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Apostolic succession

Q.My understanding is that the church teaches that bishops and priests are the successors of the apostles. Can this line really be traced back to one of the original apostles? (Lancaster, Ohio)

A. The Twelve Apostles were the privileged eyewitnesses sent to proclaim the teachings of Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew (28:19-20) reflects the fact that Christ, following the resurrection, commissioned the apostles and guaranteed his help:

"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 always, until the end of the age."

It is the further belief of the church, in what is known as the doctrine of apostolic succession, that bishops and priests today are linked in an unbroken line to those same original apostles.

St. Ignatius of Antioch — who died in the year 108 and is believed to have been a disciple of the apostle John — wrote in a letter to the Ephesians: "For we ought to receive every one whom the Master of the house sends to be over his household, as we would do him that sent him. It is manifest, therefore, that we should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord himself."

The visible sign of ordination, from the New Testament onward, has been the imposition of hands. Thus, the transmission of the apostolic ministry is achieved by that ritual, together with the prayer of the celebrant that the ordinand be granted the gift of the Holy Spirit to accomplish the ministry for which he has been chosen.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019