There are many words that are more than mere words. The words of the Holy Mass are such, being fraught with a power and purpose that flies far beyond immediate meaning. Some command miracles, such as the words of consecration. Others command missions, such as the celebrant’s dismissal when the Mass is ended. The end of every Mass is intended as a beginning. The word, “Mass,” is derived from “dismissal,” which is rooted in the idea of many people being sent forth upon different ways on a common mission. The priest’s dismissal, therefore, is not merely a statement inviting the congregation to take their leave, but rather a restatement of Christ’s commandment to His apostles: those who were sent forth.
The “Go” at the close of the Mass is, indeed, the same in meaning as the “Go” at the close of Christ’s earthly ministry. “Go; it is the dismissal.” “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations… teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” This selfsame “Go, you are sent forth” is spoken not only to apostles—to priests and bishops who baptize and teach—but also to those who have become their disciples. We are not called to be disciples only. By our discipleship, we are all sent forth. We are all apostles.
The Catechism teaches that the whole Church is apostolic in two ways (CCC863). Firstly, the Church remains in communion in the faith and life of Jesus Christ through the successors of St. Peter and the original apostles; and secondly, she is sent forth into the world. Every member of the Church, whether priest or layman, shares in this mission to be a missionary. Every Catholic has a mission to teach and preach the Gospel. All are sent forth under different degrees of holy orders as witnesses. Every vocation that serves and obeys Christ is an apostolic vocation, for an apostolate is nothing more than the activity of the Mystical Body of Christ in the work of living and proclaiming the will of God on earth as it is in heaven.
The union with Christ, He Who was sent by the Father, gives the name of “apostolate” to all ordained ministers and laity who follow openly and freely in His grace and love. Therefore, the term can be applied widely as every natural vocation can be answered in the Name of Jesus. As St. Paul writes in Romans, “For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” Together, the many united in One with the guidance and gifts of the Holy Spirit and the life-giving mystery of the Eucharist, are all baptized men and women sent forth upon apostolic missions as apostles, according to station, strength, and circumstance. The Church is one, and therefore it is one with regard to its apostolic nature, and recognizes the single apostolate of her family. In this way, all Catholics are apostles insofar as they are disciples, and as such, participate in the source and soul of the Church’s whole apostolate.
Though honor and must not be taken from those who carry the torch of the apostles through the sacrament of Holy Orders, there is a priesthood of the people that participates in their priestly mission, for there are two participations in the one priesthood of Christ. According to the Catechism again, drawing from Lumen Gentium: “The whole community of believers is, as such, priestly. The faithful exercise their baptismal priesthood through their participation, each according to his own vocation, in Christ’s mission as priest, prophet, and king. Through the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation the faithful are ‘consecrated to be… a holy priesthood.’” (CCC1546)
The priesthood, the apostleship, that falls to lay people is important to recognize, for it is in the conscious intention to act apostolically that this office, this mission, is fulfilled. Just as priest must intend the sacrifice of Transubstantiation, people must intend to be witnesses in their lives in order to be priestly, to be apostolic. We are all called to follow the apostles as apostles ourselves, heeding the call to action that ends every Mass, and take our part in being faithful members of the nations baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit by carrying the word—and the Word—further by Catholic example, Catholic joy, and Catholic peace. Just as the word implies, “Catholic” means “universal,” and thus Catholics live in the universality of the Catholic Church, which is one, holy, and apostolic.
Unfortunately, the mission of the common Catholic apostle is somewhat obstructed in the United States by a Constitution that, though humane and healthy in many ways, hinders the promulgation of the one true Faith. The rights of freedom of religion and freedom of speech have created barriers in this country, in that, this is a land where people are free to believe simply as they choose. This right creates a mentality that, in some ways, cuts the legs out from under the work of evangelization. “Good fences make good neighbors” is not the ideal societal psychology for the work of witness to flourish. Americans are quite used to regarding what their neighbors believe with all due respect and that is the end of it.
For most Americans, one thing is as good as another. What others believe is, to all intents and purposes, none of anyone else’s business—and that is the way it is often automatically considered in America. Whether another person is Catholic or Muslim, gay or straight, pro-life or pro-choice, republican or democrat… we are all Americans, and we must allow our fellow Americans their beliefs—even if we disagree. Once again, this is not to downplay the natural good of national freedom or the potential good that can arise from dialogue, but to simply ask the question of how this cultural environment, which is based on a type of tolerance, affects the apostolic mission.
Besides this ingrained cultural inhibition, there are also the vestiges of Protestant persecution in the United States. As a result of hostilities against Catholic immigrants by Protestants, there exist even today two predominant trends in Catholic identity in the United States that are equally inimical to a true apostolic spirit of evangelization. One of these is characterized by a fortress-mentality, or isolationism, by which Catholics wall themselves away from the world in an effort to keep their Catholicism safe from scrutiny and censure. The other tends toward the opposite extreme, whereby Catholics are not distinguished whatsoever in society by their Faith through a species of assimilation. Such Catholicism might be branded as “JFK Catholicism,” in which the Faith in no way affects the manner in which one functions in the workaday world. Both, of course, are entirely adverse to the spirit of apostleship, a spirit that is bold and fearless, even unto death—unto martyrdom.
The loss of the understanding of apostleship arises primarily, however, from a loss of interior life. The soul of apostleship is prayer, and the deterioration of the interior life that is rampant in this country is connected in a large part to parish deterioration. The idea of apostolate has, in many ways, been boiled down to signing up in the church vestibule for “Stewardship Sunday.” If American Catholics are to renew their sense of apostleship for the sake of all nations, they should start with this nation. The United States is still missionary country.
There are two new and dynamic resources available from Sophia Institute Press that provide a strong Catholic perspective on apostleship as a supplement to NBC’s A.D. The Bible Continues, which runs on Sundays 9/8c. These two volumes, A.D. Ministers and Martyrs by Mike Aquilina and A.D. Catholic Viewer’s Guide by Veronica Burchard, reintroduce Catholics to the zeal and mission of the apostles whom we are to follow not only as disciples but also as apostles. The books offer instruction on Church teaching and history and interpretation of the program’s presentation of the early Church and her heroes, together with practical challenges and reminders of how we all can answer the call to follow Christ as those who are sent forth. It is never too late to take up the mantle of our baptism and strike out as apostles.
Let us go. We are sent forth.