A Brief Directive for Church Leaders from the Acts of the Apostles

 "The Deliverance of St Paul and St Barnabas” oil on canvas by Claude-Guy Halle This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
“The Deliverance of St Paul and St Barnabas” oil on canvas by Claude-Guy Halle
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

The second reading from today’s Mass is very Catholic and too informative to let pass without comment. It presents a highly organized Church, possessing some of the structures we know today in full form. Granted, some of these structures are in seminal (seed) form, but they are there.

We will also notice qualities of the original kerygma that are at variance with what some modern thinkers declare should be the methodology of the Church. The soft, cross-less Christianity of many today, who replace the cross with a pillow and insist on merely inclusion and affirmation, is strangely absent in this early setting.

Let’s look at the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 14:21-27) and see the true path of priests, teachers, and leaders in the Church. Four steps are prescribed for our consideration. The Apostles went forth announcing, admonishing, appointing, and accounting.

I. Announcing – The text says, After Paul and Barnabas had proclaimed the good news to that city and made a considerable number of disciples …

Notice that happiness is linked to the harvest. Proclaiming the Good News, they yield a great harvest. As Catholics, we are not sent out to proclaim a mere list of duties. We are sent to proclaim the Gospel. And the Gospel is this: that God has loved the world and sent His Son, who by dying and rising from the dead has purchased for us a whole new life, free from sin and the rebellious obsessions of this world. He is victorious over all the death-directed and sinful drives of this present evil age. Simply put, He has triumphed over these forces and enabled us to walk in newness of life.

We are sent to announce a new life, a life set free from the bondage of sin, rebellion, sensuality, greed, lust, domination, and revenge. We are sent to announce a life of joy, confidence, purity, chastity, generosity, and devotion to the truth rooted in love.

Yes, here is a joyful announcement rooted in the cry Anastasis (Resurrection)! The old order of sin is gone and a new life of freedom from sin is here!

Did everyone accept this as good news? No. Some, indeed many, were offended and sought to convict Christians as “disturbers of the peace.” Some don’t like to have their sin and bondage called out as such. They prefer bondage, sin, and darkness to light, holiness, and freedom.

But at the end of the day, we as Catholics announce what is intrinsically good news and we ought to start proclaiming it with joy. We must announce it joyfully, as something wonderful, freeing, and true rather than sounding like bitter, angry people who are just trying to win an argument.

II. Admonishing – The text says, They returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch. They strengthened the spirits of the disciples and exhorted them to persevere in the faith, saying, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”

Notice first that preaching (teaching) is a process. You don’t just preach or teach once and move on; you return and reiterate. They are retracing their steps back through towns that they have already evangelized. They do not just come, have a tent revival, and then move on. They return and, as we shall see, they establish the Church.

Notice what they do:

1. Encourage – They strengthen the spirits of the disciples.
2. Exhort – They exhort them to persevere in the faith.
3. Explain – They explain by saying, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”

Let’s focus especially on the last the point. In effect, they announce and teach, “If you’re not willing to endure the cross, no crown will come your way. If you can’t stand a little disappointment sometimes, if you can’t stand being talked about sometimes, if you think you should always be up and never down, I’ve come to remind you, NO CROSS, NO CROWN.”

Yes, beware of cross-less Christianity. We do have good news to proclaim, but there is also the truth that we get to the resurrection and the glory through the Cross. There is a test in every testimony, a trial in every triumph. There are demands of discipleship, requirements for renewal, laws of love, and sufferings set forth for Saints.

Good preaching combines hardship and happiness in one message. It is a joy to follow in the footsteps of our Lord, who endured hostility, hardship, and the horrors of the Cross but triumphed over all of it, showing that the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God. Yes, He has caught the wise in their craftiness and shown that the thoughts of the wise of this world are futile (cf 1 Cor 3:20). He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them (paradoxically) by the Cross (cf Col 2:15).

