Newsletter for Sunday 21 May 2023

19 May

Apostolic Succession

Last Thursday we celebrated Our Lord’s Ascension into Heaven forty days after His Resurrection. Now we are in the period of the Pentecost Novena. Our Lord had commanded His disciples to gather together in the upper room where they prayed for nine (novem) consecutive days for the coming of the Holy Spirit, and we celebrate this coming of the Holy Spirit next Sunday on the Feast of Pentecost.

In the Gospel on Ascension Thursday, we heard Our Lord say to the eleven remaining Apostles, “All authority in Heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations; baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you. And know that I am with you always; yes, to the end of time” (Matthew 28:18-20).

Then we also heard Him say in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and then you will be My witnesses not only in Jerusalem, but throughout Judaea and Samaria, and indeed to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). So the Apostles are to be teachers and witnesses until the end of time. Obviously the remaining eleven Apostles couldn’t teach all nations themselves, and neither would they survive until the end of time, so those powers had to be passed on to their successors.

It’s an historical fact that Our Lord appointed St Peter head of the Apostles and visible Head of the Church on earth. He was the first pope, and since St Peter there have been 265 popes. We go back from Pope Francis, to Benedict XVI, to John Paul II to John Paul I to Paul VI and so on, all the way back to St Peter himself to whom Our Lord said, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build My Church” (Matthew 16:18). So the Catholic Church is Apostolic in origin.

The Catholic Church is also Apostolic in her teaching because all the doctrines she teaches were taught by the Apostles. The Catholic Church never invents new doctrines, because if she did, it wouldn’t be Christ’s Church. We remain faithful to what has been revealed and handed down. Divine Revelation concluded with the death of the last Apostle. Hence the great St Athanasius (298-373) said, “Let us note that the very tradition, teaching, and faith of the Catholic Church from the beginning was preached by the Apostles and preserved by the Fathers. On this the Church was founded; and if anyone departs from this, he neither is, nor any longer ought to be called, a Christian.”

The job of the pope and the bishops is to teach that doctrine – and to protect it from attack. It’s what we call the ‘Depositum fidei’ or the ‘Deposit of faith’. However, some argue that the Church fell into error, and that it is the later reformers (particularly in the sixteenth century) who corrected these errors. If this were the case, Christ’s promise would have failed.  How could the Church fall formally into error when people’s salvation depends upon it and especially when Our Lord had promised to protect her from such a scenario, and that He would send the Holy Spirit to guide and teach her until the end of time?

But some might object that only the Apostles themselves were protected from such error. No! Remember Our Lord’s words: “I am with you always; yes, to the end of timeand “He shall give you another Paraclete, that He may abide with you forever and “You will be My witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). The commission was given not to individuals but to the Teaching Church which would last until the end of time, so as the truth could be guaranteed. That Church is the Catholic Church which Christ founded on Peter the rock.

Fr Paul Gillham, IC

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