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  • Writer's pictureFr. Austin

The Parish then; the Parish now

Part 2 – Acts 1:1 – 2:47

“In the first book, O Theophilus…”

Saint Luke, one of our heavenly patrons, begins the Acts of the Apostles by first implying that this present work is “part two” of a larger whole. That “first book,” of course, is the Gospel according to Luke. In it, Luke has already told us about Jesus – whose birth was foretold by Gabriel and anticipated by the humble Virgin Mary; who grew to be a great prophet with a particular concern for the poor, the sick, and the marginalized sinner; who was arrested and died between two criminals and who was also raised from the dead. This Jesus, Luke tells us, doesn’t have a story that simply “ends.” Rather, the Story of Christ demands a second part; and here it is, “O Theophilus.”[1]

Jesus Himself sets the stage for this second book, as He is preparing to return to the Father. As He about to ascend to heaven, Jesus tells the Apostles, “you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all of Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (1:8). Friends, this is precisely what the Acts of the Apostles tells us: the actions of those Apostles, filled with the Holy Spirit, from Jerusalem out to the whole world.

After this final earthly encounter with Christ, the Eleven return to town, to the Upper Room, where they had celebrated the Last Supper, where they had hidden from the authorities after Jesus’ arrest, where they cowered, ashamed on Easter morning, where they had seen the Risen Lord once more. The Upper Room had become very familiar to them – and very beloved. There they waited, planning for the future, expecting this Promise of the Father.

In that place, the first parish was gathered. “The Eleven,” Jesus’ Mother Mary, probably Mary Magdalene, Cleopas and another (whom we meet on the road to Emmaus {Lk 24:12-35}), probably Mary, the wife of Clopas (cfr. Jn 19:25 – perhaps “Cleopas?”), and perhaps the other women whom Luke mentions as additional followers of Jesus in His ministry: Joanna … and Susanna (cf. Lk 8:3). Also, as Acts 1:21-26 attests, there were probably at least Matthias and (Barsabbas) Justus present. It would not be a bad estimate to say that this “first parish” consisted of at least 22 people – all of whom had walked with Jesus and seen Him risen.

Twenty-two people; we regularly get more than that at daily Mass!

This experience tells me something very important about the Scriptural basis for the Parish: The Parish is a community formed from a shared experience of the Risen Lord, gathered in prayer and fellowship, expecting God’s action among and through them. That is the community gathered in the Upper Room. That is the parish into which the Holy Spirit was first poured on Pentecost. That is the community that brought the Church of Jesus to the entire world!

Twenty-two people.[2]

This is the first “parish”: the Apostles and those gathered with them, focused in prayer, expecting the Gift of the Holy Spirit, which was poured out upon them on the day of Pentecost. The Jewish feast of Pentecost occurs fifty days after the celebration of Passover, and it commemorates the giving of the Law at Sinai. Just as the whole nation of Israel was gathered at the mountain where God gave the Law, so too, the “new Israel,” the Church, is gathered, and God bestows this new Law of the Spirit. In fact, the typical New Testament word for “church” is ekklesia, which is often translated as “assembly,” or “those gathered.” The implication is that the Church is an assembly, called together by Jesus.

This new Law is an inclusive one – it embraces not only the Apostles, not only those of Jewish ancestry, but all people. The Acts of the Apostles will illustrate this as the narrative unfolds from the Upper Room, into Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the world. It is significant that this outpouring occurs on Pentecost, a feast that has now become known for us as the “birthday of the Church.” Fifty days after Easter, we have the fulfillment of Jesus’ Resurrection promise of the Advocate; and with this promise fulfilled, the work of the Church now begins.

What do these early verses of the Book of Acts have to teach us about our faith? After all, we didn’t just make all this up. What we celebrate and live today was alive and present to the early Church as well. Perhaps it has evolved over time, but its roots are clearly visible in Scripture.

