Apostolic Succession and Episcopal Lineage

My fellow Christians,

Does the Church (Vatican, Individual Diocese) keep documents that show the succession of bishops ? Is there a way to trace my bishop back to an individual apostle ? Are all bishops from the USA in direct lineage to a specific apostle ?

My curiosity abounds…

Thanks for your help!

Sincerely in Christ,


has most all bishops and back to the 1400’s-ish. typically back to cardinal reibiba. but few if any back to apostles.

has most all bishops and back to the 1400’s-ish. typically back to cardinal reibiba. but few if any back to apostles.

Why is that, anyway? I’ve notice that site you linked us to doesn’t seem to go any further than Reibiba. Do you know why that is so?

available records, or maybe thats as far as the creator of the page got i think its only a few people building that site

So many of the Bishopric’s that were created by the Apostles were overrun and ceased to exist during some time in the past.

There may be one or two exceptions, other than Rome.


[quote=corrgc]Does the Church (Vatican, Individual Diocese) keep documents that show the succession of bishops ? Is there a way to trace my bishop back to an individual apostle ? Are all bishops from the USA in direct lineage to a specific apostle ?



You need to consider two terms Apostolic Succession and Episcopal Lineage which, though related, are not interchangeable.

Apostolic Succession, as it applies to the Papal claim (from the Catholic Encyclopedia, 1911 ed.):

…“To succeed” is to be the successor of, especially to be the heir of, or to occupy an official position just after, … Now the Roman Pontiffs come immediately after, occupy the position, and perform the functions of St. Peter; they are, therefore, his successors. (This is proven by the fact) that St. Peter came to Rome, and ended there his pontificate; (and) that the Bishops of Rome who came after him held his (identical) official position in the Church.

The same points of proof apply to apostolic succession in any subordinate See.

Episcopal Lineage effectively means that every valid, Catholic bishop living today was consecrated by the “laying on of hands” by another bishop who was consecrated by a previous bishop, and so on, back to the Apostles, without interruption of continuity.

The existence of a list of Popes, from Peter through Benedict XVI, establishes Apostolic Succession in the Papacy. The list establishes that the Chair of Peter has been successively occupied since Peter’s repose. That fact supports an arguable presumption for Episcopal Lineage, i.e., that each Pope was, during his tenure, in possession of valid episcopal orders, conferred on him by another bishop, who was himself in possession of valid episcopal orders, and so on, back to Saint Linus, Peter’s immediate successor. If Popes personally consecrated their successors, Apostolic Succession and Episcopal Lineage would be coincident but, as we know, that’s not what is done.

That said, it is virtually impossible to document the names of all bishops in an Episcopal Lineage back to one of the Twelve Apostles because record-keeping at that level of detail is either not extant or does not consistently exist, historically. It is highly likely, however, that your bishop’s episcopal lineage can be traced to Scipione Cardinal Rebiba, Bishop of Sabina, of blessed memory, who was born in 1504, elected bishop 16 March 1541, and reposed on 23 July 1577.

That isn’t all that remarkable; in 1998, the episcopal lineage of more than 90% of the 4,300+ Latin bishops then living could ultimately be traced directly to Scipione Rebiba. It isn’t that Cardinal Rebiba was so prolific as a consecrator, but that among the episcopal descendents of his consecration was Pope Benedict XIII (to whom Rebiba would have been the 6-times “great grand-bishop”, to further the analogy of episcopal descent). During his episcopacy and pontificate, Pope Benedict XIII was the principal consecrator of 139 bishops, many of whom were Ordinaries of important dioceses and who, in turn, ordained many bishops themselves.

Since the early 20th century, investigation into and cataloguing of episcopal lineages has been ongoing, conducted by a small number of researchers, primarily laypersons, most of them doing it on their own time and without compensation. They have documented the lineages of thousands of bishops, stretching back through several centuries; related endeavors have focused on the history of canonical jurisdictions.

