Christ called unto Himself twelve men, His first disciples, the nucleus of His Church. They were not learned. We do not even know if all of them were literate. But they had higher gifts: Faith in and obedience to the Master. It was to secure and save these gifts that He worked His miracles. St. Augustine puts it well: ‘By His miracles He gained authority. By authority, He secured their Faith. By Faith, He drew the multitudes’ (Utility of Belief, XIV, 32). And conversely we might say: Without obedience, there would be no Faith. Without Faith, there would be no Church.
Authority and obedience, then, were soul and body to the infant Church. Without them, she could not have been born, much less lived and grown. She simply would never have existed at all. She would have been just one more school, with its scholars free to come and go at will. And its Master another Socrates or Plato, only much greater. But the Church is not a school. She is a Church. She does not teach only. She commands. Her doctrines are not opinions. They are revealed truths. Her members may not come and go. They must come and stay. If they leave, it is to their own ruin. And Christ is not another Socrates or Plato, but greater. Christ is God. If He were less than God, He would have failed. It is authority that makes the difference. He spoke as one having power. And that is why the Church will live forever. She has in her that which is Divine. Like her Founder, she speaks as one having power. Her voice is the voice of God.
God in His infinite wisdom and providence instituted the Church to last as long as there are men to be saved. To that Church He gave teachers and doctors, to whom He communicated His authority and the power of preaching and teaching. He chose in a special way a few, to whom He gave a special power not given to others – upon them He founded His Church – through them He spoke to the future generations. He did not write any book to perpetuate His doctrine, commandments and institutions. Alone, a written book is a dead thing. The dead cannot speak. Only the living can give life to what is dead.
Authority, then, is necessary for the life of the Church, because such is the order chosen by Christ. Such authority cannot be anything accidental or secondary. It is something substantial and essential in the life of that society, which the Son of God established upon earth. Without authority, there is no obedience – and without obedience, there is chaos, a religious confusion that spells the end of any society. That authority is God Himself. ‘The book which Christ wrote was the Apostles, a book written not in ink, but with the Holy Spirit, who gave to the Apostles all authority, all power and jurisdiction in the Church. He appointed them to rule, to teach and to sanctify the faithful’ (Franzelin, Script et Trad., Th. IV).
During the three years of His public ministry, Jesus spoke of the Church as something that was yet to come. But on the evening before His death, the hour was at hand, and He called it into existence. At the Last Supper, He instituted the two Sacraments which perpetuate the life of the Church itself and sustain it in its members – Holy Orders and the Blessed Eucharist (Luke 22:14, 19-20). After His Resurrection, He completed the Sacraments, imparted His authority to the Apostles, conferred the Primacy on Peter, and crowned the work by a promise that He Himself would be with them until the End of the World (Matt 28: 18-19, John 20: 21-23).
The impossible has happened. The Son of God has given His almighty power to eleven weak men: to bind and to loose, to rule and to guide, until the End of Time. The Apostles, then, are vested with the power and authority of Christ Himself. They are sustained in their great mission by the promise of Christ’s assistance and of the coming upon them of the Holy Spirit, to teach them all truth and preserve them from error (Matt 28:20, John 14:16, John 16:13). When Christ said to Peter and to Peter only, ‘Feed my lambs, feed my sheep’ , He conferred on him the supreme power of ruling over the people, the priests and the bishops of the Church. He fulfilled what He promised him before: ‘I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven – and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven’.
Behold, then, the Church of Christ – established by divine charter, endowed with divine life, sharing in divine immortality. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, with a guarantee that they cannot fail and will not err, and in the company of the Master, who will never leave them, the Apostles go forth to preach and teach and baptize. The Church Christ founded was a Church with a Living Authority and will remain so to the end. The writings of the New Testament would come later, a proof – as the writings of the Old Testament had been a prophecy – that God had made good His word. These inspired writings of the Church would testify to that which already existed and which would have existed and been divine and true and everlasting even if the Apostles had never written a line.
Ultimately, the Church is what it is, not because Matthew, John or Paul or any other of its first members has written it, but because Christ commanded it. The Apostles had their authority and were using it, and the Church was doing its work … many years before a word of the New Testament was written.
Christ’s memorable words: ‘Behold I am with you all days even to the consummation of the world’ and ‘He shall give you another Paraclete, that he may abide with you forever’ and ‘you shall be witnesses unto me, even to the uttermost part of the earth’, etc., were addressed not only to the individual persons of the Apostles, but also to all those who were to succeed them in office (Timothy and Titus were consecrated Bishops by the Apostle Paul, Acts 20:28, Peter’s first letter to Corinthians, etc.). The commission, therefore, of teaching and giving testimony was not simply personal. It was given to the teaching Church, to an Apostolic Succession until the End of Time.
Thus has Jesus Christ established a perpetual Apostolic Succession to govern the Church in His name.