The Apostles Prayed for Guidance, and God Guided Them to St. Matthias

SAINTS & ART: Christ picked Apostles, and apostolicity has been part of the Church since Christ founded it.

“St. Matthias,” 5th-century fresco, Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls
“St. Matthias,” 5th-century fresco, Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls (photo: Public Domain)

With St. Matthias, we encounter an important dimension of the Church, one of her four “notes” (“one, holy, catholic, and apostolic”): apostolicity. 

It is clear from Jesus’ three years of public ministry that there is a qualitative distinction between the “Apostles” and the “disciples.” Jesus has many disciples. He has 12 Apostles. Their names are repeatedly cataloged in the Gospels. 

They are privileged witnesses and immediate collaborators with Jesus in his work. Their sins and failures notwithstanding, they become the inner core on which Jesus builds his continuing mission. They receive the power of binding and loosing sins on the first Easter night (John 20:22-23). They are present at the Last Supper, first to receive Communion and mandated to “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19), i.e., by our terms, “ordained.”

With Judas Iscariot’s suicide, there is a vacancy in the apostolic college. The fact that the remaining Apostles fill it, replacing Judas by Matthias, tells us vital things. It tells us that the apostolic role was not a “one-time” thing in the Church, limited to the first generation, but was to continue. The Church is Church because, among other things, it is apostolic.

Acts 1:12-24 details Matthias’ selection. A careful reading of that passage underscores the significance of apostolicity. The process is presented as occurring immediately after Jesus’ Ascension and prior to Pentecost, i.e., during that preparatory period when Jesus enjoined his disciples to “wait and pray” (Acts 1:4-5) for the Spirit’s coming. 

The initiative to fill the apostolic vacancy is taken by the head of the Apostles, Peter. He underscores Providence: things don’t happen by chance — which is not to say they don’t happen freely. Judas went his way and did his thing, something foreseen (though not coerced) already in Scripture. Peter then cites Psalms 69 and 109, invoking the latter’s authority to replace Judas.

Peter sets forth criteria for the candidate: he is to have been associated with Jesus’ public ministry from its start, i.e., going back to John the Baptist. He is to bear witness to the Resurrection.

The rest of the disciples, to whom Peter addresses himself, nominate two candidates. The Apostles pray for God’s guidance, aware that only God sees the motives of men’s hearts. They then cast lots “and the lot fell to Matthias, so he was added to the eleven apostles” (v. 26).

The Church teaches that the bishops are the “successors of the Apostles,” that the apostolicity of the Church has continued through the centuries in the episcopate. That’s why at least some of the earlier Protestants — Lutherans and Anglicans — retained the episcopate: there’s a reason Anglicans in America called themselves Episcopal. (Of course, their notions of priesthood itself were fundamentally at odds with Catholic truth, i.e., they denied that priests offer real sacrifice in the Eucharist, so their “bishops” ceased being real bishops when the last validly ordained ones died because of that break of apostolic faith).

The Apostles were not perfect men and neither are our bishops, historically or today. But Christ picked Apostles, despite their faults, and apostolicity has been part of the Church since Christ founded it.

Beyond going down in history as the “first” addition to the Apostles, what do we know of Matthias? His name is Hebrew, meaning “gift of Yahweh.” He was probably among the 72 disciples (Luke 10) that Jesus dispatches two-by-two as advance parties ahead of him. That reinforces the distinction between “Apostle” and “disciple,” given that Matthias still had to be added to the Apostles. 

The rest of St. Matthias’ life is unclear. One tradition holds that St. Matthias preached in Ethiopia and was martyred there, probably by crucifixion. Another holds that he was stoned and beheaded in Jerusalem, though perhaps there is some confusion here with a second-century bishop of Jerusalem, also named Matthias. An apocryphal book bears his name. Another source notes his feast was celebrated in February but transferred in the 1969 Roman Calendar reform to move it out of Lent. 

Our saint is depicted in art from a 5th-century fresco in the Basilica of St. Paul-Outside-the-Walls in Rome. It shows him with an axe and scroll in his right hand, his two usual attributes (alluding to the Jerusalem beheading tradition mentioned above). In his left hand he bears a church, which may refer to a particular church he founded in his missionary journeys. We can also take it as Matthias’ connection to the Church through the note of apostolicity, through whom that note was perpetuated. 

Why did I pick this work? Two reasons. One is its antiquity: this work is a century or two into the time when Christianity finally became legal in the Roman Empire. It gives us a taste of early Christian art. 

It is spare, as was keeping with understandings of Christian art focused on the holy and eternal (as opposed, say, to the Renaissance where background and nature acquire importance, or modern art, where the background replaces anything sacred). Its sparseness also should not surprise us in light of the limited tradition we have of Matthias, even if that was not motivated the artist. Compare, for example, Rubens’ Matthias, which is equally spare, focused on the instruments of Matthias’ passion. The other reason I chose it was the church Matthias holds. Matthias’ assumption of the apostolic office was important to Catholic ecclesiology.

(For more on St. Matthias, see here and here. For a fuller discussion of “apostolicity” in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, see here.)