Pope Benedict XVI- Audiences
On Apostolic Succession
"Greatest Guarantee of Perseverance in the Lord's Word"
H.H. Benedict XVI
May 10, 2006
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In the last audiences we have meditated on the Tradition of the Church
and we have seen that it is the permanent presence of the word and life
of Jesus in his people. But to be present, the Church is in need of a
person, a witness. In this way, reciprocity is born: On one hand, the
word is in need of the person, but on the other hand the person, the
witness, is linked to the word that has been entrusted to him, which he
has not invented. This reciprocity between contents -- Word of God, life
of the Lord -- and the person that transmits is a characteristic of the
structure of the Church, and today we wish to meditate on this personal
aspect of the Church.
The Lord began it, as we saw, when convoking the Twelve, who represented
the future of the People of God. In fidelity to the mandate received
from the Lord, initially the Twelve, after his Ascension, completed
their number with the election of Matthias to replace Judas (cf. Acts
1:15-26), and later they associate others progressively to the functions
entrusted to them to continue their ministry.
The Risen One himself called Paul (cf. Galatians 1:1), but Paul, despite
the fact he was called by the Lord as an apostle, compares his Gospel to
the Gospel of the Twelve (cf. ibid. 1:18), is concerned to transmit what
he has received (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23; 15:3-4) and in the
distribution of the missionary tasks is associated with the apostles,
together with others, for example, Barnabas (cf. Galatians 2:9).
Just as at the beginning of the condition of [being an] apostle there is
a call and a sending by the Risen One, likewise the subsequent call and
invitation to others takes place, with the strength of the Spirit, by
the power of one already constituted in the apostolic ministry. This is
the path on which this ministry will continue that, later, begun by the
second generation, would be called episcopal ministry, "episcopé."
Perhaps it would be useful to explain briefly what the word bishop
means. It is the Italian form ["vescovo"] of the Greek words "epíscopos."
This word makes reference to one who has a vision from on high, who sees
with the heart. Thus, in his first letter, St. Peter himself calls the
Lord Jesus guardian and shepherd of souls; the successors of the
apostles were later called "bishops," "epíscopoi." They were entrusted
with the function of the "episcopé." This specific function of the
bishop is carried out progressively with respect to the beginnings until
it assumes the form, already clearly attested by Ignatius of Antioch, at
the beginning of the second century (cf. "Ad Magnesios," 6,1: PG 5,668),
of the triple function of bishop, priest and deacon. It is a development
led by the Spirit of God, which assists the Church in the discernment of
the authentic forms of the apostolic succession, defined ever better
between a plurality of experiences and charismatic and ministerial
forms, present in the community of the origins.
Thus, succession in the episcopal function is presented as continuity of
the apostolic ministry, guarantee of the perseverance in the apostolic
Tradition, word and life that have been entrusted to us by the Lord. The
link between the College of Bishops and the original community of the
apostles is understood, above all, in the line of historical continuity.
As we have seen, to the Twelve is associated first Matthias, and then
Paul, and afterward Barnabas and later others, up to the formation, in
the second and third generation, of the ministry of the bishop.
Therefore, continuity is expressed in this historical chain.
And in the continuity of the succession the guarantee is found of
perseverance in the ecclesial community, in the apostolic College,
gathered by Christ around him. But this continuity, which we saw before
in the historical continuity of the ministers, must also be understood
in the spiritual sense, as the apostolic succession in the ministry is
considered as the privileged place of the action and transmission of the
A clear echo of these convictions can be seen, for example, in this text
of Irenaeus of Lyon (second half of the second century): "the Tradition
of the Apostles has been manifested to the universal world in the whole
Church, and we can enumerate those who have been constituted bishops and
successors of the Apostles up to us […] [The apostles] wanted those whom
they left as their successors to be 'perfect and irreproachable' in
everything (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6-7), to entrust the Magisterium to
them in their place: If they act correctly it will be followed by great
usefulness, but if they fall, it would be the greatest calamity" ("Adversus
Haereses," III, 3, 1: PG 7,848).
Then, Irenaeus, when presenting this network of the apostolic succession
as the greatest guarantee of perseverance in the Lord's word,
concentrates on that Church, among "the most ancient and known by all,
the Church founded and constituted in Rome by the two most glorious
Apostles Peter and Paul," underlining the Tradition of the faith
proclaimed, which comes to us through the apostles and through the
successions of the bishops.
In this way, for Irenaeus and for the universal Church, the episcopal
succession of the Church of Rome becomes the sign, criterion and
guarantee of the uninterrupted transmission of the apostolic faith: "It
is necessary that every Church be in harmony with this Church, whose
foundation is the most guaranteed -- I refer to all the faithful of any
place, because in her all those who are found in all places have kept
the apostolic Tradition" ("Adversus Haereses," III, 3, 2: PG 7,848).
The apostolic succession, verified in virtue of communion with that of
the Church of Rome, is therefore the criterion of permanence of each one
of the Churches in the Tradition of the common apostolic faith, which
through this channel has been able to come to us from the origins: "By
this order and succession the Tradition has come to us that was
initiated by the Apostles. And this shows fully that the one and only
vivifying faith that comes from the Apostles has been kept and
transmitted in the Church until today" (ibid., III, 3,3: PG 7,851).
According to these testimonies of the ancient Church, the apostolicity
of the ecclesial communion consists in faithfulness to the teaching and
practice of the apostles, through whom is guaranteed the historical and
spiritual union of the Church with Christ. The apostolic succession of
the episcopal ministry is the path that guarantees the faithful
transmission of the apostolic testimony.
What the apostles represent in the relationship between the Lord Jesus
and the Church of the origins, is represented analogously by the
ministerial succession in the relationship between the Church of the
origins and the present-day Church. It is not a mere material
concatenation; rather, it is the historical instrument of which the
Spirit makes use to make present the Lord Jesus, head of his people,
through whom they are ordained by the ministry through the imposition of
hands and the prayer of the bishops.
Then, through the apostolic succession, Christ comes to us: He speaks to
us in the word of the apostles and their successors; he acts in the
sacraments through their hands; our gaze is enveloped in his gaze and
makes us feel loved, received in God's heart. And also today, as at the
beginning, Christ himself is the true shepherd and guardian of our
souls, whom we follow with great confidence, gratitude and joy.
[Translation by ZENIT]
[At the end of the audience, the Holy Father greeted pilgrims in several
languages. In English, he said:]
In today's catechesis, we consider how the ministry of the apostles
continues through their successors, the bishops. The apostles themselves
appointed others to take their place and to carry on their work. St.
Irenaeus, writing at the end of the second century, links the tradition
handed down from the apostles to the historical succession of bishops in
the Churches they established.
Irenaeus points in particular to the Church of Rome, founded by the
Apostles Peter and Paul. The succession of bishops in this Church can be
seen as the sure sign and criterion of the unbroken transmission of the
apostolic faith. Consequently, he says, every Church throughout the
world must be in accord with the Roman Church ["Adversus Haereses" III,
The Church's perseverance in the apostolic tradition is thus guaranteed
by the continuity between the original community of the apostles and the
College of Bishops. Through apostolic succession, the Holy Spirit makes
the Risen Christ present to his Church in the ministry of those ordained
to preach the Gospel, to celebrate the sacraments and to serve as loving
shepherds of his flock.
I am pleased to greet the English-speaking pilgrims present at this
audience, particularly those from England, Canada and the United States
of America. Upon all of you I invoke the blessings of the Risen Christ
and wish you a most pleasant time in Rome.
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