Thus, Saints Paul and Barnabas announce the Cross, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (cf 1 Cor 1:23). Many today insist that the Church soft-pedal the Cross, saying that we should use “honey, not vinegar.” No can do. We joyfully announce and uphold the paradox of the Cross and must be willing to be a sign of contradiction to this world, which sees only pleasure and the indulgence of sinful drives as the way forward, which exalts freedom without truth or obedience, and calls good what God calls sinful.

Too many so-called Christian denominations have adopted the pillow as their image and a “give the people what they want” mentality. This is 180 degrees out of phase with the Cross.

The Catholic Church does not exist to reflect the views of her members, but to reflect the views of her founder and head, Jesus Christ. Jesus announced the Cross without ambiguity, saying as He went out to die, Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to me (John 12:31-32).

So we announce the Cross not merely as suffering, but as life, power, and love. It is possible, by the power of the Cross, to live without sin, to overcome rebellion, pride, lust, and greed. It is possible by the power of the Cross to learn to forgive and to live the truth in love.

And the world will hate us for this. But such hardships, such crosses are necessary preludes to the hallelujah of Heaven. The Church can do no less than to point to the Cross. The center of our faith is the Cross, not a pillow. The Cross is our only hope. Ave Crux! spes unica nostra!  (Hail O Cross! our only hope!)

Yes, the Church announces the Cross and admonishes a world obsessed with pleasure and passing, fake happiness.

III. Appointing – The text says, They appointed presbyters for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, commended them to the Lord in whom they had put their faith. Then they traveled through Pisidia and reached Pamphylia. After proclaiming the word at Perga they went down to Attalia.

And thus we see the ordination of priest leaders in every place. “Priest” is just an English mispronunciation of “presbyter.” Paul and Barnabas did not simply go about vaguely preaching and then moving on. They established local churches with a structure of authority. The whole Pauline corpus of writings indicates a need to continue overseeing these local churches and to stay in touch with the priest leaders established to lead those churches.

Later, St. Paul spoke of the need for this structure in other texts, for example when he wrote to Titus,

This is why I left you in Crete, that you might amend what was defective, and appoint presbyters in every town as I directed you (Titus 1:5).

This appointment was done through the laying on of hands and today is called ordination. It was a way of establishing order and office in the Church to make sure that the work continued and that the Church was governed by order. This is why we call the Sacrament involved here the “Sacrament of Holy Orders.”

Note, too, that a critical task for leaders in the Church is to develop and train new leaders. Too many parishes depend on charismatic and gifted leaders and are left with a void rather than an ongoing ministry when those leaders die or must move on. This should not be so. Part of being a good leader is to train new leaders.

IV. Accounting – The text says, From there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work they had now accomplished. And when they arrived, 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.

Note that Saints Paul and Barnabas are now returning to render an account of what they have done. Accountability is part of a healthy Church. Every priest should render an account to his bishop, and every bishop to his Metropolitan and to the Pope. Today’s ad limina visits of bishops to the Pope are the way this is done. Further, priests are accountable to their Ordinary through various mechanisms such as yearly reports and other meetings.

A further background to this text is that Paul and Barnabas are returning to Antioch because it was from there that they were sent forth by the local bishops and priests on this missionary task.

While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off (Acts 13:2-3).

St. Paul was not the “lone ranger” some think him to be. He was sent and was accountable. As we read elsewhere,

But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia; and again I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days (Gal 1:15-18).

Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up by revelation; and I laid before them (but privately before those who were of repute) the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, lest somehow I should be running or had run in vain (Gal 2:1).

The preacher and teacher must be accountable: For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” So each of us shall give account of himself to God (Rom 14:10-12).

And thus we see some paths for priests, preachers, teachers, and leaders. We must announce the Gospel as good news, with joy and confidence. We must admonish a world (and some Church members) obsessed with pleasures to embrace the Cross as our only hope. We must continue to develop, train, and appoint leaders to follow after us. And we must be accountable to one another.

A nice, quick portrait of some healthy traits for the Church!

