By Amber Kinloch
“Apostolic” is the last mark of the Church and the easiest to understand, I think. The Baltimore Catechism No. 3 succinctly sums it up: “The Catholic Church is apostolic because it was founded by Christ on the apostles and, according to His divine will, has always been governed by their lawful successors.”
That’s a nice, clear-cut definition. Yet why does this mark matter? Of what significance is it for us?
Founded on the Apostles
During his ministry, after a night devoted to prayer, Jesus chose the Twelve from among His disciples, appointing them Apostles (Luke 6:12-16). These were the men closest to Him, the chosen eyewitnesses to His life, death, and resurrection.
Jesus lived on earth a brief thirty-three years. But His salvific mission to all mankind continues until the end of time. Witnesses, therefore, were needed, men in whose testimony we could have confidence. The Apostles are these men. Their eyewitness accounts are recorded in the Gospels either by themselves or other authors who interviewed them. For example, John writes in his account of the Passion: “An eyewitness has testified, and his testimony is true; he knows that he is speaking the truth, so that you also may [come to] believe” (John 19:35).
After the Resurrection, the Apostles received the commission to “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). Along with this commission, Jesus endowed them with authority to baptize, forgive sins, and work miracles in His Name (Mark 16:16-20; John 20:22-23). The Apostles became the leaders of the early Church, which trusted and obeyed their teaching.
Governed by Lawful Successors
The Apostles died in the decades following the Resurrection. Yet the mission of the Church that Christ established upon them continues until the end of time. Therefore, the Apostles appointed successors through the sacrament of Holy Orders, when a bishop lays his hands on a man’s head and ordains him to the clerical state. These new deacons, priests, and bishops were charged with preserving the Tradition handed on to them, carrying on the Apostles’ work, and appointing future successors (2 Timothy 2:2; 1 Corinthians 15:3-8).
This unbroken chain of successors, originating with the Twelve Apostles and continued in the laying on of hands, is an essential mark of the Church. A man cannot simply decide to complete the necessary studies and become a deacon, priest, or bishop in the Catholic Church. He must receive ordination from another man who possesses the necessary power and authority to ordain. A Catholic cleric’s authority does not have human origins; it comes from God Himself.
The New Testament shows that apostolic succession was of great importance to the early Church. After Judas committed suicide, the other Apostles chose Matthias to take Judas’ place in the ministry of the Church (Acts 1:15-26). Paul wrote in his letters to Timothy and Titus about the sort of ministers they should ordain to carry on the Church’s mission (1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9) Peter, likewise, exhorted the presbyters of the Church in tending to their flock (1 Peter 5:1-4). Clearly, the Apostles’ leadership was intended to be handed on.
This is only logical. Children have their parents. Businesses have owners and managers. The Israelites had judges and kings. All of these leaders are given authority from God for the good of those under them. So it is with the Church. According to Christ’s Will, bishops are appointed to teach, sanctify, and govern the faithful with the priests and deacons to assist them. At times, they may be mediocre leaders, even downright sinful, but that doesn’t discount their essential role or authority in the Church.
We see the power of this authority given by Christ to the Apostles and their successors playing a key role in the Church’s history. For over 2,000 years, the Church has kept the fullness of the deposit of Faith entrusted to her. This, even when she’s been ruled by bad or weak men. No other church can boast of this.
According to His Divine Will
Of course we might ask, why would God want us to have a Pope and clergy? Why wouldn’t He lead us by some other means like some special infused knowledge, visions, etc.?
A number of reasons come to mind. One is that God likes to reach us through humble means. On occasion, He works miracles, but generally He employs the ordinary. Jesus wasn’t born in a palace, but in a lowly stable. He didn’t fly through the skies above Galilee; He walked or went in a boat.
Furthermore, as God Himself became man, it makes sense that He would employ other human beings in His work. Jesus didn’t isolate Himself; He truly lived among us. What an honor, too, that men can actively partake in the work of redemption. Humanity sinned and caused this messy, fallen world we live in. Now God invites men to partake in the work of their own redemption, using their gifts to serve Him and their fellow human beings.
It’s incredible. Men are so weak. They struggle with sin and too often are indifferent to the evil of it. Yet God still chose to lay the foundations of His Church upon twelve men, and from there continues to build it up with us, as other “living stones” (1 Peter 2:4-5). And His work is a success.
Thanks be to God!
Other Articles in this Series
- “Why the Marks of the Church Matter (Based on a Conversation with a Seventh-day Adventist)
- The First Mark of the Church: “One”
- The Second Mark of the Church: “Holy”
- The Third Mark of the Church: “Catholic”
Amber writes from the bunker of her living room. There she hunkers down with her laptop and a blanket while keeping an eye and ear tuned in to the activity of family life. Music set on loop keeps her energy flowing as she muses on the deeper happenings of ordinary life and what food to restock the fridge with.
Rose has been drawing and writing since she could hold a pencil, creating worlds of giants, fairies, and adventurers from her imagination. She works as a graphic designer and loves discussing the good and creative aspects of literature, art, and film.