Catholic Classroom: Apostolic Succession
Question: What is meant by apostolic succession?
Our Catholic faith is understood through two major building blocks: Scripture and Tradition. When Christ established the Church, He gave us these beautiful gifts so that we might grow ever closer to God and spread the Gospel to the whole world. He also gave us an additional gift that is a stark reminder of the fact that the Church is both living and trustworthy: apostolic succession.
Apostolic succession has its basis in the Twelve Apostles. When Jesus called the Twelve, He had a specific task for them during His public ministry and after His Ascension. The Apostles were to be witnesses to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for the purpose of building up the Church and extending the Good News of salvation to all people. Since the Apostles’ authority came from Jesus Himself and was solidified through the Holy Spirit, the Apostles are trustworthy witnesses who form the foundation of the Church.
Carrying on the Work
With the growth of the Church and the reality of death (especially during times of Christian persecution), apostolic work was never intended to be limited solely to the Twelve. More apostles were needed not only to shepherd Christian flocks on a wider geographical scale, but also to carry on the work of the Twelve after they passed away. The response to this need was apostolic succession, which led to an unbroken line of bishops that exists today and can be traced back to the Twelve.
Apostolic succession has a visible and tangible representation in the laying on of hands, by which a new bishop is ordained. Just as the Apostles and early leaders of the Church chose successors to whom they formally passed on responsibilities through ordination, bishops are appointed today with great care to maintain the unbroken apostolic succession.
Continuity and Trust
The reason this is so important for our faith is that it allows us to trust and understand the teachings and doctrines of the Church. As successors to the Apostles, the bishops have inherited the task that Jesus entrusted to the Twelve. Like the Twelve, they have an important job as witnesses to teach and maintain the truths of the faith, which the Holy Spirit strengthens them to do. The direct succession from the Apostles helps us to trust that bishops are shepherding their flocks in the truth of Christ.