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Apostolic Succession

by Lino Serrano




"Do not neglect the gift you have, which was conferred on you throughout the prophetic word with the imposition of hands of the presbyterate." - 1 Tim. 4:14




Succession means the act or right by which one person succeeds to the position or rank of another. Therefore Apostolic succession is the act or right of chosen men in succeeding the Apostles of Jesus Christ. These successors would posses the authority of the Apostles when the apostolic age came to an end.


Succession of Authority


Why is Apostolic succession necessary? For the proper transmission of the teaching of the Gospel according to the witness of the apostles, as St. Paul explains in his epistle to Titus, " [the Bishop] holding fast to the true message as taught so that he will be able both to exhort with sound doctrine and to refute opponents." (Titus 1:9) The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, " Indeed, the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time." (paragraph 77) In appointing successors, the Apostles were merely following the command of Jesus himself. See St. Matt.28:17-20.


Succession was conferred by the apostles upon these individuals through the imposition of hands as a designation of one assuming their own authority. The Apostles, being faithful to their commission, went about preaching the Gospel throughout the world. In many places they appointed faithful men to succeed them in the teaching of the Gospel. These men were ordained to be their successors through the imposition of hands. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states in paragraph 1593:


Since the beginning, the ordained ministry has been conferred and exercised in three degrees: that of bishops, that of presbyters, and that of deacons. The ministries conferred by ordination are irreplaceable for the organic structure of the Church: without the bishop, presbyters, and deacons, one cannot speak of the Church (cf. St. Ignatius of Antioch, Ad Trall. 3,1).


The Biblical Foundation of Succession


As we have already read above, the custom of succession symbolized through the imposition of hands was used by the Apostles to ordain men as successors to the commission given to them by Jesus. This succession is the vehicle for transmitting the Gospel throughout the world. But where did the concept of succession through the imposition of hands have its origin? For this we need to take a look back to the history of the Israelite people.


Succession in the Old Testament -


Read Numbers 27:18-23. In Numbers 27:12-17, we see why this commission given to Joshua is necessary. The sin that is mentioned in verse 14 has excluded Moses from being able to enter into the promised land which God had provided for the Israelites. He therefore had to appoint a successor to lead the people into the land. This successor is to have the same authority that Moses possessed. This succession of authority is symbolized by the imposition of hands from Moses to Joshua. What was the effect of this imposition of hands? Let’s read Deuteronomy Chapter 34:7-9. Joshua had the "spirit of wisdom" on him that was transferred to him from Moses. Also the Israelites became obedient to him because they recognized that he now had the authority of Moses.


Succession in the New Testament -


The mode used by Moses to transfer his authority to Joshua is now used by the early apostolic Church. The apostles recognized the authority given to them by Jesus, the teaching and binding and loosing, began to appoint successors to their commission. They realized that they were not the last generation of the Church. Therefore they needed to appoint a new generation of faithful men to the leadership role of leading the flock and preaching the Gospel throughout the world. The Catechism states in paragraph 1590: St. Paul said to his disciple Timothy: "I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands" (2 Tim 1:6), and "If any one aspires to the office of bishop, he desires a noble task." (1 Tim 3:1) To Titus he said: "This is why I left you in Crete, that you amend what was defective, and appoint presbyters in every town, as I directed you" (Titus 1:5).


The Episcopacy


As we can gather from St. Paul’s instruction in the quote above, the apostles were accustomed to appoint men "in every town" to be ministers to the Gospel and shepherds to the flock of the Church in those towns. These men were ordained ministers to the church in order of rank. The highest ranking was the Bishop. Bishop is translated to the Greek episcopos which means overseer. The second rank is the Presbyter. Which in Greek is prebyteroi, which means elder. The third and lowest rank of minister is the Deacon. Which in Greek is diakonoi, which means servant. The Bishop as the overseer is the primary successor to the authority of the apostles within his jurisdiction. He alone had the power to appoint his presbyters and deacons to their ministry. As the Church continued to grow through the years, these churches would continue the tradition on appointing successors to the seat that was vacated by their predecessor. This succession of Bishops, the episcopacy, has continued uninterrupted through history since the time of the Apostles.


Apostolic Sees


As the Church began to grow and develop throughout the known world, certain Seats of Bishops (Sees) were regarded by the whole Church, the Catholic Church, to have a special honor and higher rank from the rest. These Sees were regarded highly by the early Catholic Church by virtue of their origin. The Sees with the highest honor were those founded by the Apostles themselves. Amoung all of the Sees that were regarded as having of this honor were Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome. These Sees, the Apostolic Sees, were considered the leading Sees of the Church. The Jerusalem Church was founded by the twelve apostles after the resurrection of Jesus with the first Bishop to occupy the Seat being St. James the brother of our Lord. The Antioch church was the first Seat founded by the Apostle Peter, the prince of the apostles. The Alexandrian church was founded by St. Peter’s assistant and coworker St. Mark the evangelist, writer of the second Gospel. The Church of Rome was co-founded by the Apostles Peter and Paul with St. Peter the first to occupy the Seat of the Roman episcopate until his death at the hands of the emperor Nero.




