THE IMPORTANCE OF APOSTOLIC SUCCESSION


SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ ACTS 1:15-17, 20-26; JOHN 15:9-17 ]

Today, we celebrate the feast of St Matthias the apostle.  It is significant that one of the most important acts of the early Church was to appoint someone to replace Judas so that the College of the Twelve Apostles could be maintained.  Citing from the scriptures as a justification for the necessity of a replacement, St Peter said, “Brothers, the passage of scripture has to be fulfilled in which the Holy Spirit, speaking through David, foretells the fate of Judas, who offered himself as a guide to the men who arrested Jesus – after having been one of our number and actually sharing this ministry of ours. Now in the Book of Psalms it says: Let his camp be reduced to ruin, let there be no one to live in it. And again:  Let someone else take his office.”   (cf Ps 109:8)

This explains why the Catholic Church insists on the importance of the Apostolic College as a guarantee of succession.  That is what we pray in the Creed, “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.”   Vatican teaches, “Just as in the Gospel, the Lord so disposing, St. Peter and the other apostles constitute one apostolic college, so in a similar way the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are joined together. Indeed, the very ancient practice whereby bishops duly established in all parts of the world were in communion with one another and with the Bishop of Rome in a bond of unity, charity and peace, and also the councils assembled together, in which more profound issues were settled in common, the opinion of the many having been prudently considered, both of these factors are already an indication of the collegiate character and aspect of the Episcopal order; and the ecumenical councils held in the course of centuries are also manifest proof of that same character. And it is intimated also in the practice, introduced in ancient times, of summoning several bishops to take part in the elevation of the newly elected to the ministry of the high priesthood. Hence, one is constituted a member of the Episcopal body in virtue of sacramental consecration and hierarchical communion with the head and members of the body.”  (Lumen Gentium 22.1)

Apostolic succession is necessary to ensure that the apostolic faith is passed on from generation to generation.  Hence, in the selection of an apostle to replace Matthias, the most important criterion was that he must have been a witness to the Lord so that He could be a credible witness to Him.  St Peter laid down the criterion for the selection of an apostle.  “We must therefore choose someone who has been with us the whole time that the Lord Jesus was travelling round with us, someone who was with us right from the time when John was baptising until the day when he was taken up from us – and he can act with us as a witness to his resurrection.”

Thus, it is important that one who is chosen to be an apostle must know Jesus personally so that he could be an authentic witness to His resurrection.   This criterion, although applicable to bishops in a special way, also applies to all Christians who are called to be witnesses of the Lord.  We cannot be a witness to the Lord if we have not contemplated on His passion, death and resurrection; and if we have not witnessed the power of His resurrection in our lives, just like all ambassadors of countries must know their own country well and the policies of their governments to be spokesmen for the country they represent.  Ambassadors do not represent themselves but always speak on behalf of the country, even if they have their own personal reservations on a certain issue.  So, too, bishops, priests and even the laity must be clear when they are speaking in their personal capacity and when they are speaking as officials of the Church.  Even then, it is never good for an official of the Church to articulate publicly his dissent and disagreement with the official teachings of the Church.

The selection of an apostle, however, must take place in the context of a prayerful discernment.  We do not choose someone simply because we see that the person has all the qualities that are deemed fit for the office.  In the choice of David, the Lord said to Prophet Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”  (1 Sm 16:7) That was why in choosing apostles the early Church always did it in the context of prayer. In the case of Matthias, we read, “Having nominated two candidates, Joseph known as Barsabbas, whose surname was Justus, and Matthias, they prayed, ‘Lord, you can read everyone’s heart; show us therefore which of these two you have chosen to take over this ministry and apostolate, which Judas abandoned to go to his proper place.’ They then drew lots for them, and as the lot fell to Matthias, he was listed as one of the twelve apostles.”

We must remember that the person must be chosen by the Lord and not by political manipulation.  For this reason, it is important to consider Joseph who was not chosen to be the next apostle.  We can be sure that Joseph was equally, if not more competent than Matthias.  Why he was not chosen is not something that we can logically explain.  Indeed, in life, there are often better candidates suitable for a particular office but they were not chosen.  That is why the Lord said, “You did not choose me, no, I chose you; and I commissioned you to go out and to bear fruit, fruit that will last; and then the Father will give you anything you ask him in my name. What I command you is to love one another.”  It is the Lord’s choice and not ours.  Being an apostle or a priest is not something that we can demand or something that we can work for.  Rather, it is a calling which requires communal discernment, especially by those vested with legitimate authority.

It is also significant to clarify that it was not the lots that determined who was to be chosen to replace Judas.  Rather, it was the prayerful discernment and then, led by the Spirit, the drawing of lots for one of them. Even today, after all the discussion and objective assessment of a candidate for bishopric or for priestly ordination or religious profession, the community must be led to make a discernment based on prayer and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  It cannot simply be a logical deduction and a human calculation of who is the right candidate.   Unfortunately, often board of directors, parish councils, organizations and even Seminary Board of Admission and Religious Congregations tend to be superficial in prayer when it comes to accepting a candidate for an office.  We do not ask the Holy Spirit but appoint them to office based on their external qualifications, not unlike in the secular and corporate world.  This accounts for why often in our churches we have leaders who are capable but lacking in Christian passion, ethos, and virtues in leading their organizations.  Some of them display only corporate values and often forget the importance of the gospel values such as patience, compassion, generosity and evangelical zeal. Many of our Catholic organizations, unfortunately, treat their staff not as collaborators in the mission but simply as workers employed to do a job.  It is not about the mission but about the work.  Hence, instead of eliciting passion from our staff and members, we are calculative with respect to work and assess them in terms of KPIs rather than in terms of passion and commitment.

Indeed, in the final analysis, the one chosen must be in love with the Lord in order to be a real apostle and witness of Christ.  Jesus said, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Remain in my love.  If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.  You are my friends, if you do what I command you. I shall not call you servants anymore, because a servant does not know his master’s business; I call you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have learnt from my Father.”  Indeed, we can only be faithful witnesses of Christ if we have been loved by the Lord first, so deeply that in return, out of gratitude and joy, we choose to serve Him.   Unless, we are the friends of Jesus, we will not do His work with joy and passion.  A servant does his work often as a matter of obligation and duty.  This is why he is often calculative and lack initiative.  It would not be so if we work for the Lord with love.

In this way, flowing from the love of Jesus and the joy of being loved by Him, we bring that joy to completion by sharing it with others.  The Lord says, “I have told you this so that my own joy may be in you and your joy be complete. This is my commandment: love one another, as I have loved you. A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.”  If we choose to serve our brothers and sisters, it is because we want to love them in the same way the Lord has loved us.  Inspired by His love we do the same for others.  This was the motivation of St Paul in his mission when he wrote, “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.  And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.”  (2 Cor 5:14f)


Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved


Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
  • Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
  • Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
  • It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.

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