The results of much of this research are viewable on the web.


A good friend, Charles Bransom, is the principal quasi-official recorder of episcopal lineages. He has been involved in this task for 4 decades, continuing efforts begun in the '30s by Father Albert Perbal, OMI, and Abbot Gabriel Tissot, OSB, and continued in the '50s and '60s by Fathers Andre Chapeau, OSB, Isidore Perraud, CSSp, and Fernand Combaluzier, CM, Msgr. Lamberto de Echeverria, and Mons.Jean Montier.

Charles’ work documenting American episcopal lineages from 1790-1989 was published by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1990 (a follow-up, to bring it up-to-date, is in process). Annually, he issues Revue des Ordinations Episcopales, a monograph that, for the past 15 years, has documented the details of every Catholic episcopal ordination throughout the world, including date, place, names of consecrator and principal co-consecrators, biographical data related to each new hierarch, and an abbreviated episcopal lineage for each. Those in the Boston area may have seen the lineage of Archbishop Sean O’Malley, OFM, prepared by Charles, that was printed in the Pilot, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston, at the time of Archbishop O’Malley’s assignment. See Charles’ documentation of the late Pope John Paul’s episcopal lineage at: Episcopal Lineage of HH John Paul II

For a discussion by Charles about The Rebiban Succession, see Episcopal Lineages & Apostolic Succession.

David Cheney (who posts here as davidc2), an American Catholic layman, maintains an on-line database that documents current and historical information about hierarchs and canonical jurisdictions. His is one of the most thoroughly documented sites on the web and one of a half-dozen that, together, constitute an enormously valuable compendium of data on Catholic hierarchs and jurisdictions. It’s an ongoing work, with historical material continually updated to incorporate newly available data, and information added whenever new hierarchs are named or changes made in any jurisdiction. David offers a free e-mail notification service to keep subscribers immediately abreast of changes. The site is at: Catholic Hierarchy

von Martin Wolters, a German Catholic layman, documents ecclesiastical jurisdictions and their ordinaries worldwide, as well as the Vatican diplomatic corps, the Vatican dicasteries, and other Curial entities. Both jurisdictional and personnel changes are recorded for all events occurring in or after 1917. The site is available in German and English at: Die Apostolische Nachfolge (The Apostolic Sucession)

Professor Salvador Miranda, a Cuban-American Catholic layman, has devoted 50 years to collecting data on the cardinalate, The result is a comprehensive, and ever-growing, on-line database that offers extraordinary detail about those on whom the red hat has been conferred: Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church

Three Norwegian Catholics, Father Claes Tande, Mr. Chris Nyborg, Notary of the Oslo Diocesan Tribunal, and Father Claes’ brother (whose name escapes me at the moment) maintain a web-database that seeks to document the chronological history of all Catholic canonical jurisdictions. Their site, offered in 6 languages, including English, is under continuous expansion. It is at: Chronology of Erections of Catholic Dioceses Worldwide

Bob Hilkens, a Belgian Catholic layman, created and maintains a large on-line database in English on the history and administrative structures of the nations of the world. Originally limited to secular states, he expanded it some years ago to include the canonical structure of the Catholic Church. His site is at: States and Regents of the World

Bruce Gordon has expanded a site that initially focused solely on royal houses to include a significant amount of data on ecclesiastical lineages, particularly as they relate to the patriarchates. His site is at: Regnal Chronologies

Additionally, there is a site maintained by Terry Boyle, an American Catholic layman, which explains the apostolic succession and episcopal lineage of bishops who claim validity through consecration by renegade Catholic and Orthodox hierarchs. Albeit seen through a distorted lensfinder, it offers another aspect of the entire picture. It’s at: Outline of Episcopi Vagante


The coordinated efforts of these people, who regularly exchange info among themselves, has resulted in extraordinary detail being available as to the canonical structure of the Church and its hierarchs.

