Catholic Truth Society Postal Course #6: Apostolic Succession, by Father Herbert C Fincham

La consécration de DéodatThe importance of the note of apostolicity is not only the historical fact that the Church of Christ must be able to trace her origin to the apostles, but also that Christ gave to His apostles definite authority, powers and mission which will now be possessed only by their successors. These are still “the ministers of Christ and the dispensers of the mysteries of God” (1st Corinthians 4:1). In them alone rests the power to do what Christ commanded His apostles to do.

“Apostle” Means “Sent”

The word “apostle” comes from a Greek word meaning “sent,” and the apostles are so-called because they were sent out by Christ to preach the Gospel (which means good tidings), and to found His Church in the world. “Going, therefore, teach all nations: baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you; and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world” (Matthew 28:19-20). This “sending” (mission) or “apostolate” extends far beyond the persons of the first eleven to whom it was given by Christ, for they never did preach to all nations, nor live until the end of the world. It still applies to their successors in the true Church of Christ, and only those who receive their authority from that Church are part of the “apostolate”.

Apostles Were Given Supernatural Powers

Not only did the apostles receive their mission or sending from Christ, but also certain definite powers of a supernatural order, which could be conferred only by God. For example: “Receive ye the Holy Ghost: whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained” (John 20:22-23). “Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosen in heaven” (Matthew 18:18). Clearly only those who received such powers as these could claim the authority to pass them on to their successors. Hence no one can pretend to possess these supernatural powers unless he has received them from those who possess them, who in their turn received them from others, whose authority to hand them on can be guaranteed as coming from the apostles and so from Christ. This is what is meant by the unbroken line of her Pastors, through which the Church derives her Orders and her Mission from the apostles.

The Catholic Church Is Apostolic

The Catholic Church can trace her history back to the apostles and her authority and mission to them, and the guarantee for each individual bishop is contained in Our Lord’s guarantee to preserve His Church until the end of the world, for the loss of the apostolic powers in His Church would mean the destruction of that Church.

Apostolic Powers Are Transmitted By Holy Orders

These apostolic powers of the ministers of Christ’s Church are handed down by the Sacrament of Holy Order. The most important of them are the powers to offer the Sacrifice of the New Testament (1st Corinthians 11:23-26; Luke 22:19) and to dispense the Sacraments instituted by Christ. Only those who have truly received Holy Order, or ordination, can possess the power to perform these sacred duties or to pass on these supernatural powers to others. The apostles received their ordination direct from Christ and in their turn ordained others to help them in their ministry and to take their place after their deaths, giving these successors the power to do the same. This is clear from Saint Paul’s admonition to Timothy: “Neglect not the grace that is in thee, which was given by prophecy, with imposition of the hands of the priesthood”; and with regards to his passing on this grace: “Impose not hands lightly on any man” (1st Timothy 4:14, 22). In the Acts of the Apostles we find examples of the ordaining of deacons (1st Timothy 6) and priests (1st Timothy 13:3 and 14:22), and the origins of the Church’s ministry of bishop, priests and deacons can be traced to apostolic times, for example in the famous letter to the Corinthians of Pope Saint Clement, who was a contemporary of Saint John the Apostle.

Christ The Head Of His Church Appointed A Vicar

The Mission and powers of the Church of Christ must, as we have seen, be traced back to the apostles and through them to the head of the Church, Christ Himself. There can, of course, be no other head, though Christ has appointed a “VICAR” (Latin vice) to stand in His place. He did this both to ensure that visible unity in His Church that was to be a mark by which all might know that Christ came from God (John 17:20-21); and to make her Apostolic Succession in history clear for all to see, as was asserted as early as the second century by Saint Irenaeus and is equally evident to-day. Every bishop receives his Mission from the VICAR of Christ, whom we call the Pope, Father. As a mark of that Mission being granted, archbishops are given a symbol called Pallium by the Pope, and up to the so-called Reformation the archbishops of Canterbury and York receivec? this symbol of their Mission.

