What is apostolic succession?

What does apostolic succession mean? Literally, it means one who succeeds the apostles. I see this term in forums referring to Catholic clergy, but also with Anglicans and other Protestant denominations. Does this mean that other clergy are closer to Catholics than others who aren’t in apostolic succession?

Dear Sam,

The Original Catholic Encyclopedia states “’To Succeed’ is to be the successor of, especially to be the heir of, or to occupy an official position just after….The Roman Pontiffs came immediately after, occupy the position, and perform the functions of St. Peter; they are, therefore, his successors.”

The early Protestants pulled away from that succession not only by rejecting the lawful authority of Peter’s successors, but by dropping essentials of the faith itself. The moment they changed the teaching that the Mass is the same sacrifice that happened on Calvary, reducing the Eucharist to a mere communion service in which the elements are only symbols, any semblance of apostolic succession was gone. This is true of the Lutherans and of the Anglicans as well.

The Eastern Orthodox Churches are quite another matter. They do participate in apostolic succession to the degree that they have not dropped any of the essentials of the faith. However, by cutting themselves off from St. Peter’s successor, the Pope, they have forfeited the unity that the Vicar of Christ gives to the Church. They are reduced to independent national churches which at times are quite nationalistic and prone to petty rivalries.

For more, see:
Apostolic Succession

Fr. Vincent Serpa, O.P.

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