26 Replies to “A Brief Directive for Church Leaders from the Acts of the Apostles”

  1. From a prayer book regarding the drops of blood lost by Jesus on the way to Calvary, “be it known that the number of armed soldiers were 150; those who trailed me while I was bound were 23. The executioners of justice were 83; the blows received on my head were150; those on my stomach,108; kicks on my shoulders, 80. I was led, bound with cords by the hair, 24 times; spits in the face were 180. I was beaten on the body 6666 times; beaten on the head, 110 times. I was roughly pushed, and at 12 o’clock was lifted up by the hair; pricked with thorns and pulled by the beard 23 times; received 20 wounds on the head; thorns of marine junks, 72; pricks of thorns in the head, 110; mortal thorns in the forehead, 3. I was afterwards flogged and dressed as a mocked king; wounds in the body,1000. The soldiers who led me to the Calvary were 608; those who watched me were three, and those who mocked me were.1008; the drops of blood which I lost were 28,430.”

    1. Whew!!! 1 drop of blood is 0.05 ml, I presume, so that would be 20,000 drops of blood to a liter. That would be 1.415 liters of blood that was lost and man has about 6 liters of blood in his system, so that is about 24% of HIS blood that JESUS spilled for the human race. Each percent represents each of the twelve tribes of Israel, which is Israel itself and the other twelve percent, each percent represent each of the twelve apostles who will go to the whole world, the Gentiles to be evangelized. My goodness, what kind of Love that this Savior had to go through just to bring each of us to GOD. Whew!!!

  2. “Too many so-called Christian denominations have adopted the pillow as their image and a “give the people what they want” mentality.” – not only them, frCharles; sadly, our priests and lay leaders too. i am from Singapore and met a number. Please pray for us.

  3. “The Catholic Church does not exist to reflect the views of her members, but to reflect the views of her founder and head, Jesus Christ.” Bravo! But, the Church of “nice” and the “we are the Church” crowd think you are crazy as a bed bug. The cross or the pillow, make them choose Msgr. You will know you are on the correct path when a large portion of your parishioners refuse to shake your hand after Mass.

    1. I am going to guess that you are a rather young man perhaps in your 20s for you speak in this mode. Your comments are not without truth, there IS too much concern to be “nice” today and I have written extensively about this, as you note.

      However your stance, as stated here and in several comments elsewhere is too absolute. There are prudential judgments to be made wherein one will sometimes be strong and clear, at other times more subtle and with the long term in mind. Throwing people out of the Church or making them angry is not a goal, it is an unfortunate result in a world in darkness that the sometimes the light of truth seems obnoxious to them. Our role is not to tell everyone how terrible they are, our mission is to proclaim repentance for the forgiveness of sins so that mercy is available for our many sins.

      There are times when it makes sense to seek to stay in a conversation with a people or a culture, and other times when such conversations are no longer fruitful and should be ended until the poison is abated (cf 1 cor 5). Jesus spoke of excommunication and of treating unrepentant sinners “as a gentile or tax collector” But he also spoke of allowing the wheat and the tares to grow together till the harvest. Prudence is the virtue (which is not the same as caution) which shows the best way forward given individual circumstances.

      Hence, Steve, I would encourage you to remain strong and clear but to be less absolute, (orthodoxy is about balancing truths not selecting and overemphasizing some in exclusion to others). Allow room for prudence in matters. There is not merely one pastoral stance, but many, given circumstances and particulars. Veritatem in Caritate

      As regards prudence and counsel, I have written an article that will post this evening on that topic as part of the series on the Spiritual Works of Mercy

      1. Steve, here is an example from St. Thomas Aquinas that backs up Monsignor Pope’s point: “Therefore just as sometimes the physician prudently refrains from giving a medicine sufficiently efficacious to heal the disease, lest a greater danger should arise on account of the weakness of nature so the priest, moved by Divine instinct, some times refrains from enjoining the entire punishment due to one sin, lest by the severity of the punishment, the sick man come to despair and turn away altogether from repentance.” > Summa Theologica > Supplement > Question 18>Article 4.

