The Continuity of the Catholic Church
The officials of the Church organisation are, and at all times have been, priests and bishops, among the latter there being one chief or primate, the Bishop of Rome. I am not unaware that in the narratives of the early Church other titles are mentioned, such as prophet, evangelist, teacher and pastor, but it is evident that these do not refer to officials who were distinct from priests and bishops. Let me explain further that, if in these pages I give exclusive attention to bishops, it is not to imply a lesser importance of priests. It is rather that bishops have as their function to ordain priests and consecrate successors. In performing this function they play the essential role in perpetuating the organisation of the Church, thus assuring the all-important continuity.
Incidentally, because of an impression that the titles "Apostles" and "Bishops" are not identical in office, I call attention to a few pertinent facts. The first officials of the Church were known as Apostles, from the Greek word which means "one who is sent". The successors of the Apostles were and are known as bishops, from the word which means "an overseer". Both titles refer to the same office, the ruling office which our Lord created as an essential part of His Church. Once it is recognised that He established a visible organisation and put it under the charge of especially authorised officials, it makes little difference what the officials are called, whether managers or governors or directors or overseers or something else. The important thing is the office, only that.
This importance is clearly indicated in the instructions given by our Lord to the Apostles. To them, and to no others, He said: "As my Father hath sent me, even so send I you" (John 20:21). "Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matt. 16:19). "But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth" (The Acts 1:8)...."All power is given unto me in heaven and earth. Go ye therefore, and teach to all nations... Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you..." (Matt. 28:18-20). This last statement is of special importance because it indicates that our Lord had given commands for His Church and people, commands which the Apostles were to explain and enforce.
As already noted, the first officials were the Apostles, consisting of the original twelve and St. Paul. No less than the others, St. Paul was a witness of the resurrected savior and was appointed by Him. St. Barnabas, also, was called an Apostle, but in a restricted sense. Thereafter the successors were known as bishops, the title "Apostle" being reserved as a token of reverence for the first fourteen. If the reader is not convinced of these facts, let him consider that if the original Apostles were not the same as bishops there were no bishops during our Lord's ministry and that if bishops were not the successors of the Apostles there have been no successors. Each of these hypotheses is wholly untenable.
The responsibility of the Apostles to perpetuate their office is illustrated by what they did at the first meeting after our Lord left them. Presided over by St. Peter, they were instructed to choose a successor to Judas. Quoting from the Psalms, with an interesting application to Judas, St. Peter said: "Let his habitation be desolate, and let no man dwell therein: and his bishopric let another take" (Acts 1:20). The chapter closes with the statement that St. Matthias was chosen and was "numbered with the eleven apostles". This was the first step in Apostolic succession.
That bishops were to enjoy the same authority as that entrusted to the Apostles is attested by our Lord's several statements about the future of His Gospel and Church, statements which will be quoted later. Moreover, it is confirmed in the understanding and functioning of the early Church. One reference will suffice. In his address to the clergy of Ephesus, St Paul gave this advice: "Take heed to yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God..." (Acts 20:28). It is worthy of note that the Greek word which is translated as "overseers" is "bishops."
In brief, our divine Lord created a visible society, His kingdom on earth. Over it, He appointed certain officials, giving them full authority to "teach, govern and sanctify." This authority, handed down generation by generation without a break, comes to us today with the same force and meaning that it had in the beginning.
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