Legitimate succession was always a matter of concern in biblical religion. The book of Genesis is careful to give the lineage of the patriarchs, from the first man, Adam, to Noah (Gen. 5). The book of Exodus takes similar care as it sets down the priestly generations (Exod. 6). The Chronicles make clear that the monarchy was legitimately passed from father to son (1 Chron. 3). Indeed, the Old Testament histories assure us that “all Israel was enrolled by genealogies” (1 Chron. 9:1).
And the concern for lineage did not pass away in the New Testament. To establish Jesus’ credentials as Messiah, the Gospels detailed His lineage through generations, going back to Abraham (Mt. 1) and even through Adam to God (Luke 3).
In the Old Testament, succession took place in the natural order, through genetic transmission. In the apostolic age, we see a new principle at work. St. Paul was a man who made a firm commitment to live a celibate life (see 1 Cor. 7:1, 7-8), yet he could pass along the grace he had received — by means of the same act by which he himself received the grace: the laying on of hands (Acts 13:2-3).
St. Paul discussed the act in his later letters to Timothy, whom he had ordained (1 Tim. 4:14; 5:22; 2 Tim. 1:6). From Paul we learn that ordination is a “gift of God,” although it is conferred by one man upon another. We know that it is a supernatural event consummated by the prayers of those who are authorized to give such “prophetic utterance.” We know that the gift is given through “elders” in the Faith to those of a new generation in ministry — who will in turn give it to another generation. As the Father sent the Son, so the Son sent the Apostles — and so the Apostles sent their disciples to serve as bishops.
As time passed and the Faith spread to new lands, the Church valued apostolic succession all the more. It was a safeguard against heresy. The Church could point to a succession that was public and sacramental, whose authenticity could be easily verified. One of Paul’s Roman disciples, a man named Clement, spoke of the matter:
The Apostles received the Gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ was sent forth from God. So Christ is from God, and the Apostles are from Christ. Both therefore came of the will of God in the appointed order. Having received their orders . . . they went forth with the good news that the kingdom of God was to come. So preaching everywhere, in country and town, they appointed their first-fruits, when they had proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons to those who should believe. . . .
Our Apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be contention over the office of bishop. That is why, having received complete foreknowledge, they appointed the aforesaid persons, and afterward they gave the offices a permanent character, that if these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed to their ministry (Saint Clement of Rome, To the Corinthians 42:1-4; 44:1-2).
And so they still succeed today, to the offices established by the Apostles.
Editor’s note: This article is the eleventh part in a 12-part series exploring the Catholic background behind NBC’s A.D. The Bible Continues (watch on Sundays at 9/8c).Check back each Friday for a new entry. As well, you can get The Catholic Viewers Guide for A.D. as well as Ministers and Martyrs, or order both as a set to save 25%.