Bishops Successors of the Apostles
Six or seven months after Christ inaugurated His public ministry, He left Capharnaum and went to a nearby mountain, where He prayed the whole night. He was about to make a decision that would give form to the whole future of His work; He was about to choose from among His many disciples those to whom He would entrust the continuation of His mission on earth. So He took counsel with His Father in heaven, spending the whole night in prayer.
Then from among His disciples, “He called to his men of his own choosing, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve that they might be with him.” (Mark III, 13, 14). And the Gospel of St. Luke adds that He called them His “Apostles.” (VI, 14).
The concise narrative of the Gospel of St. Mark does not go into the details of this episode, but it suggests the air of solemnity with which our Lord made the election of the twelve Apostles. He is calling those whom He had chosen, electing them to a vocation that placed them above the level of other men. They were made, in the words of St. Paul, ambassadors of Christ, “God’s helpers, servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” (II Cor. V, 20; I Cor. III, 9; I Cor. IV, 1; Titus I, 7.)
Later on they would receive their commission: first, a local limited journey of preaching to announce the Kingdom of God “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. X, 6); but after the Resurrection, a full mandate to continue the work Christ had begun, and to bring salvation to the world.
In giving the mission, Christ 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 all days, even unto the consummation of the world.” (Matt. XXVIII, 18-20). And on the evening of the very day of His resurrection, Jesus said to them, “As the Father has sent me, I also send you.” And He breathed on them and continued: “Receive the Holy Spirit; whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.” (John XX, 22-23).
But the call to the Apostolate did not end with the twelve summoned by our Lord that morning outside Capharnaum. The Apostles had to go on existing, even after St. John, the last of the twelve to die, had been laid to rest in Ephesus. Otherwise, the assurance given them, when they were commissioned, “I am with you all days, even unto the consummation of the world,” would be devoid of significance.
“Go and make disciples of all nations. Preach the gospel to every creature. You shall be witnesses for me in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and even to the very ends of the earth.” (Matt. XXVIII, 19; Mark XVI, 15; Acts I, 8). These injunctions could never have been fulfilled had they been given to the Apostles as private individuals and not to the Apostolic body as a whole, that is, to the Apostles and their successors in their work and authority.
But the Apostles were mortal men. In fact, all of them, except John, sealed their loyalty to the Lord by shedding their blood in glorious martyrdom. How then could their mission be continued on earth?
Some have said that it was by making men read the legacy of the Apostles in written books. But no book, even if divinely inspired, could take over the work entrusted to the Apostles. “Baptize them,” the Lord commanded; He said to Peter: Whatever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven; and whatever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. XVI, 19); Christ also ordered the twelve in the cenacle (I Cor. XI, 24, 26) “Do this in commemoration of me.” These are not functions which a book can perform.
It is not, then, a book but living men, men of flesh and bones, who must continue the work of the Apostles. The Catholic Church teaches that the Sacred Scriptures were written under the inspiration of God and, together with tradition, contain God’s revelation. The Church was the only guardian of the Bible for sixteen centuries, and thousands of her monks dedicated their lives to copying it and translating it, while her universities and schools opened classes for its proper study and interpretation.
But it is one thing to believe that the Sacred Scriptures, the Bible, contain the word of God and quite another thing to believe that once the Apostles had died, the reading of the Scriptures was thenceforth sufficient for salvation. In Christian life there must be a living body of men, the “stewards of the mysteries of God,” to do what a mere written word can never do, namely administer the Sacraments instituted by Christ as channels of His grace, pay to the Godhead the homage of public worship, and preserve, propagate, protect and rule His Church.
In fact, the very existence of the written word demands that there be officially appointed interpreters of its meaning. Experience shows that those preachers who taught the word of God with no other guidance than their personal lights, succeeded only in opening the way to hundreds of bodies and system of belief, most of them fundamentally different from others, a result evidently contrary to the intention of Christ; that, “there should be one fold and one shepherd,” (John X, 16) or, as St.. Paul told the Ephesians, that there should be “… one body and one spirit… one Lord, one faith, one Baptism.” (Ephes. IV, 4-5).
