St Matthias, the Cursing Psalms, and the Universal Mission of the Church

When chanting the epistle at Mass for the feast of St Matthias, I must confess to being amused at the part where Saint Peter says,

“Let their habitation become desolate, and let there be none to dwell therein. And his bishopric let another take.” (Acts 1:20)

The prince of the Apostles first quotes verse 26 of Psalm 69 which is one of the many verses of various psalms that were omitted in the modern Liturgy of the Hours, and secondly verse 8 of Psalm 108, which is one of the three psalms that were omitted in their entirety. The General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours explains that “Such omissions are made because of certain psychological difficulties” (n.131) I hope that you did not become depressed or neurotic during the epistle.

St Peter applies these verses to Judas because He betrayed Our Lord. He then explains to the 120 or so men and women, including the apostles and Our Lady, that they must choose someone to take his place. The reason is found in the Communion verse of the Mass:

“You who have followed Me shall sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”

The number twelve signifies a perfect complement. St Augustine says that the twelve thrones are a mystery or sign (sacramentum) of a certain universality because Our Lord willed that the Church should spread throughout the whole world; it must be universal or “catholic.”

Like the other marks of the Church, universality is both part of the Church from the beginning: nobody in the world is excluded from the Church, and it is not yet achieved: there are many people in the world who are not part of the Church.

The missionary urgency of the Church has been lost, to some extent, in our time. Some people might justify this by an appeal to Vatican II, but in fact, the Decree Ad Gentes on the Missionary Activity of the Church reminded us that Our Lord confirmed the necessity of the Church into which we enter by Baptism as by a door. The Council Fathers then taught,

“Therefore those men cannot be saved, who though aware that God, through Jesus Christ founded the Church as something necessary, still do not wish to enter into it, or to persevere in it. Therefore though God in ways known to Himself can lead those inculpably ignorant of the Gospel to find that faith without which it is impossible to please Him (Heb 11:6), yet a necessity lies upon the Church (1 Cor 9:16), and at the same time a sacred duty, to preach the Gospel. And hence missionary activity today as always retains its power and necessity.” (Ad Gentes 7)

More severe language can be found in the Apostolic Letter Maximum Illud which Pope Benedict XV published in 1919. We were encouraged to celebrate the centenary of this letter in 2019 for a Month of Mission, so I read it carefully and wrote an article on it. (See: Maximum Illud and the missionary month; we do actually need to believe in the salvation of souls .)

St Matthias was chosen as a witness of the resurrection of Our Lord, in order to make up the number of the apostles and so to complete the sign of their universal mission. He reminds us of the duty to proclaim the Catholic faith to all.

Saint Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome before he was finally taken there under guard. He gave thanks to God for their faith which was already known throughout the world and told them that he was ready to preach to them. When we think of the little that we manage to do for the spread of the faith, we should thrill at his confidence, take heart from his courage, and make his words our own: “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” (Rom 1:16)

PICTURE CREDIT: Wikimedia. Saint Matthias by Simone Martini (c.1317-1319) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Public Domain.

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