Apostolic Succession


In the creed we recite the words “I believe in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church”, now it’s important to understand that these four positive marks of the Church are what distinguish her from the false counter part or claimant “churches”. If the claimant sect or church lacks any one of these marks, it can not claim to the be the one true Church as founded by Christ. 


A mark that distinguishes the True Church of Christ from all other claimants is that it be apostolic. Hence we read in the Letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians : 'So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord' (Ephesians 2 : 19-21).

It is by the note of Apostolic Succession that the four Marks of the Church are made most evident. Since it ought to be contained, Oneness – unity with the Head of the Church- The Holiness – which stems from conforming our selves to that doctrine, Catholicism – the same universal faith – universal in space and time – And the Apostolicity  of that faith as should be evident in those who hold the legitimate succession of the Apostles.

Notion - What is meant by the term Apostolic Succession?


Church of Christ, must be able to trace her doctrine, her orders, all her mission, to the Apostles of Christ and so ultimately, by Apostolic Succession we mean that Lawful Succession of the hierarchy from the Apostles by means of the Orders validly received while simultaneously having transmitted the same faith of the Apostles .


And so in its concrete form, apostolic succession is the unbroken line of bishops stretching back to the apostles, who held communion with Rome. 

Necessity for Apostolicity:

Does the Church have to be Apostolic?

The reason is that during all the time that the Church shall exist, there must have true pastors - "For the work of the ministry, for the edification of the body of Christ,"—Ephes. chap. iv.

And yet it's not enough for there simply to be priests, but these these watchmen/priests must be lawfully sent.   St. Paul who in speaking of the missionaries for the faith and the God’s great blessing of God upon such men, nevertheless does not fail to affirm (Romans 10) "How shall they preach unless they be sent?" But even prior to this we read in the Old Testament that of such self appointed missionaries God Himself complains by the mouth of Jeremiah saying,—Jer, xxiii, 21:—"I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran: I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied ."

St. Paul doesn't limit the importance of having a lawful mission from the Church merely to preaching but also to the very reception of Holy Order itself, that is why in his letter to the Hebrews he expressly states that "no man takes the honor of the priesthood upon himself, but he that is called by God as Aaron was,"—Heb. v, 4.

And so it seems clear from scripture at least that the succession of pastors must be one that is lawfully authorized. For this reason the Church has always continued along this path, by the power that Christ had originally given to His apostles in the words: "As my Father has send me, I also send you" (Matt 28).

It was by means of this Apostolic Succession that Christ intended His Church to endure until the end of world with the 4 marks with which he founded it. In other words it is by this Apostolic Succession that we are to know the true Church from all the counterfeit claimant churches of today because the true Church must derive, by a perpetual and uninterrupted succession from the Apostles, her doctrines, her mission, and her orders.

The apostolicity of succession guarantees the unfalsified transmission of doctrine and makes manifest the organic connection between the Church today and the Church of the Apostles. If a church cannot trace its history back in an unbroken line, step by step, from the present to the Apostles, it is not the true Church.


 A Short Diagram Explanation of Apostolic Succession:



Christ => Founds the Church on the 12 Apostles


From which comes the continuation of the same :


Doctrine = i.e. the Faith


Sacraments = i.e. Holy Order in regards to apostolic succession


Mission = the Legitimate succession which today more explicitly implies union with the patron office of the Pope (Matt 16:18). 



Scripture and Apostolic Succession:


The notion of Apostolic Succession is not doctrinal invention but one that is latent throughout the whole New Testament, while also see in the Old Testament that there did exist a privileged status of teaching which was in some way handed down as we see in the notion of the seat of Mosses. In this regard the Catechism of the Council of Trent rightly explains that:  "That all, therefore, might know which was the Catholic Church, the Fathers, guided by the Spirit of God, added to the Creed the word Apostolic. For the Holy Ghost, who presides over the Church, governs her by no other ministers than those of Apostolic succession." - Catechism of the Council of Trent.


Christ the New Moses


In the four gospels, the concentric circles of the disciples around Jesus - from the many, to the seventy, to the Twelve, and his inner circle of three recapitulates the concentric circles of Moses and his disciples of Israel:


The many disciples        - The nation of Israel.