      2. Msgr., thank you, your analysis is one I have heard a few times before. Although, I am 63 and a convert to the Church (2006). I knew I should have stopped after the Bravo. Your answer to Nate & John was great. I, too, just want to see the priests and bishops do more. If I ever seem to be telling you what to do, please know that I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about! You are one of the good guys, that’s why I’m here, and you are bilocating (Dave S’s idea) via this blog. And you seem to like it, and are not scared of your answers. I think most priests & bishops are scared (as you stated in your answer to John) of making someone mad. Think about this: the only time I hear from my bishop is once a year when I am forced to watch a video of him telling me what a good steward he has been of our funds, but please, we need more. Would six letters a year on basic Church teaching read in every parish be too much to ask?

        Again, thank you, you make it so easy to talk to that I am surprised there aren’t many more who take the advantage.
        May God continue to bless you.

  4. When I think of the Cross and hardships often I cannot help but think about how many men today hold high (lifted up) the hardships, the quiet professionalism, the silent suffering of the special forces of our military in the US. Any number of specials on the subject of special forces ‘selection’ show Navy Seals doing hard things during hell week – things that nobody else wants to do.
    I see this finite ‘good’ as but a dim intimation of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Who is Goodness infinitely. There are so many lessons to be learned in my opinion to [draw men] in. Watching special forces soldiers being gassed with CS and seeing the debilitating effects (reminding me of sin) where they lay on the ground and moan in agony. Along comes a drill instructor donning a gas mask and helps them up, points them in the right direction (away from the contaminated area) gives them a shove, and says ‘go that way.’ For some, the drill instructor has to physically walk with the soldier holding onto their arm guiding them out of the contaminated zone to a place they can breath fresh air. For me, that is accompaniment much like Simon helped Our Lord carry HIs Cross up a steep hill.

  5. “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” If one can look in the history of the Church, never a time can we conclude that the Church was truly not persecuted nor was it ever at ‘peace’. Peace in the hearts of the faithful, yes but peace in the institution, no. Schisms, persecutions from within and from without, internal squabbles, corruptions and many others have always haunted the Church. Why? Simply because of men and their iniquities and the devil is a roaring lion prowling waiting to devour the believers. I believe that these must happen to make us always stand erect and always aware and awake and strong to withstand against the force of division and disruption. We must undergo hardships to earn the Kingdom of GOD. And yet the Church must always be our stronghold for there the HOLY SPIRIT resides and guides and propels the believers to greater heights of faith. Especially now, there are the conjuring of the forces of evil from every sides from politics, to secularism, from relativism to semantics/play of words, from materialism to hedonism, from culture of death to the genetic manipulation/cloning and many others. The LORD allows them because of the hardness of man’s heart, HIS respect of free will and hopefully we learn the hard way to return to the basic of listening and following JESUS, The Way, The Truth and The Life.

  6. Sometimes I wonder about the people who heard Jesus (or the apostles after Jesus rose) and why they converted. What did they hear? What message struck home to them?
    My answer to myself is that they were very familiar with “the world” and its ways and consequences. They knew from experience that life lived according to the society without God left one hurting and hopeless. There was no “out.” But then come a few men, men saying there is a way out – there is a way to live cleanly, with hope, and with the promise of finding dignity and happiness. The way was to believe in the revelation of Jesus Christ, the Savior. I imagine, living in the morass of a hopeless society made many people want to try anything to find a way out. That is how I imagine so many joined the Church after hearing St. Paul and the other apostles preach.

    In our own day and age, living in a predominantly Christian society has made people believe the trustworthiness, goodness, justice, and hopefulness of that society is not a result of people living Christian lives, but is just how human societies are. The knowledge of just how awful society without God really is, is lost. So, then more and more people leave off leading lives guided by Christ and by the Church, thinking they can sin and all the goodness of society around them will remain. But it doesn’t. And I think that is what we are seeing today – the downward progression of a society that is rejecting God, and returning to the coarse and crude hopelessness of paganism.

