May 14th, Feast of St. Matthias
And they gave them lots, and the lot fell upon Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles. (Acts 1:26)
After the fall of Judas from the apostolic college, it was necessary for a successor to be elected. However, it is most striking to note that the choice between either Joseph called Barsabas (surnamed Justus) and Matthias was not made by the people, nor by the eleven, nor even by Peter himself; rather, Matthias was chosen by lots.
If Matthias was selected in this manner, the critic might ask, “Why does the Church not employ this means in our own day for the selection of bishops?” The answer to this question reveals just how necessary Pentecost was.
To choose between equals
It is true that lots and other games of chance are generally not an acceptable means of making decisions, especially not important decisions. Indeed, for the most part, it is even sinful to use dice or coins rather than human reason when choosing which course of action to take.
However, the following is well noted in the commentary of Fr. Leo Haydock:
“Where both candidates appeared equally worthy, as in the present case, and human judgment cannot determine which is to be preferred, it cannot be said that it was wrong to decide it by lots. Thus were avoided any of the evil consequences which might have happened by one party being preferred before the other. S. Augustin observes, that in a doubtful case, where neither part is bad, to decide by lots is not in itself wrong.”
Thus, it is clear that, in this case, there was no sin in choosing between Joseph Justus and Matthias by the use of lots – since human reason had first determined that both were equally qualified and equally good.
Sortition was, in this case, used as a means to avoid any human bias, so that Matthias’ election would be more immediately directed by the Holy Spirit. Since both were good (and equally qualified), St. Peter was wise in having the selection be made through lots rather than according to his own choosing.
But why could not St. Peter simply choose by his own authority as the Prince of the Apostles? Why did the Holy Spirit indicate his divine will through lots rather than through the office of Supreme Shepherd of the Church of earth?
The necessity of Pentecost
To understand why St. Peter preferred the use of lots rather than his own judgment, it will be necessary to recall the historical setting of this scene.
Matthias was chosen after the Ascension of our Lord into heaven, but before the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. This was that difficult time in the Church when the Apostles huddled around the Blessed Virgin awaiting the Gift of the Spirit. In these days, St. Peter had neither our Lord’s physical presence nor the perfect guidance of the Spirit to rely upon.
Indeed, the spiritual doctors (notably, the Angelic Thomas, St. Teresa, and St. John of the Cross) consider these nine days between Ascension and Pentecost to be the “dark night” or “second purgation” of the soul for the apostolic band. It was in these days that the Apostles were moved from the illuminative way of proficients to the unitive way of the perfect.
Therefore, since St. Peter had not yet been confirmed in perfection through the descent of the Holy Spirit, and since the Apostles had yet to receive the sacramental graces of Confirmation (though they were already priests, they were not yet confirmed), he did not trust his own judgment nor was he able to indicate the divine judgment through his own discernment.
Before Pentecost it was necessary to choose between equal candidates by use of lots. However, after Pentecost we see no indication of this practice.
This is why the Church no longer uses lots but relies instead upon the judgment of the Pope and his bishops, the Holy Spirit has come upon the Church in Pentecost. Thus, it is no longer necessary for God to guide his Church through games of chance, but he instead manifests his providence through the will of the hierarchy he himself has ordained.
St. Matthias, Pray for us!