May 14 is the feast of Saint Matthias the Apostle. Matthias has the distinction of being the only one of the Twelve Apostles to have not been called directly by Christ. After Judas Iscariot hung himself in shame for betraying Christ, the Apostles gathered together and, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, chose Matthias to replace him.
The event is recorded in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles.
In those days Peter stood up among the brethren (the company of persons was in all about a hundred and twenty), and said, “Brethren, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David, concerning Judas who was guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us, and was allotted his share in this ministry…For it is written in the book of Psalms, `Let his habitation become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it’; and `His office let another take.’ So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us — one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsab’bas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthi’as.
And they prayed and said, “Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men, show which one of these two thou hast chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside, to go to his own place.”
And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthi’as; and he was enrolled with the eleven apostles.-Acts 1:15-17, 20-26 RSV
From this we know that Matthias was a follower of Christ from the time of His baptism. This makes it likely that he was originally a disciple of St. John the Baptist, as were Sts. Andrew and John, but this is by no means certain. Traditionally, Matthias is identified as one of the Seventy Disciples mentioned in St. Luke’s Gospel, and this seems likely, but it is not directly corroborated in Scripture.
No Matthias in A.D. The Bible Continues
If you were to ask someone to name the Twelve Apostles, not including Judas, it is likely that they would have trouble remembering Matthias. In fact, the recent, surprisingly well done miniseries A.D.: The Bible Continues completely omits the choosing of Matthias to replace Judas. In many ways this makes sense. Matthias suddenly appears, replaces Judas, and disappears again. There is no mention of him anywhere else in the Bible. Even the otherwise obscure apostle Jude has an epistle named after him. Matthias has nothing.
Obscurity is actually the fate for many of the Twelve. The Synoptic Gospels focus primarily on the Big Three: Peter, James and John. Andrew gets mentioned a little more simply because he is Peter’s brother and Matthew is significant because he was a tax collector. St. John’s Gospel gives a bigger role to Andrew, Phillip, Thomas and Nathaniel but these fade back into the background in Acts. Phillip and James the Less have continued prominence, but it is likely that the Phillip and perhaps the James who are mentioned in Acts are not the same men as the apostles. And of course, all the apostles give way to Paul, who dominates the second half of Acts and wrote almost two-thirds of the epistles that follow.
No Matthias in the Basilicas of Rome
Because of this, some have argued that Peter jumped the gun and the real replacement for Judas was Paul. If one were to travel to the heart of the Church, the Eternal City of Rome, one might be convinced that was actually the case. Walking into the Pope’s cathedral, the archbasilica of St. John Lateran, one is confronted by gigantic, literally breathtaking (at least for me) sculptures of the Twelve Apostles. (For an idea of how huge these sculptures actually, I’ve included a picture of myself standing next to the statue of St. Thomas the Apostle)
The symbolism behind this is powerful. The basilica is a microcosm of the entire Church and the statues of the Apostles stand within it like pillars, demonstrating how Christ founded His Church upon His Apostles, and their witness supports that Church to this day.
This statues include the St. Paul the Apostle. However, the number of statues remains at twelve. That means one of the Apostles has to be left out. Any guesses as to which one that is?
(Some may argue, that because the names Matthew and Matthias are both variations of the Hebrew Mattiyahu that the statue of Matthaeus could do double duty. However, it’s pretty clear that it is intended to be a statue of St. Matthew. He has a book, which is the standard iconography for an evangelist. John has one too.)
My favorite basilica, St. Paul Outside the Walls, has a set of (significantly smaller) statues as well, and these too omit Matthias in favor of Paul. The omission is understandable in Rome. After all, St. Paul was martyred there. He has long been considered, with St. Peter, as a twin founder of the church at Rome, making the two into a Christian version of Romulus and Remus. There is a reason that they honored together on the same day and that day is a Solemnity, instead of a Feast like all the other Apostles. (If you want to know the exact difference between a Solemnity and a Feast, check this out.)