    1. Another reason for the earliest believers: Acts 2:22: “Men of Israel, listen to this. Jesus of Nazareth was a man duly accredited to you from God; such were the miracles and wonders and signs which God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves well know.”

    2. Bee bee, an important question to keep in mind is ‘how’ did they hear? I was just meditating the wealth of beauty in Lk 6 and it resounds that the Lord of the Sabbath, proclaiming His Kingdom says (v27) “but to you who hear I say,…”? It’s important to hear (experience) with our soul, which lives in harmony with intellect and will, if only we listen.
      The early disciples believed our Lord, that He is the Way, the Truth, the Life. They were not searching for a way out. God bless

  7. To play off what Steve said, I do wonder why the Bishops seem to say nothing about highly visible Catholic politicians who flaunt their disregard concerning the Church’s stance on issues like sex and abortion.

    1. It’s a valid question. However, I wonder if it is fair to say they say or do nothing. It may be that such pols have been privately approached. Also, there are factors in each situation that need to be weighed such as the pol getting “martyr” status.

      Politics is a kind of third rail and many bishops hesitate to go near it since people are more passionate about their politics than their faith as a general rule even among church-going Catholics.

      Also to be considered is the fact that there is one group even more hated and unpopular than politicians, and that is Catholic bishops. I mean who likes them even a little, at least as a group? Liberals hate them, conservatives hate them, fallen away Catholics hate them, pewsitters hate them. At best, some Catholics tolerate them and may have some like for their particular bishop. But in the end the Bishop’s lot is not a happy one.

      Consider too that most conservatives just want the bishops to be quiet about almost any issue except a very narrow or specific range of life/sex issues. But otherwise they don’t want the Bishops to peep up about anything at all that even hints at public policy such as immigration, war, economy, the poor, ecology, capital punishment. Never mind that there are important moral considerations in all these issues, since they aren’t “dogma” the notion is that bishop need to absolutely shut up and “stay out of politics.”

      So, while I’m sympathetic with your concern that more be done, I think most bishops just know they are being “set up” when “encouraged” to speak out and denounce pols et al. by the likes of you or me. Generally John, isn’t it really true that what you prefer is that the Bishops just shut up and say little or nothing. You may have a few issues you’d like to hear from them on but you really would prefer they just disappear from the public square. And they know that. They get the same guff from liberals too: Shut up, except about the issues I care about.

      Sorry to sound the cynic here, but to repeat, a bishop’s lot is not a happy one for many of the reasons stated.

      I suppose if I were a bishop (never happen) I would meet privately with prominent dissenters in my diocese of every ilk, politician, celebrity or otherwise, seek to teach them, explain why they should stay away from Communion until that can find unity in the teachings, and also, in matters of serious dissent involving sin such as voting to fund abortion, shaking up, entering invalid marriages or pretend gay marriages, warn them of the likelihood they will go to hell. I would also ask my pastors to do the same since theoretically these folks all have territorial pastors too. I’m not sure I would publically denounce them in a personal way, but I might state in a general way pols et al should refrain from communion and warn of the serious sin involved in breaking communion with Christ. But I think it is important to teach these matters in a general way lest a bishop be seen as singling out. Frankly there are a lot of Catholics that should stay way from Communion for any number of reasons.

      1. Yes, I do follow religion as well as politics. Thank you for clarifying the issue I brought up.

        1. Thank you for further elaborating on the difficult position bishops find themselves in. Unfortunately, the messaging for at least some in the pews may be misconstrued. They may say to themselves “if high profile Catholic individuals can get away with it why can’t I?” It may be not a large problem, but one that I have pondered about and you aptly answered it.