Although there is overlap in some instances, each site offers particulars in its data or the way in which it is presented, that makes it an important piece of the whole historical understanding.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, a couple of years ago, said:

Even if someone states that episcopal lineage of any one, or even any of the Bishops, cannot be historically traced back to a certain Apostle, that is not necessarily a denial of Apostolic Succession. Rather, it may be a simple acknowledgment of what, up to now, is the case, until further historical documents are found.

The Cardinal in saying “this would be a very mechanical and individualistic vision, which by the way historically could hardly be proved and ascertained” was acknowledging the human aspect involved.

Multiple factors play negatively into maintaining sustained and ongoing documentation at this level of record-keeping over a span of two millenia: illiteracy; fires; environmental factors; persecutions; war, with its accompanying pillage and destruction; the ephemeral nature of scribed documents; geographic dispersal; isolation. Each of these considerations alone accounts for the absence or destruction of untold thousands of records. Frankly, that the apostolic succession of the most prominent hierarchical lines - those of the papacy and the patriarchates - has survived is remarkable in itself.

Some argue that in a time when the Church was spread across significantly less of the globe, the numbers of bishops would have been correspondingly less than, for instance, the 4300+ that I referenced as alive in 1998, and, therefore, it should have been easier to keep track of individual episcopal genealogies. In fact, though, it must be remembered that in earliest times, the difficulty of travel being what it was, it was not uncommon that the senior presbyter in each individual church was a bishop; that developed over time into “town” and “country” (rural) bishops and only later to bishops being situated only in the principal civil locales and larger population centers.

As an example of the sizeable numbers of hierarchs that existed in some places during the early centuries, consider that there were more than 100 bishops in the See of Alexandria alone by 320 AD. As late as the 13th century, the Assyrian Church of the East, geographically and theologically isolated from Catholicism and Orthodoxy for centuries at that point in time, had more than 30 metropolitan sees and over 200 dioceses spread across Persia and into China.

In reading His Eminence’s words, he also seems to have been making a point about tracing Apostolic Succession back to the body of Apostles, what he refers to as the apostolic collegium. I am a bit uncertain as to whether his point was to refute an argument (which I have to admit never having heard) that the validity of apostolic succession rests on initiation of the chain by one Apostle (probably Peter, if that were to indeed be someone’s basis for argumentation), who would have been the one to confer the right of succession on each of his confreres.

As I see the problem and its possible solution, it is not a question of apostolic succession in the sense of an historical chain of laying on of hands running back through the centuries to one of the apostles; this would be a very mechanical and individualistic vision, which by the way historically could hardly be proved and ascertained. The Catholic view is different from such an individualistic and mechanical approach. Its starting point is the collegium of the apostles as a whole; together they received the promise that Jesus Christ will be with them till the end of the world (Matt 28, 20). So after the death of the historical apostles they had to co–opt others who took over some of their apostolic functions. In this sense the whole of the episcopate stands in succession to the whole of the collegium of the apostles.

To stand in the apostolic succession is not a matter of an individual historical chain but of collegial membership in a collegium, which as a whole goes back to the apostles by sharing the same apostolic faith and the same apostolic mission. The laying on of hands is under this aspect a sign of co-optation in a collegium.

It seems to me that Cardinal Kaspar was acknowledging that, at some point, one may have to substitute belief for tangible evidence, in the form of an episcopal genealogy. As someone who can trace my own ancestors, with certitude, through only about 5 generations, I’m fairly impressed with anyone whose episcopal credentials can be documented back to Scipione Cardinal Rebiba.

Many years,


Greetings, Neil,

I was going to jump in – but you’ve covered the waterfront most thoroughly! If you’re ever in Wisconsin, I’ll buy the first round!


Excellent information!!

Thank you all tremendously for your efforts and information!

Your in Christ,


The information contributed by Irish Melkite was so outstanding in this thread that with his kind permission I have made it a sticky in the forum for future reference.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.