The Pope Is The Vicar Of Christ Our Shepherd

The Pope is the Bishop of Rome and is the VICAR of Christ because he is the successor of Saint Peter, whom Christ appointed to be the Head of the Church. That Saint Peter did go to Rome and became bishop of that city is the certain and unquestionable tradition of the Church throughout the ages. Never was this honour acribed to any other city or see.

After His Resurrection Our Lord appointed Saint Peter to take His place as the Shepherd of His Flock on earth. Jesus had called Himself the Good Shepherd and now, just before ascending into heaven. He said to Peter: “Simon, son of John (which was Peter’s real name), lovest thou Me more than these? He saith to Him: Yea, Lord, Thou knowest that I love Thee. He saith to him: Feed My Lambs. He saith to him again: Simon, son of John, lovest thou Me? He saith to Him: Yea, Lord, Thou knowest that I love Thee. He saith to him: Feed My Lambs. He saith to him a third time: Simon, son of John’, lovest thou Me? Peter was grieved, because He had said to him the third time, Lovest thou Me? And he said to Plim: Lord, Thou knowest all things: Thou knowest that I love Thee. He said to him: Feed My sheep” (John 21:15-17). Thus was Peter appointed Shepherd of the whole flock of lambs and sheep.

This appointment was, however, only the restatement of the authority of Peter to act as Christ’s Vicar which had already been given to him. Perhaps, on account of his threefold denial of his beloved Master, Peter may have doubted whether he would still be considered worthy of so great an office, and so Our Lord assured him by these words that had not been deposed.

Peter Means Rock

As soon as Simon, son of John, was called to be an apostle Christ changed his name to Peter (John 1:42), which was no name at all but a word meaning rock. As a nickname it was hardly fitting for the apostle who was to prove weak enough to deny his Lord, and it may well have puzzled Peter and the other apostles as to why it had been chosen. Later Our Lord made it clear when He asked His apostles, “Whom do you say that I am?” and Peter made his great act of faith for all the twelve: “Thou art Christ the Son of the living God.” And Jesus commended this answer, saying: “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but My Father who is in heaven. And I say to thee: That thou art Peter (Rock): and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth, it shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:16-19).

This Rock Foundation Ensures Unity

Clearly Christ is here conferring on Simon a very important office in His Church. Simon is to be the Peter, the Bock, which is the foundation of the Church of Christ. The whole safety and stability of that Church depends on the strength of that Rock, which Christ promises is to be so firm that the gates of hell, the devil, will never overcome it. A building is destroyed when it loses its unity and is broken up into pieces; so also the Church of Christ would be destroyed by the devil if she lost her unity and was divided up into parts, parties or branches.

Christ’s Vicar Cannot Lead The Church Into Error

The devil would undoubtedly prevail against the Church if he could induce her to teach error or falsehood, for her very purpose is to teach and preserve the doctrine of Christ. But if her preservation from the attacks of the devil is due to her strong foundation on the Bock of Peter, then Peter and his successors must be preserved by God from leading the Church into teaching error. The Pope must be infallible. As shepherd and teacher of the whole fiock of Christ the Pope has the right and duty to define the doctrine entrusted to the Church by Christ. A shepherd that could lead the whole Church of Christ into the poisonous pastures of error and falsehood would be no vicar of the Good Shepherd. Christ could never have commissioned Peter to feed His lambs and sheep without meaning to guarantee guidance to him and his successors in such a vital task so that they would not feed the flock with untruth instead of Truth.

Christ’s Vicar Must Rule The Church.

As well as giving to His Vicar, Peter, the authority to teach, Christ gives to him the power to rule: “To thee will I give the keys of the kingdom of heaven”. Keys are a common symbol of power to rule and Jesus frequently calls His Church the Kingdom of heaven. This power to bind by laws and to loose from spiritual bonds is guaranteed by God in such a way that whenever the Vicar of Christ exercises it on earth, it will be ratified by God in heaven, as though it were God Himself who bound or loosed. Later Our Lord extended this power of loosing and binding to all the apostles (Matthew 18:18) and it is still possessed by the bishops of the Catholic Church who are in union with the Vicar of Christ.

