The Apostles appointed successors so that the mission they received could continue and be completed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit
At the General Audience of Wednesday, 8 July, the Holy Father continued his weekly catechesis on the mystery ofthe Church. In the 38th talk of the series he discusses the Bishops in their role as successors of the Apostles. Here is the Pope's address, which he gave in Italian.
1. The Acts and the Letters of the Apostles document what we read in Vatican II's Constitution Lumen gentium, namely, that the Apostles "had various helpers in their ministry" (Lumen gentium, n. 20). In fact, as the Christian communities which were quickly formed after the day of Pentecost began to spread, the community of the Apostles was certainly prominent, particularly the group of those who in the Jerusalem community were "reputed to be pillars: James and Kephas and John", as St Paul attests in his Letter to the Galatians (2:9). These are Peter, set up by Jesus as head of the Apostles and supreme pastor of the Church; John, the beloved Apostle; and James, "the brother of the Lord", acknowledged as the head of the Jerusalem Church.
However, along with the Apostles, Acts mentions "presbyters" (cf. Acts 11:29-30; 15:2, 4), who with them constitute the first subordinate rank of the hierarchy. The Apostles send a representative named Barnabas to Antioch because of the progress made in evangelizing that region (Acts 11:22). Acts also speaks of Saul (St Paul), who, after his conversion and first missionary effort, went with Barnabas (to whom the name "apostle" was also given; cf. Acts 14:14) to Jerusalem, as the centre of ecclesial authority, to confer with the Apostles. At the same time he brought material aid to the local community (cf. Acts 11:29). In the Church of Antioch, alongside Barnabas and Saul, there are also mentioned "prophets and teachers: ... Symeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen" (Acts 13:1). From there Barnabas and Saul are sent out on an apostolic mission, "after they [the Apostles] had laid hands on them" (cf. Acts 13:2-3). From the time of that mission on, Saul begins to be called Paul (cf. Acts 13:9). And again: as communities gradually arise, we hear that "they appointed presbyters" (Acts 14:23). The responsibilities of these presbyters are defined in detail in the pastoral Letters to Titus and Timothy, who were appointed by Paul as heads of the community (cf. Ti 1:5; I Tm 5:17).
The Apostles appointed successors
After the Council of Jerusalem the Apostles sent two more leaders to Antioch along with Barnabas and Paul: Judas, who was called Barsabbas, and Silas, considered as "leaders among the brothers" (Acts 15:22). In the Pauline Letters other "coworkers" and "companions" of the Apostle are mentioned in addition to Titus and Timothy (cf. 1 Thes 1:1; 2 Cor 1:19, Rom 16:1, 3-5).
2. At a certain point the Church needed new leaders, successors ofthe Apostles. The Second Vatican Council says in this regard that the Apostles, "in order that the mission entrusted to them might be continued after their death, consigned, by will and testament, as it were, to their immediate collaborators the duty of completing and consolidating the work they had begun, urging them to tend to the whole flock, in which the Holy Spirit had appointed them to shepherd the Church of God (cf. Acts 20:28). They accordingly designated such men and then made the ruling that likewise on their death other proven men should take over their ministry (cf. St Clement of Rome, Ep. ad Cor., 44, 2)" (Lumen gentium, n. 20).
This succession is attested to by the first non-biblical Christian authors, such as St Clement, St Irenaeus and Terlullian, and it constitutes the foundation for handing on the authentic apostolic testimony from generation to generation. The Council says: "Thus, according to the testimony of St Irenaeus, the apostolic tradition is manifested and preserved in the whole world by those who were made Bishops by the Apostles and by their successors down to our own time (St Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., III, 3, 1; cf. Tertullian, De Praescr., 20, 4-8: PL 2, 32; CC 1, 202)" (Lumen gentium, n. 20).
3. From these same texts it is evident that the apostolic succession has two correlative aspects: the pastoral and the doctrinal, in continuity with the mission of the Apostles themselves. In this regard a clarification must be made, on the basis of the texts, as to what is sometimes said of the Apostles, namely, that they could not have successors because they enjoyed a unique experience of friendship with Christ during his earthly life and a unique role in initiating the work of salvation.
Now it is certainly true that the Apostles had an exceptional experience, which as a personal experience could not be shared with others, and that they had a unique role in forming the Church, i.e., that of witnessing and handing on Christ's word and mystery on the basis of their direct knowledge, and of establishing the Church in Jerusalem. At the same time, however, they also received a mission of authoritative teaching and pastoral leadership for the Church's growth; according to Jesus' intention, this mission can and must be handed on to successors so as to complete the work of universal evangelization. In this second sense, therefore, the Apostles had coworkers and later successors. The Council states this several times (Lumen gentium, an. 18, 20, 22).
4. Bishops fulfil the pastoral mission entrusted to the Apostles and have all the powers which this mission entails. Moreover, like the Apostles, they fulfil it with the help of coworkers. We read in the Constitution Lumen gentium: "With priests and deacons as helpers, the Bishops received the charge of the community, presiding in God's stead over the flock of which they are The shepherds (cf. St Ignatius of Antioch, Philad., Praef.; 1,1), in that they are teachers of doctrine, ministers of sacred worship and holders of office in government" (Lumen gentium, n. 20).
5. The Council stressed this apostolic succession of the Bishops by stating that the succession is of divine institution. We read again in Lumen gentium: "The sacred Synod consequently teaches that the Bishops have by divine institution taken the place of the Apostles as Pastors of the Church, in such wise that whoever listens to them is listening to Christ and whoever despises them despises Christ and him who sent Christ (cf. Lk 10:16)" (Lumen gentium, n. 20).
Bishops represent Christ the Shepherd
In virtue of this divine institution the Bishops represent Christ in such a way that listening to them is listening to Christ. Therefore, the Successor of Peter is not the only one who represents Christ the Shepherd, but so do the other successors of the Apostles. The Council in fact teaches: "In the person of the Bishops, then, to whom the priests render assistance, the Lord Jesus Christ, supreme High Priest, is present in the midst of the faithful" (Lumen gentium, n. 21). The words of Jesus, "Whoever listens to you listens to me" (Lk 10, 16), quoted by the Council, have an even broader application because they were addressed to the 72 disciples. And we saw in the texts from the Acts of the Apostles, cited in the first two paragraphs of this catechesis the abundance of coworkers gathered around the Apostles, a hierarchy which was quickly differentiated into presbyters (Bishops and their coworkers) and deacons, but not without the assistance of the ordinary faithful, helpers in the pastoral ministry.
L'Osservatore Romano July 15, 1992