First, the idea that the Church is the continuation of Christ’s work is evidenced by Luke’s “hinging” the Gospel to this current work by his narrative of Jesus’ encounter with the Apostles and His Ascension mandate – to go forth and preach, etc. Luke ends his Gospel with this final encounter with Jesus and the sending of the Apostles:

“Then He led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up His hands He blessed them. While He blessed them, He parted from them, and was carried up into heaven. And they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple praising God.”[3]

After his prologue, Luke begins the Acts of the Apostles with a repeat of the action:

“[W]hen they had come together, they asked Him, ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom of Israel?’ He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all of Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.’ And when He had said this He was lifted up, and a cloud took Him out of their sight.”[4]

We, as the Church, are continuing Jesus’ mission even today.

Second, as we watch the Apostles deliberate about replacing Judas, we find the roots of what we call “Apostolic Succession.” What this means is that the leadership and care of the Church has been passed down, in an unbroken line, from the first Apostles, throughout history, to our present-day bishops. We refer to the bishops as the “successors of the Apostles” for this reason. Also, the importance for the Eleven to replace Judas also calls to mind the importance of the number Twelve.

Israel is founded on the Twelve Tribes of Jacob – his sons, who went down to Egypt and became a great nation. The choice of twelve Apostles signifies a new beginning – a renewal of the nation of Israel in the Church. The fullness of this number was important for Peter and the others. Hence, the election of Matthias.

The Catechism teaches:

In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them ‘their own position of teaching authority’.” Indeed, “the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time.”

This living transmission, accomplished by the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition, since it is distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it.[5]

Matthias’ selection indicates a new wholeness for the Church, that was diminished by the loss of Judas.

Another important element to these first two chapters of Acts is the effect that the Spirit has on those on whom He descends. The Apostles (and presumably those with them) are no longer afraid; rather, they are driven out – like Jesus, after His baptism and at the beginning of His ministry of preaching (cfr. Lk 4:1, 14) – and begin proclaiming the Risen Lord. Peter is depicted as preaching the first “homily” to those who had gathered around the Upper Room.

What Peter proclaims is the heart of the missionary gospel message: what we refer to as the kerygma, from the Greek, “proclamation.” This kerygma is the story of Jesus and its saving effect in the lives of those who receive and accept Him. The heart of this message is that Jesus came, sent by the Father, and lived and taught among us. He was crucified, which was an event prophesied in Scripture, and, as prophesized, rose from the dead. The Spirit whom He sent upon these people who now preach is available to all who hear this message, and faith in this Jesus will save them.

For Peter and the Apostles – and indeed for all who preached Christ in those early days – the real relationship with Jesus was essential to our salvation. It was clear from Peter and the others’ words that this was not just some “fairy tale” that they wanted to tell. It was truth, it was a matter of fact, and it was meaningful. “Brothers, what are we to do?” the people ask (2:37). Baptism, the essential Sacrament of faith, is the response, and a life of faith is to follow that.

That life involved regular fellowship and learning, as “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers” (2:42). This is parish life if ever I have heard it! All of this, sparked by the preaching of the Word, is the start of the missionary Church, and “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (2:47).

It is interesting to point out, too, that the format for the Eucharistic gathering has remained the same since the beginning of the Church. Sure, we have added or adapted things here and there, but the basics are always there. Think about the encounter of the two disciples with Jesus on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-35): Jesus greeted them and spoke with them about the Scriptures as He walked along with them; He exhorted them (“Oh, how foolish you are!” [24:25]); He “broke the bread” (24:30); and they recognized Him (24:30b). So too with the Apostles; so too in the early centuries of the Church. Consider what an early martyr, St. Justin writes about 100 years after Jesus:

And we … continually remind each other of these things. And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Spirit. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying “Amen”; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who comforts the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.[6]

These first pages of Acts illustrate the nature of the parish – a small unit of believers, joined together in an encounter of the Lord, filled with the Holy Spirit, and commissioned to make new disciples. While its outward manifestation may have changed over the centuries, the essential nature and mission of the parish has not. Our job is to make disciples – right where we are.