The Apostles understood the necessity of having official interpretations of the word of God, when they appointed men to help them and to succeed them in their ministry. They first used this power of transmitting to others the commission they had received from Christ when, on the initiative of St. Peter they chose Matthias to take the place left by the traitor. (Act I, 15-26).
The history of the early Church shows that the same power was exercised wherever the Church was established, and in the years immediately after the time of the Apostles numerous churches are found possessing Bishops who exercised all the ordinary power of the Apostles and were universally recognized as their successors. It was in fact considered a test of orthodoxy and was frequently invoked in controversy that a Church be able to show that its Bishop could trace his powers back to the Apostles.
From the foregoing it is clear that Apostles were singled out by Christ from the common disciples to teach, to rule and to sanctify the Church; that they received and exercised the power to appoint successors to continue their work; and that the Church has never failed to fulfill that mission by appointing successors in the Episcopal office.
Since this is so, it is not anybody who may present himself to the people and claim that he has the right to take over the commission of the Apostles. The authority in the Church to preach, to rule, to baptize, etc., is given by appointment to those whom God has chosen. Christ Himself clearly indicated this when He said to the twelve Apostles: “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you and have appointed you that you should go and bear fruit.” (John XV, 16, VI, 71; XIII, 18; Acts I, 2). And comparing the Jewish priesthood with that of Christ, St. Paul said to the Hebrews: “And no man takes the honor to himself; he takes it who is called by God, as Aaron was.” (Heb. V, 4). This is not then a matter of a man’s ability or willingness to serve but of God’s choice and appointment, the claim to the authority is null and void.
And such a claim is not only null and void but positively pernicious to the spiritual life of the faithful. For our Lord said to the Apostles: “Go into the world and preach the Gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he who does not believe shall be condemned.” (Mark XVI, 15, 16). This is then a question of eternal life and eternal death. Acceptance or rejection of that preaching will mean salvation or condemnation, and anyone who usurps this authority, or simulates it, is trifling with the eternal destiny of immortal souls.
If this is so, it is very important to know whether a particular person is vested by Christ with that authority or not. Giving something to another is an action. It is not a theory, a principle or a doctrine. It may involve a number of principles, but in itself it is merely an action. We prove then that a person possesses Apostolic authority by establishing that this action, namely the transmission of authority, took place; in other words, that it is an historical fact properly recorded.
Therefore, to know if a certain person was given the authority of the Apostles, the record must be examined. It is a question of facts. It is not a question of personal qualifications or achievements, nor of good faith and honest belief. It is a question whether a successive number of persons received legitimate appointments and whether their names can be traced in an unbroken line back to the Apostles.
Did the person under examination receive the authority in question from another person empowered to give it? And did this second person in turn receive it from a source empowered in like manner? If by sheer investigation the inquiry leads at last to the Apostolic College, then this man has a commission from Christ to teach others about His Kingdom, since Apostolic College certainly received its authority from Christ.
But if at a certain point it is found that the continuity has been severed, cut from the main line originating with the Apostles, then the man under consideration is counterfeit; his claim is false. He is not an appointee of Christ; he is self-appointed.
In the installation ceremonies of a new Bishop an official reads several documents. These are letters addressed to the Most Reverend Consecrating Bishop, to the Most Reverend Bishop-elect and to the people of the Diocese, giving notice of the appointment of the Bishop to the See.
These letters are attested to by several officials of the Vatican Curia and bear the seal of the reigning Pontiff. The choice and election of the new Bishop is made by His Holiness, the actual Pope, who is the direct successor of Peter, the head of the Apostles, and who, therefore, represents Christ.
Pope Pius XIIth is the direct successor of Pius the XIth, who was the direct successor of Benedict the XVth. Thus, the unbroken line is traced back step by step, until it comes to St. Linus, who succeeded St. Peter, who was appointed by Christ. Therefore, the letters of appointment read in the Church are sealed with the authority of Christ.
The new Bishop receives not only his authorization to rule but also the fullness of the Priesthood from Christ. The Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles talk of the “imposition of hands with prayers, laying on of hands and receiving the Holy Spirit”. This ceremony was performed also upon the men whom the Apostles appointed to succeed them in the Church.
