These reflections are a result of more than 40 years of ministry as a Roman Catholic priest. Most of these years I spent in the Diocese of Charlotte which covers Western North Carolina. Now I am retired, and live in Medellín, Colombia where I continue to serve as a priest in the Archdiocese of Medellín.
On the sabbath we went outside the city gate along the river where we thought there would be a place of prayer. We sat and spoke with the women who had gathered there. One of them, a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth, from the city of Thyatira, a worshiper of God, listened, and the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what Paul was saying. After she and her household had been baptized, she offered us an invitation, “If you consider me a believer in the Lord, come and stay at my home,” and she prevailed on us. (Acts 16:13-15)
I’ve always loved the story of Lydia. What a powerful woman she must have been. This passage is one of the “we” sections of the Acts of the Apostles. Lydia and her household become the first converts of Paul in Europe. I’ll never forget my visit to the Baptistery of Saint Lydia in Phillipi when we washed our feet in the river where she was baptized.
Jesus said: “Whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him.” (Jn 14:21)
Often we think of revelation as knowing propositions that we are to believe . . . but the Fourth Gospel has a slightly different take on that. Revelation is the fruit of love. It’s not some cold exercise in how to convince my head to remember and believe something which I can barely understand. Rather revelation speaks of love in the most intimate detail. To be loved by the Father and by the Risen Lord involves knowing the Lord intimately. It’s a wholly different kind of knowledge—a knowledge not of things, but rather of a person who has loved us and given himself for us.
During the night Paul had a vision. A Macedonian stood before him and implored him with these words, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we sought passage to Macedonia at once, concluding that God had called us to proclaim the Good News to them. (Acts 16:9-10)
Sometimes the visions in the night hold a future that we never imagined. Paul’s vision called him to Macedonia . . . the ancient home of Alexander the Great. And suddenly Christianity was moving beyond the Middle East and slowly reaching the West and eventually to Rome itself fulfilling what Jesus had said: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
‘It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right. Farewell.’ And so they were sent on their journey. Upon their arrival in Antioch they called the assembly together and delivered the letter. When the people read it, they were delighted with the exhortation. (Acts 15:28-31)
What to do about the Gentiles? That was THE question of the early Church. It was really brought home when Paul had such success among the Gentiles—folks who knew nothing about Jewish Law nor its corporal and dietary ramifications. The big issue, of course, was circumcision. You can do that to a little baby boy, but to a fully grown adult male—probably not. And as the passage notes, circumcision as a “necessity” was NOT mentioned. And everyone was “delighted.”
Then they gave lots to them, and the lot fell upon Matthias, and he was counted with the Eleven Apostles. (Acts 1:26)
The choosing of Matthias seems a bit of a backhanded compliment—he was just filling a slot and he was to be martyred for his trouble. According to legend, Matthias was martyred by beheading which is why he’s always pictured with the axe close by. Unfortunately, very little is really known about Saint Matthias. But in Mexico, Saint Matthias has a tequila named for him: San Matías.
Some who had come down from Judea were instructing the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1)
I am the vine, you are the branches. (Jn 15:5)
From the beginning of the church there have always been folks who wanted to exclude others. “If you don’t do such-and-such or believe this-or-that, you’re not a real Catholic.” Thank goodness the Lord reminds us that He’s the Vine, we’re just the branches . . . only one thing is necessary to stay rooted in Him.
It’s the same story with Our Lady of Fatima. The message of Fatima has nothing to do with secrets, nor visions of Hell, nor messages from angels, nor threats of dire punishments. Basically, the message is very simple: “Repent and pray!”
The (apostles) 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.” 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. (Acts 14:22-23)
Ministry in the early church was fluid. Apostles and teachers eventually give way to overseers (bishops) and elders (presbyters). And of course there were always the table-waiters (deacons). What is interesting is that the early church did not use religious terms for its ministers. The early church knew about priests and high priests (Jewish Temple) and pontiffs (Roman State religion), but it chose not to use those terms. Rather, overseers, elders and table-waiters, terms from everyday life described the ministry and the service to which they were called. It was only much later did those other terms began to be used of Christian ministers . . . but only by way of analogy. In the New Testament there was only one priesthood, that of our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ, and of the entire priestly people of God.