      2. Msgr. this was a magnificent answer that sadly puts me into doubt or of double mind concerning such things; yes, I read your post this morning. 🙂 For I do not wish to revile any man as it is a serious sin and yet I do not want men to revile our Lord in the Sacraments or the teachings of the Church. For it seems that what started in this country, in the city of your birth, by Saul Alinsky and his success at organizing faith based groups to enact what he saw as social justice initiatives made of him a hero and saint amongst the progressives and modernists of this country; about the time of your birth. Since then, social justice has become the code word for the politics of the poor or the immigrant or of a particular race to be exploited and to empower the ‘oppressed’ to right the wrongs and to give voice to the downtrodden. It sounded so good . . . just like Marx and Engels made their manifesto sound . . . but it turned out badly. In fact, what we hear almost daily from many bishops and from many priests are sermons that sound like the 60’s radicals street preaching and their band of demonstrators. Without getting into the ‘how’ we came to be where we are today, the bishops do find themselves in a hard place . . . and I would not like to be one of them. After years of advocacy for the political left we often sided with causes that had for their end something different than did the Church and, sadly, today our shepherds have lost their voice of moral authority with the numerous scandals which did not leave the Church or them unscathed. So in some sense, I am of a double mind for I am presented with two large groups amongst priests, bishops and laity who are of different minds. One is opposed to the other and I must choose which voice has the familiar sound of Jesus which the sheep should recognize and which one does not. So the desire for silence of the bishops or for words that confirm that the teaching of the Church is not going to be corrupted or diminished is certainly part of the problem. I would hope in such times we should pray for the gift of counsel for our own direction in this crisis; for every bishop or priest is not singing from the same hymnal. Are there hirelings amongst the shepherds and are there wolves amongst the sheep? I would guess that there have always been some but isn’t our time more divided than most ages? We need more good priests and spiritual advisors to help us take the next best step. Sadly after my two old mentor priests died I felt as though the last two candles lit in the sanctuary had been snuffed out. I see some flickers here and there and you seem to be a steady light but locally it is a hard time for many people who need to find the best way forward. I don’t suppose you can bilocate . . . ?

  8. How much influence does a Bishop hold over his Parishes? I have spoken of the church I attend for noontime mass before. It appears to me to be heavy on apostolic works but light on actual sacraments (only one hour per week of scheduled confession, only one daily mss during summer). I asked the Bishops office why there was no “coverage” for lack of a better word in this highly populated business district, as there are 3 parishes that are close but few daily masses (during winter the lunch parish has two masses per day but not always at regular times, while the other two locals have none).

    My home parish has 3 daily masses and all are highly attended. Also, confessions are regularly offered 3 times per week, more often during major holidays.

    The Bishops office said they leave all these decisions up to the Pastor. The lunch Parish has 4 regular priests. The home one has 3. Certainly it is not a “manpower” concern.

    I do not understand why the lunch parish does not offer these sacraments more. I would think attendance would increase if people could count on them. Am I missing something?

    Praise God, my schedule during the summer allows me to attend Mass at my home parish daily.

  9. My point in this was, wouldn’t the Bishop want to at least counsel his parishes like St Paul did? If not, why not?

  10. Msgr.,

    Your point is, to a certain extent, valid. However, abortion really does trump the other issues. Our society murders people in the millions. That outweighs whether we pay the poor another 5% each month in food stamps, for example. But, yes, the corporatists and militarists also howl when the Church challenges them.

    1. I don’t say it doesn’t trump other issues. I also think those who vote to fund it are more guilty than those who merely indicate support for it. But it gets very complicated when we start singling out public figures. It may be more prudent for Bishops to issue a more general teaching about communion and the support for abortion and how this puts them out of communion with the Church and renders their “amen” a lie. There are more than pols who are guilty here. I happen to think those who vote to fund are most guilty, but there are others too who should stay back. I would welcome a general and comprehensive teaching from the Bishops on worthy communion which delineates serious dissent from mere disagreement on a host of issues and which charitably reminds Catholics that unworthy communion brings a curse, not a blessing upon us.

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