Those who have witnessed an episcopal consecration have seen this identical ceremony performed in our time upon a Bishop-elect by the consecrating prelate whom the Pope has designated. And the consecrating prelate in turn not many months or years before had received his own episcopal orders in a similar ceremony.
Thus, after the lapse of two thousand years this latest successor of the Apostles receives his consecration from Christ, through the uninterrupted line of Roman Pontiffs and Bishops, and he comes to the faithful in the name of Christ and with the authority of Christ.
In practice, there is a very simple rule for recognizing the successors of the Apostles. No long research is necessary, no minute tracing of the succession step by step. The rule is that given by St. Ambrose sixteen centuries ago: “Where Peter is, there is the Church.” This is the test of Apostolicity of jurisdiction and orders — a very simple test — obedience to the successor of St. Peter, the Roman Pontiff.
These truths have a practical application to the daily life of the Catholic. The Church of God is not a collection of individuals, each independent of the other, with no bond of organization and discipline among them. Our Lord did not start a chaos of contradictory religious beliefs when He established His church.
In His Church there is a teaching authority, there is one faith and one baptism, one fold and one Shepherd. There is then a clear-cut distinction between members and non-members because the members are held together by the bond of faith, the scope and limits of which are defined by that teaching authority.
If one is a member of the church of God he accepts everything that pertains to its nature, including the authority to teach, to rule and to sanctify. If he repudiates the authority of the Bishops he ceases to be a member, however loudly he may claim that he is a Catholic.
There are those who call themselves Catholics, who fail to understand that the teaching authority of the Church is a part of its nature. In controversies on religious issues, it has become quite common for persons who call themselves Catholic to attack the official position of the Church in newspapers and other public statements.
Opposition to the Church is to be expected; Christ foretold it to the twelve, when He said: “The world hates you… If they have persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John XV, 18-25) It is not surprising that the Church has opponents. But it is surprising that many of these opponents call themselves “devout”, “enlightened” Catholics, when they have clearly abandoned the fold and have become its persecutors.
When Christ sent His Apostles to the towns and villages to announce His coming, He said: “He who hears you, hears me; he who rejects you, rejects me; and he who rejects me, rejects him who sent me.” (Luke X, 16; Matt. X, 40). Christ told His Apostles later when He gave them the general mission to preach to all nations, a mandate which was transmitted to their successors; “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he who does not believe shall be condemned.” (Mark XVI, 16) In another place talking of offenders He said: “If he refuse to hear the Church, let him be to thee as the heathen and the publican.” (Matt. XVIII, 17) Finally, in the Cenacle, Christ said: “Amen, I say to you, he who receives anyone I send, receives me; and he who receives me, receives him who sent me.” (John XIII, 20).
The presence of a bishop in the midst of the faithful is a blessing for which they should never cease to thank God. In listening to the bishop, they know that they are listening to a divinely appointed teacher; in obeying him they know that they are obeying Christ; in following his guidance, they know that they are walking the sure path to the holiness which Christ requires of all His followers, to whom He said: “You therefore are to be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. V, 48).
In the midst of the confusion generated by human pride, and of the conflicting philosophies and religious systems which vie with one another for possession of the human mind, it is indeed a great grace to be able to turn from this surrounding bewilderment and to know, to be sure. Christ said: “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life,” (John XIV, 6) and in so speaking, He was not only the Good Shepherd beckoning to the wandering sheep, but He was also the King of the Universe, indicating the rule to which proud men must bend their intellects and wills. But Christ in His divine mercy and wisdom was not content to leave men with only a body of teaching. He also provided living guides to show men how He is the Way, how He is the Truth and how He is the Life. These guides are the Bishops, the Successors of the Apostles, upon whom, as St. Paul says, the Church is built: “Therefore… you are citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household: you are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Jesus Christ himself as the chief corner stone.” (Ephes. II, 20).
Given in Baguio City, the Feast of the Purification of Our Lady, on the 2nd day of February, in the year of Our Lord, 1956.
For the Philippine Hierarchy:
(Sgd.)+RUFINO J. SANTOS, D.D.
Archbishop of Manila
President, Administrative Council
The Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines
The Official Website of
Bishops Successors of the Apostles