The Pope on Apostolic Succession

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In the last audiences we have meditated on the Tradition of the Church and we have seen that it is the permanent presence of the word and life of Jesus in his people. But to be present, the Church is in need of a person, a witness. In this way, reciprocity is born: On one hand, the word is in need of the person, but on the other hand the person, the witness, is linked to the word that has been entrusted to him, which he has not invented. This reciprocity between contents — Word of God, life of the Lord — and the person that transmits is a characteristic of the structure of the Church, and today we wish to meditate on this personal aspect of the Church.

The Lord began it, as we saw, when convoking the Twelve, who represented the future of the People of God. In fidelity to the mandate received from the Lord, initially the Twelve, after his Ascension, completed their number with the election of Matthias to replace Judas (cf. Acts 1:15-26), and later they associate others progressively to the functions entrusted to them to continue their ministry.

The Risen One himself called Paul (cf. Galatians 1:1), but Paul, despite the fact he was called by the Lord as an apostle, compares his Gospel to the Gospel of the Twelve (cf. ibid. 1:18), is concerned to transmit what he has received (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23; 15:3-4) and in the distribution of the missionary tasks is associated with the apostles, together with others, for example, Barnabas (cf. Galatians 2:9).

Just as at the beginning of the condition of [being an] apostle there is a call and a sending by the Risen One, likewise the subsequent call and invitation to others takes place, with the strength of the Spirit, by the power of one already constituted in the apostolic ministry. This is the path on which this ministry will continue that, later, begun by the second generation, would be called episcopal ministry, “episcopé.”

Perhaps it would be useful to explain briefly what the word bishop means. It is the Italian form [“vescovo”] of the Greek words “epíscopos.” This word makes reference to one who has a vision from on high, who sees with the heart. Thus, in his first letter, St. Peter himself calls the Lord Jesus guardian and shepherd of souls; the successors of the apostles were later called “bishops,” “epíscopoi.” They were entrusted with the function of the “episcopé.” This specific function of the bishop is carried out progressively with respect to the beginnings until it assumes the form, already clearly attested by Ignatius of Antioch, at the beginning of the second century (cf. “Ad Magnesios,” 6,1: PG 5,668), of the triple function of bishop, priest and deacon. It is a development led by the Spirit of God, which assists the Church in the discernment of the authentic forms of the apostolic succession, defined ever better between a plurality of experiences and charismatic and ministerial forms, present in the community of the origins.

Thus, succession in the episcopal function is presented as continuity of the apostolic ministry, guarantee of the perseverance in the apostolic Tradition, word and life that have been entrusted to us by the Lord. The link 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, to the Twelve is associated first Matthias, and then Paul, and afterward Barnabas and later others, up to the formation, in the second and third generation, of the ministry of the bishop. Therefore, continuity is expressed in this historical chain.

And in the continuity of the succession the guarantee is found of perseverance in the ecclesial community, in the apostolic College, gathered by Christ around him. But this continuity, which we saw before in the historical continuity of the ministers, must also be understood in the spiritual sense, as the apostolic succession in the ministry is considered as the privileged place of the action and transmission of the Holy Spirit.

A clear echo of these convictions can be seen, for example, in this text of Irenaeus of Lyon (second half of the second century): “the Tradition of the Apostles has been manifested to the universal world in the whole Church, and we can enumerate those who have been constituted bishops and successors of the Apostles up to us […] [The apostles] wanted those whom they left as their successors to be ‘perfect and irreproachable’ in everything (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6-7), to entrust the Magisterium to them in their place: If they act correctly it will be followed by great usefulness, but if they fall, it would be the greatest calamity” (“Adversus Haereses,” III, 3, 1: PG 7,848).

Then, Irenaeus, when presenting this network of the apostolic succession as the greatest guarantee of perseverance in the Lord’s word, concentrates on that Church, among “the most ancient and known by all, the Church founded and constituted in Rome by the two most glorious Apostles Peter and Paul,” underlining the Tradition of the faith proclaimed, which comes to us through the apostles and through the successions of the bishops.

In this way, for Irenaeus and for the universal Church, the episcopal succession of the Church of Rome becomes the sign, criterion and guarantee of the uninterrupted transmission of the apostolic faith: “It is necessary that every Church be in harmony with this Church, whose foundation is the most guaranteed — I refer to all the faithful of any place, because in her all those who are found in all places have kept the apostolic Tradition” (“Adversus Haereses,” III, 3, 2: PG 7,848).

The apostolic succession, verified in virtue of communion with that of the Church of Rome, is therefore the criterion of permanence of each one of the Churches in the Tradition of the common apostolic faith, which through this channel has been able to come to us from the origins: “By this order and succession the Tradition has come to us that was initiated by the Apostles. And this shows fully that the one and only vivifying faith that comes from the Apostles has been kept and transmitted in the Church until today” (ibid., III, 3,3: PG 7,851).

According to these testimonies of the ancient Church, the apostolicity of the ecclesial communion consists in faithfulness to the teaching and practice of the apostles, through whom is guaranteed the historical and spiritual union of the Church with Christ. The apostolic succession of the episcopal ministry is the path that guarantees the faithful transmission of the apostolic testimony.

What the apostles represent in the relationship between the Lord Jesus and the Church of the origins, is represented analogously by the ministerial succession in the relationship between the Church of the origins and the present-day Church. It is not a mere material concatenation; rather, it is the historical instrument of which the Spirit makes use to make present the Lord Jesus, head of his people, through whom they are ordained by the ministry through the imposition of hands and the prayer of the bishops.

Then, through the apostolic succession, Christ comes to us: He speaks to us in the word of the apostles and their successors; he acts in the sacraments through their hands; our gaze is enveloped in his gaze and makes us feel loved, received in God’s heart. And also today, as at the beginning, Christ himself is the true shepherd and guardian of our souls, whom we follow with great confidence, gratitude and joy.

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~ by Rob on May 25, 2006.

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