The position of Saint Peter as head and leader of the apostles is clear from very many passages in the New Testament. His name is the first in every list of apostles. He acted as their spokesman on several occasions, in fact every important occasion. After Our Lord had ascended into heaven he at once assumed his responsibilities, by directing the election of a successor to the traitor, Judas. Peter preached the first sermon after the coming of the Holy Ghost; worked the first miracle; preached first to the non-Jews and received the vision from God which made it clear that the Gospel was to be preached to the gentiles. Peter gave the final decision at the Council of Jerusalem, which was accepted by all the other apostles and promulgated by James, the Bishop of Jerusalem, who presided at the council which took place in his diocese (Cf. Acts 1:15, 2:14, 3:6, 10:1-48, 15:7-12).


This sixth chapter of the Postal Course may well be called the crucial point, and you may observe a change in the manner of treatment after it. Up to this point I have tried, very shortly and incom.pletely, to establish the claims of the Catholic Church to measure up to the requirements of a revelation from God and the religion founded by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and to show that this Church alone fulfils all that Christ promised for His Church by being truly universal (Catholic), united, holy and apostolic. If I have succeeded in convincing you of this fact, it should follow logically that all are bound to enter her fold and accept her teaching authority, and all that should be necessary from now onwards is to show the attractiveness and usefulness of all that the Church teaches rather than the arguments in favour of each doctrine. It is at this point, therefore, that an effort must be made to weigh up these claims and the reasons for accepting them.

It is not, however, easy for us to accept that infallible authority however much our reason may be swayed in its favour. It makes great demands upon us in the way we live, the things we do, the character we develop and the mysteries we accept. Hence our wills may refuse to follow our reason and blind it to the force of the argument. It is to overcome this unwillingness that we need the special help of God called Faith, and for this all must pray. Hence it is at this point that I would urge you to do something more than study, and suggest that you pray for light and help to follow God’s will wherever it may lead.

Though, indeed, the full acceptance of the authority of the Catholic Church may seem to demand much self-conquest and self-humbling, especially in the matter of our human love to speculate and think what we like about everything under the sun, nevertheless, it is in the acceptance of that authority that true intellectual liberty can be found. We can be just as completely trapped in a bog as in iron fetters. A man is only free to move about as he will when his feet are on a firm foundation. In like manner there is no true liberty for the mind sunk in the morass of religious scepticism and uncertainty. Only absolute certainty as to fundamentals can give a soul freedom to soar into the religious and mystical speculations that have always been a mark of Cathohc thought. This absolute certainty can only come from the infallible guarantee of God to His Church; the promise of the Spirit of Truth to teach her all truth until the end of time. However, not everyone wants to soar into theological and mystical speculation, but the glory and wonder of the Catholic teaching is that it is truly universal in that it suits all tastes. Every kind and sort of person can find in the Catholic Church full satisfaction for their intellectual and spiritual aspirations, whether they be learned or simple, practical or mystical, energetic or tranquil. This is an aspect of Catholicity sometimes overlooked which can easily be proved and demonstrated in the Catholic Church by a glance at her “Roll of Honour Among those she has chosen out for our example and reverence as her saints, we find all these different kinds of people. There are saints, world famous for their intellects, and saints almost illiterate. Saints who were practical men of business, founders of great works of charity and saints who were high mystics who passed a hidden life of contemplation. There are saints who were noble, humble, rich, poor, beggars, children, workers, peasants. All found everything they needed to satisfy their religious instincts and to reach the heights of holiness in the teaching and way of the Catholic Church. We in like manner can each of us find all we want and need for our soul’s satisfaction and salvation in the one, holy Catholic Church.

MLA Citation

  • Father Herbert C Fincham. “Apostolic Succession”. The Catholic Postal Course, 1951. CatholicSaints.Info. 5 April 2016. Web. 27 May 2019. <>