The seventy disciples     - The seventy elders (Exodus 24:1; Luke 10:1)

The Twelve Apostles     - The Twelve Tribes (Exodus 24:4 Matt 10:1)

Peter, James, John         - Aaron, Nadab, Abihu (Exodus 24:9, Matt 17:1).


This parallel is important for a number of reasons. Just as Moses ascends the mountain of God, so too will the New Moses (Christ) ascend mountains; The Mountain of beatitudes, to proclaim the Kingdom of God: The Mount of Transfiguration, where he prefigures his resurrected glory in the flesh; and ultimately Calvary. However the primary importance in this aspect is the reality that Christ will found the reality of the New Church upon the twelve apostles who would represent of old the twelve tribes of Israel. In other words there is a clearly significant reason that Christ chose 12 Apostles. Christ the new Moses would lead a new Exodus out of Israel unto the founding of the New Testament Church.


The Old Testament Church was but a figure, or image of the New Testament Church to come. Just as the Synagogue was erected by Moses as a servant of God, so the Church was founded by Christ who is the Son of God (Hebrews 3:5). Just as Moses was the first govenor and head of Synagogue so Christ was the first Governor and Head of Church (Ephesians 5:23). The Synagogue after death of Moses was governed by one visible head; and Christ appointed a visible head to govern His Church after His death (John 21:17).


As the Synagogue was visible in the external government of the people and invisible in its interior faith, so also is the church; and finally, as the Synagogue was a figure of the Church, so was Moses a figure of Christ. As it is clear that in the Synagogue of old the power of offering sacrifice, and ministering in the Tabernacle descended from the Pontiff, by legitimate consecration, to the Priests and Levites, flowing as it were from the head of the synagogue down to the inferior members, so likewise in the New Testament Church founded by Christ.


The Twelve Apostles

In fact we see that in the New Testament Our Lord chose 12 Apostles. It was no mistake or accident that He  chose 12 Apostles and not 11 or 13 etc. It was because these 12 Apostles were to symbolically replace the 12 tribes of Israel as they were to be the 12 Pillars of the New Israel, the New Testament Church. We see this idea in the 12th Chapter of the Apocalypse (Apoc. xii., 1) where the women who is said to signify the Church is depicted with the 12 Stars upon her head as though these twelve stars were here Glory. The significance of the number 12 is not accidental as the the 12 Apostles as foundation stones of the New Testament Church will supersede the Old Testament Church. St. Peter understood this well and that is why we read in the Acts of the Apostles that he affirms that at the death of Judas they had to choose someone else to take his place before Pentecost and that the person to take his place had to have been a witness of the resurrection and have been with the apostles from the beginning. This was because St. Peter knew well that divine providence had ordained it that the Church was to have 12 Apostles who were to be its foundation stones as a clear sign that it was to be a re-founding, a new Church, which while in it had come forth from the bosom of the Old Testament Church, since Christ was the fulfillment of the law and yet it was a totally new Church distinct from the Old Testament Church because it was founded by Christ the New Adam (Rom 5) who is the chief corner stone of  of the Church (Eph 2:21).

More from Scripture

Just as in the Old Testament no one could exercise the office of the priesthood unless called by God, and solemnly consecrated by the Pontiff, according to the ritual, so it is in the New testament, according to the Apostle  St. Paul "Let no one take unto himself the honor but he who is called by God, as Aaron was." (Hebrews 5:4).

St. Paul who while he was not called to be an apostle during the life time of Our Lord nevertheless is just as adamant about the point of Apostolic Succession as he affirms to Titus saying: For this cause I left thee in Crete, that thou should set in order the things that are wanting, and should ordain priests in every city, as I also appointed thee: ...(Titus 1:5 cf. also  I Tim. 4:14). – In other words, Titus, you have a duty to look after the Church and ensure it’s preservation and edification by Ordaining priests who can legitimately govern and teach in the Church, those doctrine which you have received from me, and I from Christ. I say this because the ordination to the priesthood is essential to maintain the sacerdotal and hierarchical structure of the Church which is implied in the notion of Apostolic Succession.

The Bishops thus have a duty not only of ruling the Church and guiding the priests and faithful under them but to insure that the Church remains in her divine constitution in exactly the same way it was founded. 

The Church Fathers and Apostolic Succession

What exactly did they say?

As early as we go back into antiquity, we see the same truth being affirmed. If any point of doctrine has unanimity of opinion amongst the Fathers, it is truly this doctrine of Apostolic Succession.