The Code of Canon Law is the set of guidelines that governs the activity of the Church in the world, both inside the Church Herself and outside. In its many, many dull pages can be found definitions, expectations, penalties, and instructions for everything from Mass stipends to what kind of oil to use for anointing to how to establish a new parish. Canon 515 is the one that gives us the technical definition of what a “parish” is:

A parish is a certain community of Christ’s faithful stably established within a particular Church [i.e., diocese], whose pastoral care, under the authority of the diocesan Bishop, is entrusted to a parish priest as its proper pastor.[7]

Connected to this is the role of the “parish priest,” or pastor:

A pastor is obliged to make provision so that the word of God is proclaimed in its entirety to those living in the parish; for this reason, he is to take care that the lay members of the Christian faithful are instructed in the truths of the faith, especially by giving a homily on Sundays and holy days of obligation and by offering catechetical instruction. He is to foster works through which the spirit of the gospel is promoted, even in what pertains to social justice. He is to have particular care for the Catholic education of children and youth. He is to make every effort, even with the collaboration of the Christian faithful, so that the message of the gospel comes also to those who have ceased the practice of their religion or do not profess the true faith.[8]

Notice what this definition does not say. It does not define “parishioners” as “those on the parish registration list,” or “those who use envelopes,” or even “those who attend Mass.” Rather, the pastor is given the task of shepherding all those “living in the parish.” Remember: a parish is not the small plot of land on which the church and rectory are built.

Jerusalem at the time of the beginning of the Apostles’ ministry was about 5 square miles: 2.25 miles north to south. By way of comparison, Christ the King Parish is between 14 and 15 square miles – about three times bigger than the Apostles’ Jerusalem! Fortunate for us, we have more faithful than that first parish in Jerusalem. Right?

But what this means is that we all must take ownership of that mission that each of the members of the first parish in Jerusalem shared. Every one of us who are baptized have a vocation. First, we are called to pursue holiness in our own lives; second, we are called to live our Christian calling in a particular state of life; finally, we are called to draw others to Jesus through our personal witness to Him. It is not the job of the pastor, or the staff, or some nun somewhere else. It is yours!

In fact, lay people – everyday Catholics – are much better suited for taking the Gospel into the “real world” than any priest could ever be. Vatican II, fifty years ago, recognized the essential role of “lay apostles”:

In the Church there is a diversity of ministry but a oneness of mission. Christ conferred on the Apostles and their successors the duty of teaching, sanctifying, and ruling in His name and power. But the laity likewise share in the priestly, prophetic, and royal office of Christ and therefore have their own share in the mission of the whole people of God in the Church and in the world.

They exercise the apostolate in fact by their activity directed to the evangelization and sanctification of men and to the penetrating and perfecting of the temporal order through the spirit of the Gospel. In this way, their temporal activity openly bears witness to Christ and promotes the salvation of men. Since the laity, in accordance with their state of life, live in the midst of the world and its concerns, they are called by God to exercise their apostolate in the world like leaven, with the ardor of the spirit of Christ.[9]

If the evangelization of Glen Burnie were left simply to me, we’d be in bad shape!

Thus, the parish is the place where evangelization takes place. What is evangelization? It is simply sharing a saving encounter with Jesus Christ that we ourselves have experienced and encouraging others to share that encounter in turn. That is what the Apostles and their friends did in the first century; that is still our task today.

For next time: Read Acts 3:1 – 5:42

Questions for reflection

1. Do I see a connection between the Church of the New Testament and the Church today?

2. Have I ever felt intimidated to engage in the life of the Church because there “aren’t enough of us” or I feel like an outsider?

3. Does the fact of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection mean anything to me? Does it change my outlook?

4. Do I see my parish as a place for welcoming newcomers, sharing the Gospel, and growing in faith together; or is it simply a place to receive “religious services”?

5. Do I feel like I share the mission of the Church along with my pastor and “church professionals”?

Endnotes [1] “Theolophilus” means “lover of God.” [2] Tradition would also hold that there were other “disciples” of Jesus – those who would have followed Him off and on throughout His ministry, such as Martha and Mary, Peter’s wife (and possibly family), and those numbered among the seventy-two in the other Gospels. But in that Upper Room, this estimate is probably fair. [3] Luke 24:50-53 [4] Acts 1:6-9. [5] CCC, nn. 77-78. [6] St. Justin Martyr, First Apology, ch. 67. [7] Canon 515 s.1. [8] Canon 528 s. 1. [9] Apostolicam Actuositatem, n. 2.

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