When I wrote a similar article some years back, some argued that the Church “did not exist at this time” since Pentecost “is the birthday of the Church.” I do not accept that “the Church did not exist at this time.” I think she did exist but had simply not been commissioned to go forth to the nations as yet; that would wait for Pentecost. Further, even if one holds Pentecost as the birthday of the Church, since our existence precedes our birth by at least nine months, surely the Church’s existence also precedes her “birth.”
We could sidestep the whole debate by saying that the exercise of the Church’s teaching authority in this event is “proleptic.” That is to say, what would fully be the case later is here seen operative in an earlier, yet real manner. The Apostles and their office, which were fully operative after Pentecost, are here active as the result of a prevenient grace, an anticipation of the future reality of the Church teaching authoritatively out of her basic structure, and of the charism given to Peter and the Apostles more fully at a later time. But I stand by my contention that the Church did exist at this time and that we do not have a prolepsis, but in fact a proper action of the Magisterium at this very point.
Pope Benedict, writing as Joseph Ratzinger (that is to say not claiming to exercise the Papal Magisterium), speaks to the ecclesiological aspect of the early Church’s declaration. “The Lord is truly risen; He has appeared to Simon.” and “He appeared first to Cephas and then to the Twelve” (1 Cor 15:4). Benedict writes,
But did the women’s and the laymen’s declarations mean nothing? The Lord upbraids the Apostles later for being so reluctant to accept the testimony of the others (Mk 16:14). He calls them “hard of heart” for this reluctance. But He does not undermine their authority to make the official declaration, for in the very next verse He commissions the Apostles to go forth, preaching and teaching in His name. Surely the Lord was not pleased when, after He had promised many times to rise from the dead, they were so slow to listen to the voices of the first witnesses. Should they not have realized that it was the third day and that the Lord had promised to rise? Should they not have “connected the dots”? Did He have to personally appear to them before they would believe?
Alas, it would seem so. Jesus’ first bishops were not perfect men—far from it. But they were the leaders He had chosen, even knowing their weakness. And so, too, today. The Church’s leaders are not perfect; at times they may take too long to make decisions, give clearer teachings, or impose necessary discipline. But in the end it is they who are nonetheless commissioned to teach officially.
This whole event also teaches us that the bishops and even the Pope himself are not always the first to hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church. The more frequent pattern is that the Lord begins reforms and sends apparitions not to the leaders, but to some among the faithful. Reform movements and messages are often received there first and only later does the Church, through her anointed and appointed leaders, affirm or uphold certain things as worthy of belief and set aside others as problematic.
Finally it should be noted that one of the Apostles, Thomas, was absent. Even after the official declaration of the Church went forth, he refused to believe (Jn 20:25). But the Lord is merciful to him. In the end, though, it is clear that Thomas has fallen short, egregiously so. Not only has he disbelieved the testimony of one or more disciples, he has refused the collective and solemn declaration of the Church. Jesus goes on to declare as blessed those who accept the solemn testimony of the Church though they have not seen him with earthly eyes (Jn 20:29). So we are blessed!