Indeed, a perpetual succession of Catholic pastors has always existed and will always exist until the end of time.

The first Christians then had no doubts about how to determine which claimant, among the many competing new sects, which was the true Church. The test was simple: Just trace the apostolic succession of the claimants. Did the teaching And the teachers come down from the apostles and their legitimate successors? The simple procedure worked every time, even if in times of crisis, it might not have been always so clear yet this criterion has nevertheless remained infallibly true. 


What is interesting in this regard is that when Protestants look back today and speak of the "early Church" or simply, "the Church," they fail to recognize that this "Church" which they tacitly assume was one and unified, is none other than the organically connected ancestor of the present-day Catholic Church, which operates on the same principle of apostolic succession.

It’s true that people will often bring up the point that present day Catholicism doesn’t have the semblance or external appearance of what they had understood the early Church to be. The problem with this line of argument is that it’s an objection that lacks both any real historical insight or any real understanding to the notion of the “Church”. The Church which Christ founded was in no way to remain static. While the guiding principles which would be it’s pillar,  would remain static, that is the unshakable and immutable faith upon which it is based, will and must remain ever unchangeable, yet the Church itself like a human body, organically developed from the beginning in a gradual, consistent fashion.

Cardinal Newman makes the analogy between an acorn seed and the great oak from which it springs. In comparison they look noting alike, yet one has homogeneously grown out from the other. We might say that all the DNA of that Oak Tree was contained in the seed. It is one and the same as the seed, since without the seed their would be no Oak tree, and yet who will turn around and deny that the Oak tree has nothing to do with the acorn? The same is true of the Catholic Church, which while it has maintained it’s doctrinal truths, nevertheless continue to grow both numerically in it’s membership and also in its expounding and clarification of that same faith which Christ had taught to the apostles, while by the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Ghost continues to lead men to heaven by means of the sacraments and legitimately developed rites and ceremonies . In fact, Christ Himself declared this to the apostles that this would be the purpose of the Holy Ghost, to guide them in all Truth. Yet there were many things that our lord had wished to expounded to the apostles, but as He said “ (John 16:12) “but you cannot bear them now. But when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will teach you all truth. For he shall not speak of himself: but what things so ever he shall hear, he shall speak. And the things that are to come, he shall show you them”. Hence, these truths were to be later expounded by the apostles by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost and faithfully transmitted through their successors.


Explanation/Illustration of the Above


Acorn= 1. The Apostles as Foundation Stones of the Church . This was the primary role of the Apostles that is why its a common opinion of theologians that after Pentecost all the Twelve apostles were infallible, impeccable and all had universal jurisdiction/mission. That is why the Church holds that Public revelation ended with death of the last Apostle, St. John the Evangelist.


Oak Tree = 2. Apostles as Depositories of the Faith. This was the secondary role of the Apostles, but it is the primary role of their successors (i.e. the bishops) to transmit that faith (that is the TRUE NOTION OF TRADITION). While the secondary role of the successors of the apostles is the communication of that faith to the generation in which they live (that is the true notion of "living Tradition").



The Catholic notion of Apostolic Succession however does not mean that all the successors of the Apostles have the same authority as that of the Apostles themselves. The Legitimate successors of the Apostles succeed  the Apostles in their office but not in their personal gifts or prerogatives. For example while all the Apostles, as foundations or “Pillars” of the Church, had universal jurisdiction/mission while still having St. Peter as their head. However all the Legitimate successors of the Apostles today do not succeed the apostles in this particular gift of universal Jurisdiction. This is reserved to the Roman Pontiff alone because it is part of his office as the Vicar of Christ.  Nevertheless, Bishops do govern their own diocese not only as delegates of the Pope, but as true successors of the Apostles.  For this reason St. Paul reminds the bishops “Take heed to yourselves, and to the whole flock, wherein the Holy Ghost hath placed you bishops, to rule the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood (Acts 20:28). 


The proper notion of apostolic succession refers not merely to the material passing on of sacred orders, but to the passing of orders and the unity with the Holy See from which all other pastors receive their legitimate mission to continue on the work of the Church. Apostolic succession in the formal sense implies union with the Holy See, and a unity of faith with the Church, otherwise there is not true and formal apostolic succession.  It is in this regard we can affirm that for this reason the Schismatic Orthodox in no real sense have proper apostolic succession.


