By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
Throughout the 50 days of the Easter Season the Catholic Church proclaims in Word and Worship the inception and growth of the Church in the first century after the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord between 30 and 33 AD. The bloody sacrifice in death of Jesus the Nazorean was transformed by the loving power of God in resurrection into the greatest movement ever unleashed in human history. Sad divisions aside, the church has proclaimed the Gospel for nearly 2000 years, and presently there are around two billion Christians, more than half being Catholics, throughout the world. Granted many are Christian in name only, but there are countless millions whom the Holy Spirit has transformed into the living Body of Christ for the salvation of souls and the good of humanity.
Throughout the Easter Octave, or the eight days following Easter Sunday, the risen Lord appeared to his broken apostles and disciples in order to heal them, reconcile them to God and to one another in order to set them on their pilgrimage of faith, hope and love in His name. The Acts of the Apostles especially is a narration by Saint Luke of the persistent growth of the early Church from its humble beginnings in Jerusalem to the world stage in Rome, destined to follow the Lord’s command to teach all nations to the ends of the earth.
St. Peter and St. Paul, and the 11 other disciples, with the faithful support of many of the early disciples, laid the foundation for the early Church evident in the many communities that sprung up around the Mediterranean world. In solidarity with their Lord on the cross, the blood and the water continued to flow.
Jews and Gentiles alike experienced their second birth in the flowing waters of Baptism, and the blood of the martyrs became the spring of life for the early Church’s vitality. Early on in the Acts of the Apostles we hear of the water with the Baptism of thousands on Pentecost Sunday, and the blood, with the brutal killing by stoning of the deacon Stephen, the Church’s first martyr. The beheading of James, the brother of the Lord followed and the persecution began that went on for nearly 300 years.
St. Peter is featured in the first half of the Acts of the Apostles while St. Paul’s star rises in the second half of the book. In Chapter 10 the Holy Spirit set the stage through Peter for a second Pentecost day in the home of Cornelius by descending upon all the members of his household with an eruption of tongues and praise.
Peter could only stand by and marvel as God opened the door of faith to the first Gentiles to become Christians. Peter proceeded to baptize them, but that was the easy part. Afterwards, he had to return to Jerusalem with Paul and Barnabus to convince the others that the Gentiles, or pagans, that is non-Jews, did not have to become Jews first before becoming Christian. It was a fierce struggle but in the end God prevailed, and at the Council of Jerusalem only four restrictions laid upon the Gentiles: “You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.” (Acts 15,29)
Of course the Ten Commandments remain fundamental for us but more than 600 laws were shed as the Christian tradition emerged. The command of the Lord to teach all nations was now unencumbered by an exacting Jewish tradition.
After Chapter 15 in the Acts of the Apostles St. Paul took up the torch from Peter and became the Apostle to the Gentiles, further empowered by the Jerusalem Council to be the missionary to the Greek and Roman worlds. Paul’s three missionary journeys are traced upon the pages of the Acts.
Many feared him, remembering his fierce persecution of the early Christians prior to his conversion, and many hated him because he was unrelenting in his zeal to set aside the Law of Moses in the light of Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead. Ultimately, this animosity led to his beheading in Rome.
In our era Pope Francis is calling us to be missionaries who bring the Good News, the joy of the Gospel, to many who are foundering in the world’s mire. This is our origin; this is our constant calling. As we hear about and/or read about the growth of the early church it is readily apparent that many had the missionary spirit. Saint Paul in particular was the missionary par excellence, who never tired of planting the seed of faith, and nurturing the young plant through his letters and pastoral visits. As he wrote in 1Corinthians: “I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow.” (1Cor 3, 6)
As I reflect upon my new life as the 11th Bishop of Jackson during my many journeys throughout the diocese during the Easter season, whether it be for confirmations, graduations, anniversaries, etc., I appreciate that this is the life and ministry of a bishop, set in motion by the apostles and their successors.
I labor in the vineyard of the Lord, building upon the foundation laid by Bishop Chanche and a few others in the late 1830’s. Whether it was the original planters, or the later generations who followed, God is making it grow through the power of the Holy Spirit and in the name of Jesus, raised from the dead.
We are part of a tradition of faith with deep roots, nearly two thousand years young. “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” (2Peter 3,8) So we are just approaching the beginning of the third day of the Christian era, and our call is to plant and build as long as we have life and breath. “And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns”. (Philippians 1,6)
By Bishop Joseph Kopacz