His heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd. (Mark 6: 34).
The Penny Catechism, which remains a sure means of learning about and passing on our faith, speaks about four defining marks of the Church in this way: “The Church of Christ has four marks by which we may know her: she is One – she is Holy – she is Catholic – she is Apostolic”. As Catholics we profess these four characteristics of the Church in the Nicene Creed when we say each Sunday: “And I believe one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.” The same catechism remarks that the Church is one “because all her members agree in one Faith, have all the same Sacrifice and Sacraments, and are all united under one Head”; she is holy “because she teaches a holy doctrine, offers to all the means of holiness and is distinguished by the eminent holiness of so many thousands of her children”; she is Catholic “because she subsists in all ages, teaches all nations, and is the one Ark of Salvation for all”; she is apostolic “because she holds the doctrines and traditions of the Apostles, and because, through the unbroken succession of her Pastors, she derives her Orders and her Mission from them.” Thus we can say that only when these four marks are present can we claim to find the Church of Christ.
This final mark, the apostolic nature of the Church, is just as essential as the other three and is always intrinsically united with them, yet it is perhaps the most prominent in the lections of the Mass today. It is “the property thanks to which the Church preserves across time the identity of her principles of unity as these were received from Christ in the persons of the apostles”. We cannot claim apostolic authority for the pastors of the Church, nor ourselves, unless they and we are united to her; one in holiness and in faith. It is for this reason that we make a distinction in theological language between a Church in which apostolic succession is found, such as the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and those ecclesial communities which, because they do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Holy Orders, are “deprived of a constitutive element of the Church” and so are not properly described in the same way. Thus the pastors of the Church, the bishops who constitute the episcopal body “in virtue of the sacramental consecration and by the hierarchical communion with the head and members of the college”, are the guarantors of this essential apostolic character, which is passed down through them and their ministry to us in a continuous line from the first apostles (CCC 1559).
In the prophecy of Jeremiah we see a foreshadowing of this apostolic character in the authority given over the people of Israel. Yet the Lord remonstrates with those who, despite being entrusted with this weighty task, have failed in their work and led the faithful astray: “You have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord” (Jer. 23: 2).
As the Lord himself will instruct the apostles—those who will inherit this burden of responsibility in the new covenant—“Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required” (Lk. 12:48). And yet in his mercy the Lord does not simply offer reproach to those who have failed, but hope to those who have gone astray. The people whom the Lord recognizes in the gospel as “sheep without a shepherd” are not abandoned but, through the sending and sacrifice of the Father’s only-begotten Son, a new shepherd is given them; one whom Jeremiah foretells as “a righteous Branch” and the Psalmist as the one who will “lead me forth beside the waters of comfort” who shall “convert my soul, and bring me forth in the paths of righteousness for his Name’s sake” (Mk 6: 34; Ps. 23).
Indeed it is for this reason that Saint Paul remarks that it is in Christ that we have been restored to the perfection of the relationship we desire with the Father. By his blood, that is by his sacrifice, “you who once were far off have been brought near” (Eph. 2: 13). In Christ the old law has been abrogated, “that he might create in himself one new man” (Eph. 2: 15). This new covenant, won by Christ’s passion and death, is the covenant which we celebrate here in the offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice. By virtue of our baptismal incorporation into the mystical body of Christ, the Church, we are made one in him. By our participation in the sacrificial oblation of Christ on the cross, and by our reception of the sacramental grace which he offers us in his life—the life of the Church—we are united to that same Christ who is sent to be the good shepherd who will restore us to the right way. For this reason we can be certain, too, that those who share the apostolic ministry of the Twelve—their successors as our bishops—have the charism to speak with the authentic voice of Christ because the Church, which is Christ, has appointed them to restore what (in the old law) was corrupted.
As in the gospel, so today. When Christ sees us as “sheep without a shepherd” he does not leave us abandoned. Even as he ascends to his Father he promises, “I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you” (Jn 14: 18). And so in the apostolic ministry of the Church—one of the essential marks that Christ is truly present in the institution which we see and of which we are a part—he fulfills that vow, sending the Holy Spirit to make his life and teaching apparent to us now in the life and teaching of his apostles: the bishops in communion with the successor of Saint Peter.
Conscious of this great and reconciling gift, made possible by the sacrifice of himself for us, we must respond completely and with joy. Aware of his essential and abiding presence in the Church, and the authenticity given by him to her teachings, those who wish to call themselves “Christian” can but seek to live in the communion of life and love which is the one holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. To live in Christ means not simply to live alongside him, but to be immersed in him, the way, the truth, and the life; to be shepherded by his firm but gentle rule to the paths of righteousness from which we might otherwise stray, and (when necessary) to be rescued by him, through the apostolic ministry he entrusts to the pastors of his Church and those who co-operate in their pastoral mission.
Let us pray Almighty God for the grace to be open to his love for us, that our hearts may be made docile to his will, and that subject to his care all peoples might be brought to the safety of the sheepfold that there may be “one flock, one shepherd”, even Christ our Lord.