The Roman See


Of these four principle Sees of the early Catholic Church, the Roman See was the one who held the highest honor since the beginning. As St. Ignatius states in his letter to the Roman church as he was being led to his ultimate martyrdom, "to the Church which holds the presidency in the place of the country of the Romans, worthy of God, worthy of honor, worthy of blessings, worthy of praise, worthy of success, worthy of sanctification, and, because you hold the presidency of love, named after Christ and named after the Father: her therefore do I salute in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father." (ca. AD 110)


When problems arose within the Churches of early Christendom, the Roman Bishop would be consulted to resolve the dispute. This is what happened in the church of Corinth in 80 AD when the rightfully ordained Bishop was being ejected by the Corinthian Church for an invalid reason. St. Clement, Bishop of Rome wrote his letter to the Corinthian church to intercede on the behalf of the bishop. He writes, "Our Apostles knew through the Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned, and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other men should succeed to their ministry. As for these, then who were appointed by them, or who were afterwards appointed by other illustrious men with the consent of the whole Church, and who have ministered to the flock of Christ without blame, humbly, and peaceably and with dignity, and who have for many years received the commendations of all, we consider it unjust that they be removed from the ministry. Our sin will not be small if we eject from the episcopate those who blamelessly and holily have offered its Sacrifices."


The third Canon of the Council of Constantinople and Pope Damasus


In 381 AD the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople attempted to place the See of Constantinople, a relatively new one in second order of honor behind that of Rome, to the prejudice of the other Apostolic Sees listed above. It decreed in the third Canon, "The Bishop of Constantinople to have the primacy of honour next after the Bishop of Rome, because Constantinople is New Rome."


This Canon was not accepted by the Bishop of Rome, Pope Damasus, who immediately convened a synod in Rome in 382 AD to discuss this issue with the Bishops of the West. His third decree reads, "Likewise it is decreed: After the announcement of all these prophetic and evangelic as well as apostolic writings which we have listed above as Scriptures, on which, by the grace of God, the Catholic Church is founded, we have considered that it ought to be announced that although all the Catholic Churches spread abroad through the world comprise but one bridal chamber of Christ, nevertheless, the holy Roman Church has been placed at the forefront not by the conciliar decisions of other Churches, but has received the primacy by the evangelic voice of our Lord and Savior, who says: "You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it; and I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you shall have bound on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall have loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven. In addition to this, there is also the companionship of the vessel of election, the most blessed Apostle Paul, who contended and was crowned with a glorious death along with Peter in the City of Rome in the time of the Caesar Nero - not at a different time, as the heretics prattle, but at one and the same time and on one and the same day: and they equally consecrated the above-mentioned holy Roman Church to Christ the Lord; and by their own presence and by their venerable triumph they set it at the forefront over the others of all the cities of the whole world. The first see, therefore, is that of Peter the Apostle, that of the Roman Church, which has neither stain nor blemish nor anything like it. The second see, however, is that at Alexandria, consecrated in behalf of blessed Peter by Mark, his disciple and an evangelist, who was sent to Egypt by the Apostle Peter, where he preached the word of truth and finished his glorious martyrdom. The third honorable see, indeed, is that of Antioch, which belonged to the most blessed Apostle Peter, where first he dwelt before he came to Rome, and where the name Christians was first applied, as to a new people."


Roman Episcopal succession


Of the original Apostolic Sees mentioned above, the Roman See is the only enduring See down to our current day with a non-interrupted line of succession of Bishops from St. Peter the Apostle to Pope John Paul II, the current Bishop of Rome.


Here is a list of the first 400 years of Roman Bishops to succeed the Apostle Peter, who was martyred in Rome in 67 AD, and sit at his Seat:


Pope Years reigned AD Pope Years reigned AD Pope Years reigned AD

St. Linus 67-76 St. Zephyrinus 199-217 St. Caius 283-296

St. Anacletus I 76-88 St. Callistus 217-222 St. Marcellinus 296-304

St. Clement I 88-97 St. Urban I 222-230 St. Eusebius 309-311

St. Evaristus 97-105 St. Pontian 230-235 St. Melchiades 311-314

St. Alexander I 105-115 St. Anterus 235-236 St. Sylvester I 314-335

St. Sixtus I 115-125 St. Fabian 236-250 St. Marcus 336

St. Telesphorus 125-136 St. Cornelius 251-253 St. Julius I 337-352

St. Hyginus 136-140 St. Lucius I 253-254 Liberius 352-366

St. Pius I 140-155 St. Stephen I 254-257 St. Damasus 366-384

St. Anicetus 155-166 St. Sixtus II 257-258 St. Siricius 384-399

St. Soter 166-175 St. Dionysius 259-268 St. Anatasius I 399-401

St. Eleuterius 175-189 St. Felix I 269-274 St. Innocent I 401-417

St. Victor I 189-199 St. Eutychian 275-283 St. Zosimus 417-418