diocese and, if need be, in a general council. If I may use an unflattering image, a bishop is rather like a watchdog, raising the alarm when a teaching detrimental to the faith has appeared. There’s nothing of originality or even of enthusiasm in this aspect of their role in the teaching Church. For imaginative discourse, we must go to the schools, in which, with a certain ingenuity, theologians explore new avenues that are opened by the encounter of revelation with contemporary society. And enthusiasm arises from the vehement attachment of ordinary Catholics to some religious devotion or experience. The Marian shrines provide a good instance of what I mean. I do not deny for a moment that a bishop or pope may be innovative in his thinking, i.e., may act as a theologian. The papal encyclicals amply demonstrate this fact or, more explicitly, Pope Benedict’s statement in the forward to Jesus of Nazareth, that he was writing as a private theologian and not as the sovereign pontiff.[8] Nor will any given bishop be a stranger to devotion in his following of Christ. But these are separate from his exercise of the Church’s magisterium.[9]

The pleasing thing about all this is that each Catholic will on occasion fill all three of these roles. For we all ponder the truths of the faith—and thereby act as theologians—and we all, from time to time, find ourselves moved by the beauty and sublimity of the faith—and thereby demonstrate our common membership in the Church. And, simply as having been baptized, we share in the Magisterium, in that the bishops are called upon to confirm what has become explicit in the consensus of belief:

The whole body of the faithful. . . cannot err in matters of belief. This characteristic is shown in the supernatural appreciation of faith (sensus fidei) on the part of the whole people, when, from the bishops to the last of the faithful, they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals.[10]

In other words, the authentic expression of the faith of the Church is found in the lived experience of all the baptised, learned, devout or ordained. The formal role of the bishop is authoritatively to assure us that seeming novelties will be in continuity with the faith of the primitive Church and, for that matter, the Church of the Fathers, the Middle Ages and the Counter-Reformation. If it sounds messy, it is. We must, therefore, thank God for the presence of the Holy Spirit . . . about whom we shall hear much next Sunday, on the feast of Pentecost.

[1] Cf. Acts 1.8: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.”

[2] Lk 24.46-47.

[3] Acts 1.14.

[4] Mk 16.15-18.

[5] Acts 1.22.

[6] Cf. 1 Tim 6.20.

[7] Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 77.

[8] “It goes without saying that this book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium, but is solely an expression of my personal search for ‘the face of the Lord’ (cf. Ps 27:8).” Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Doubleday, 2007), p. xxxix.

[9] The differing and complementary roles of the magisterium, theologians and the faithful are treated with great insight in the 1877 “Preface” to John Henry Newman’s The Via Media of the Anglican Church, available at

[10] Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 92. Saint Vincent of Lérins (d. ca 450) provided the classic statement of the threefold test of Catholicity: “what has been believed always, everywhere and by all.” The practical difficulties of implementing this principle are obviated by the commission of our bishops to enunciate and safeguard Catholic doctrine.