Pope Benedict XVI met with 50,000 people in St. Peter’s Square during his general audience on May 10 as he continued his series of teachings on the mystery of the relationship between Christ and the Church. His catechesis focused on the role of apostolic succession in the Church.
The Holy Father emphasized that ministry of the apostles continues today through the bishops, who are their successors. The apostles themselves appointed others to take their place and to carry on their work, he explained.
“Just as the risen Lord called and sent out men to be apostles at the beginning, others were subsequently called and sent out in the power of the Spirit through the work of those who were already part of the apostolic ministry,” he said.
Pope Benedict XVI quoted St. Irenaeus at length, highlighting the fact that already in
the second century he attested to the link between the tradition that was
handed down from the apostles and the historical succession of bishops in the
churches they established. St. Irenaeus especially
singled out the church in
The succession of bishops in the Church can be seen as the sure sign and criterion of the unbroken transmission of the apostolic faith, the Holy Father pointed out. Thus, the Church’s perseverance in the apostolic tradition is guaranteed by the continuity between the original community of the apostles and the college of bishops. Through apostolic succession, Pope Benedict XVI emphasized, the Holy Spirit makes the risen Christ present to his Church in the ministry of those ordained to preach the Gospel, celebrate the sacraments and serve as loving shepherds of his flock.
He concluded, “Even today, as at the very beginning, Christ himself is the true shepherd and guardian of our souls, whom we follow with great confidence, gratitude and joy.”
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
During the last two audiences, we have meditated on Tradition in the Church and we have seen that it is the permanent presence of the word and life of Jesus in his people. However, the word, in order to be present, is in need of a person — a witness. This, in turn, gives birth to reciprocity. On one hand the word is in need of the person, but on the other hand the person — the witness — is closely linked with the word that has been entrusted to him but not invented by him. This reciprocity between the content — the word of God, the life of the Lord — and the person who carries it forth is characteristic of the Church’s structure. Today, we would like to meditate on this personal aspect of the Church.
As we have seen, the Lord began this personal aspect when he called together the 12 apostles, in whom the future of the people of God was represented. Faithful to the mandate they had received from the Lord, the 12 apostles, after his ascension, initially added to their number by electing Matthias to replace Judas (see Acts 1:15-26) and then gradually incorporated others into the work that was entrusted to them so that they might continue their ministry. The risen Lord himself called Paul (see Galatians 1:1), but Paul, even though he was called by the Lord to be an apostle, conformed his Gospel to the Gospel of the 12 apostles (see Galatians 1:18), took a concern to hand on what he received (see 1 Corinthians 11:23; 15:3-4) and, as missionary assignments were distributed, was a partner with the apostles along with others, for example with Barnabas (see Galatians 2:9).
Just as the risen Lord called and sent out men to be apostles at the beginning, others were subsequently called and sent out in the power of the Spirit through the work of those who were already part of the apostolic ministry. This was the path on which this ministry continued. Later, it was called the episcopal ministry or episcope by the next generation.
The Office of Bishop
Perhaps it would be useful to explain briefly what the word “bishop” means. It is a translation of the Greek word epíscopos, which refers to a person who has a vision from on high, a person who sees with his heart. Thus, St. Peter himself calls the Lord Jesus “the shepherd and guardian of souls” (1 Peter 2:11). Based on this model from the Lord, who is the first bishop, shepherd and guardian of souls, the apostles’ successors were later called epíscopoi (bishops). They were entrusted with the function of the episcopé. The specific function of the bishop gradually evolved, in relationship to its origins, until it assumed the form, clearly confirmed by Ignatius of Antioch at the beginning of the second century (see Ad Magnesios, 6,1: PG 5,668), of three offices: bishop, priest and deacon. This development that was guided by the Spirit of God, who helped the Church discern authentic forms of apostolic succession, which were defined with ever greater clarity over time through the plurality of charismatic and ministerial experiences and forms that were present in the early communities.
In this way, succession in the episcopal office is presented as a continuity of the apostolic ministry, a guarantee of the endurance of the apostolic tradition, word and life that the Lord has entrusted to us. The bond between the college of bishops and the original community of the apostles is understood, above all, in the line of historical continuity.
As we have seen, Matthias first joined the 12 apostles, followed afterwards by Paul, Barnabas and then others, until the formation of the ministry of the bishop in the second and third generation. Thus, continuity is expressed in this historical chain. The continued existence of the apostolic college that Christ gathered together around him in the ecclesial community is guaranteed by this continuity of succession. But this continuity, which we see first of all in the historical continuity of its ministers, must also be understood in a spiritual sense since apostolic succession in the ministry is considered as the privileged place where the Holy Spirit is at work and passed on. For example, Irenaeus of Lyon, during the second half of the second century, clearly echoed this conviction in the following text: “The tradition of the apostles, manifested throughout the entire world, is evident in every church to those who desire to see the truth, and we can enumerate those whom the apostles of the churches established as bishops, along with their successors, up to us … [The apostles] wanted those whom they left as their successors to be ‘perfect and irreproachable’ in everything, handing on to them, to be exact, the mission of teaching. If they understood it correctly, they would derive much gain from it; if, on the other hand, they failed to understand, it would be the source of utmost damage” (Adversus Haereses, III, 3, 1: PG 7,848).
The Bishop of
Later, when presenting this network of apostolic succession as the guarantee of perseverance in the Lord’s word, Irenaeus focuses on the Church that is among “the most ancient and best known by all,” which was “founded and constituted in Rome by the two most glorious apostles Peter and Paul,” highlighting the Tradition of the faith that has been handed down to us from the apostles through the successions of bishops. In this way, for Irenaeus and for the universal Church, the episcopal succession of the Church of Rome becomes the sign, the criterion and the guarantee of the uninterrupted transmission of the apostolic faith: “Every Church, including the faithful wherever they may be, has to be in harmony with this Church, because of its propter potiorem principalitatem (particular preeminence) and because in her the tradition of the apostles has always been upheld” (Adversus Haereses, III, 3, 2: PG 7,848). Apostolic succession — verified based on communion with the Church of Rome — is therefore the criterion of whether individual churches have remained in the Tradition of the common apostolic faith, which, through this channel, has been able to be handed on to us from the beginning: “Through this order and succession, the tradition has been handed down to us that has been in the Church beginning with the apostles and their preaching of the Truth. This is the most complete proof that the life-giving faith of the apostles is one and the same, and that it has been safeguarded and handed down in Truth” (Adversus Haereses, III, 3,3: PG 7,851).
Christ Comes To Us
According to these testimonies from the early Church, the apostolicity of the ecclesial communion consists of faithfulness to the teachings and practices of the apostles, through whom the historical and spiritual bond of the Church with Christ has been assured. The apostolic succession of the episcopal ministry is the path that guarantees the faithful transmission of the apostolic witness. The relationship between our Lord Jesus and the Church at its origins, which the apostles represent, is analogous to the relationship between the Church at its origins and the present-day Church as represented by apostolic succession. It is not merely a material chain of events; rather, it is the historical instrument that the Spirit uses to make the Lord Jesus, the head of his people, present to us through all those who have been ordained for ministry through the laying on of hands and the prayer of the bishops.
Thus, through apostolic succession, Christ comes to us. Through the words of the apostles and their successors, he speaks to us. Through their hands, he is at work the sacraments. In their gaze is his gaze, which envelops us and makes us feel loved and welcome in God’s heart. Even today, as at the very beginning, Christ himself is the true shepherd and guardian of our souls, whom we follow with great confidence, gratitude and joy.