St. Cyprian of Carthage already makes this point in early Church saying that: “[T]he Church is one, and as she is one, cannot be both within and without. For if she is with [the heretic] Novatian, she was not with [Pope] Cornelius. But if she was with Cornelius, who succeeded the bishop [of Rome], Fabian, by lawful ordination, and whom, beside the honor of the priesthood the Lord glorified also with martyrdom, Novatian is not in the Church; nor can he be reckoned as a bishop, who, succeeding to no one, and despising the evangelical and apostolic tradition, sprang from himself. For he who has not been ordained in the Church can neither have nor hold to the Church in any way” (Letters 69[75]:3 [A.D. 253]).

Fr. Schultes O.P., in his De Ecclesia Catholica defines apostolicity in this manner:

“The note of apostolicity is the charism and property of the Church by which it is continued through a legitimate, public and never interrupted succession of pastors from the Apostles in identity of faith, worship and discipline.”

Again likewise, Msgr. Van Noort, S. T. D, points out in his work, Dogmatic Theology, that:


"There may be also other societies which glory in the name of Christ; there may even be some which are governed by bishops claiming apostolic succession; but they do not have the Chair of Peter, on whom Christ founded the Church. Therefore they do not belong to the household of Christ; they do not follow him to whom Christ en­trusted the feeding of His lambs and of His sheep; and so they do not belong to the flock of Christ.  . . . . Again, we must not forget the fact that because of their lack of apostolicity, the Orthodox schismatics lack the sacred power of jurisdiction of which was conferred on the true Church "for the complete development of the saints."" - Dogmatic Theology, Christ's Church, by Monsignor G. Van Noort, S.T.D.,


It is for this reason that St. Augustine didn't hesitate to affirm to the Donatists who while having valid orders clearly lacked apostolic succession that : "If the lineal succession of bishops is to be considered with how much more benefit to the Church do we reckon from Peter himself, to whom, as bearing in a figure the whole Church, the Lord said: Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not conquer it!' For to Peter succeeded Linus, Clement...Damsus, Sircius, Anastasius. In this order of succession no Donatist bishop is to be found."—St Augustine, To Generosus, Epistle 53:2(A.D. 400),in GILES,180-181


The reason for this is that as L.J. Tixeront’s in his work - L’Ordre et les  Ordinations [Holy Orders and Ordination. A study in the history of dogma], writes, namely that “Heretics have the power to pass it [i.e., ordination] on...’but they do not possess, and cannot pass on, its legitimate exercise.’


That is why Pope Leo points out in Satis Cognitum,When the Divine founder decreed that the Church should be one in faith, in government, and in communion, He chose Peter and his successors as the principle and centre, as it were, of this unity...No one, therefore, unless in communion with Peter can share his authority, since it is absurd to imagine that he who is outside can command in the Church....But the Episcopal order is rightly judged to be in communion with Peter, as Christ commanded, if it be subject to and obeys Peter; otherwise it necessarily becomes a lawless and disorderly crowd.”


For the same reason, St. Augustine did not hesitate to affirm that "Outside the Catholic Church there is no true sacrifice." (cf. Prosperum Aquitanum, Sent., sent. 15 P.L. 51, 430).  That is to say, no true sacrifice that is lawful and acceptable to God. That is to say that the valid Eucharist, that heretical or Schismatical sects may posses, as a result of valid orders does not in any way create the presence of the Church in them, but rather renders them all the condemnable because their use of these sacred things is grossly sinful, in the objective order. The Holy Eucharist, by its very nature, is the sacrament of the unity of the Catholic Church, and to use It outside the unity of the Catholic Church is to pervert it.




It seems clear then that the Catholic Faith and the Catholic Faith alone can claim to be that Church as founded by Christ because She alone, has, beyond all doubt, existed in every age, from the present till the Apostolic age. Her pastors are the only pastors on earth, who can trace their mission from priest to bishop, and from bishop to Pope, back through every century, until they trace that mission to the Apostles, who were commissioned by Christ himself.


Hence, it is this Church and This Church alone, which can claim a right to our obedience and our assent in what it propose to us for belief since the faith She holds up for our Belief is non other than that inviolable and immutable truth of God Himself.