The Apostolic Church (B)
The Apostolic Succession
Last week we saw how the Apostles appointed the first bishops of the Church. They, in their turn, appointed other bishops as they were needed, and in this way Our Lord gave to these bishops also the Apostolic Commission, that is, the power to act, as the Apostles themselves had done, as Our Lord’s personal representatives.
So St Irenaeus, writing about the year 190 AD, said, “…we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times”. (1) And he goes on to list the names. (2) Now, Irenaeus knew what he was talking about, because he had been taught the faith by a bishop called St Polycarp, and St Polycarp had learnt it from no less a person than St John the Apostle himself. So Irenaeus wrote, “But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true”. (3)
This line of bishops is called the Apostolic Succession and it remains unbroken in the Catholic Church to this day, like the branches of a great tree which, though they are spreading in every direction, all grow from the one trunk.