I have mentioned the Catholic doctrine of apostolic succession several times but have not directly explored it. It is crucial to the authority of Christ’s Church so today this oversight is finally addressed!
Jesus had many disciples, but only a dozen Apostles. He personally called those men (and only men). During His ministry, the Apostles were essentially in formation for their future role in the Church. Their mission was to spread the Gospel after Christ’s death and resurrection through the institution of the Church.
To do this, Jesus not only selected the 12, but also chose their leader and gave them authority:
Then he summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits to drive them out and to cure every disease and every illness. The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon called Peter…
“He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me.”
“He who hears you hears Me, and he who rejects you rejects Me, and he who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me.”
“And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.“
(Jesus) said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.“
There is more scripture that is applicable, but the above sampling is clear. Jesus:
- Instituted the Church.
- Chose its leaders, including their head.
- Gave them authority.
Specific men were chosen as the leaders of Christ’s Church and given authority. Other disciples could not validly claim that authority. The “fly in this ointment” is the earthly mortality of the Apostles. Was this Church, its leaders and their authority intended only for the life span of the Apostles? Of course not!
Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.“
This Church is commissioned until “the end of the age.” The Church continues beyond the deaths of the Apostles. The necessity to continue the succession began almost immediately with the replacement of Judas by Matthias. Some would argue that this was “not biblical.” That is an odd argument to be sure, as it (1) denies the authority given to the Apostles by Our Lord and Savior and (2) infers the validity of self-appointed leaders vs. those to whom authority was granted. Catholics on the other hand, find this argument specious because (1) our bishops are direct successors of the first ones (the Apostles), receiving their authority in an unbroken chain and (2) while we see this as biblical, the need to be so is not relevant as we reject the reformation’s self-serving invention of sola scriptura.
Christ’s Church and His authority conferred upon it continues today and until the end of the age. Our leaders are bishops and their priests, not ministers lacking direct succession from Our Lord’s chosen Apostles. Our Magisterium, protected by the Holy Spirit, definitively interprets Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Our doctrine has never changed. Our bishops and priests act in persona Christi (the person of Christ) to consecrate the Holy Eucharist and grant His absolution from sin. The leaders in the Protestant communities do not even claim this. This is the Catholic Church. Not another denomination, but Christ’s Church.