This omission, however, can be found elsewhere. The cupola of the incredibly beautiful St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Macon, Georgia includes stained glass windows depicting each of the Twelve Apostles in pairs. Peter is of course paired with Paul, leading to the omission, once again, of Matthias.
Second Tier of the Roman Canon
The most glaring omission of Matthias is not, however, in sacred sculpture or stained glass but in the liturgy itself. I am blessed to be a member of Our Lady of Good Counsel parish in Lake Charles, Louisiana. The pastor offers Mass in the most reverent manner I have ever seen. A notable aspect of this is that he uses the First Eucharistic Prayer for every Sunday or Solemnity. Before the Second Vatican Council, the First Eucharistic Prayer was the only Eucharistic and it was known as the Roman Canon of the Mass. Every priest, from about the fifth century onward, would have used this prayer when he offered the Sacrifice of the Mass, at least in the Latin Rite. This would have included many saints. Sadly, most priests have abandoned this unbroken tradition in favor of the novelty of the Second and Third Eucharistic Prayers, which dilute the sacrificial language of Mass. I can remember only a handful of times I have heard a priest using the First Eucharistic Prayer before moving to Louisiana.
One of my favorite aspects of the Prayer, especially when I was young, are the two long lists of saints, known as Intercessions. The First Intercession comes before the Consecration and the Second comes after. The First Intercession clearly focuses on commemorating members of the different states of life and clerical orders in the Church; starting with the Apostles and continuing through the first seven popes, an important bishop (St. Cyprian), deacon (St. Lawrence), and laymen (Sts. John and Paul, Sts. Cosmos and Damian). The Intercession pairs and gives them a special prominence to Peter and Paul. (The priest is allowed to shorten the Canon somewhat by not going through the entire list of saints, but he is required to always commemorate Peter and Paul). The First Intercession mentions all the Apostles except the Matthias, who is relegated to the Second Intercession. There is some consolation that Matthias is mentioned along with important New Testament saints such as John the Baptist, Stephen and Barnabas (Barnabas was also technically an apostle but like Paul he was not an original disciple and unlike Matthias he is never specifically commissioned as one.) and that his name cannot be omitted but it still seems like he is on some kind of second tier, separated from the actual Apostles and replaced by Paul. (Interestingly, the seven female martyrs who are mentioned in the Canon are all mentioned in the Second Intercession.)
Sts. Matthias and Pope Damasus I
In the end, this too can be largely explained by the same reasons as the omission of Matthias from the sculptures of the basilicas in Rome: it’s Rome. As one of the twin founders of the Church there, St. Paul was much more important to the Christian history of the city than St. Matthias. Also, it is likely that the Roman Canon was developed during the pontificate of Pope St. Damasus I.
Pope Damasus I is best known for epigraphs that he wrote to be placed over the tombs of important martyrs in Rome. In these, Damasus focuses on the Roman-ness of the saints. He argues that to be truly Christian is to be Roman and that those martyrs who were not native Romans became Roman by virtue of their martyrdom. This is especially noticeable in the epigraph Damasus composed for Sts. Peter and Paul. In it he writes, “The East sent the disciples, which we willingly admit. On account of the merit of their blood…Rome deserves to call them her citizens.” Damasus also had a strong devotion to St. Paul individually and it is likely that construction of the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls began during his pontificate. For these reasons, it makes sense for Damasus to have moved Matthias in the Canon to give a special prominence to Paul.
Ultimately, none of these really matters. St. Matthias does not resent St. Paul for being more recognized than him. They are both basking in the glory of the Beatific Vision along with the rest of the Church Triumphant, unworried about the level of veneration each is offered by the Church Militant.
Many times, men worry too much about honor and recognition. It would be better for us to follow the example of St. Matthias and focus instead on doing that work for which God has called and equipped us and do it the very best that we can. For that is how we will be sanctified and gain eternal life.