There are any number of reasons why non-Catholic Christians say they are not Catholic that range from the Church’s emphasis on Mary and the Saints to the Eucharist. But in truth, they really only boil down to one and that is apostolic succession. Regardless of one’s specific issue, if the authority of the Church is established then everything else will naturally fall into place. Struggling with the Immaculate Conception? Start with the given that the Church can and has spoken definitively on it and the personal objections will soon dissolve. If we believe then we will understand. As St. Augustine found out, it is nearly impossible to go the other way—to understand your way into believing. As Catholics then we should seek to establish a firm understanding of Apostolic Succession so as to help our non-Catholic friends to enjoy the fullness of the Truth that Christ is offering to all mankind through the Apostolic Church.
A closer look at St. James, the saint whose feast we celebrate today, can be instructive in this regard. One of the “Sons of Thunder” and brother of the Beloved Disciple John, James the Son of Zebedee was the first Apostle to wear the martyr’s crown. As Acts 12:2 tells us, he was beheaded by Herod Agrippa in 44 AD. A common objection to the belief in Apostolic Succession centers on him. The claim is made that if there truly is Apostolic Succession, then why didn’t the Church appoint another Apostle to take his place?
Recall that shortly after the Ascension, the Apostles gathered to appoint another man to the vacant office of Apostle occasioned by Judas’ death. God had ordained that just like the Israel of Old, the New Israel the Church would be constituted by twelve heads. Therefore at its birth on Pentecost, there must be twelve Apostles. However this does not mean that it would always have these twelve heads, only that they would serve as its foundation (Eph 2:20). So to think that there would be Apostles present in every age of the Church is like thinking that the twelve sons of Israel would somehow live on forever.
The error really comes from a misunderstanding of what Apostolic Succession actually means. When Our Lord instituted the office of Apostle (which literally means “one who is sent”), He constituted it as both itinerant and ubiquitous. They were to go about from town to town to the ends of the earth proclaiming the Gospel. This means that each of the Apostles sought to go into a particular region, preach the Gospel and instruct certain reliable neophytes so that they could be ordained to carry on a set of fixed tasks that were necessary for the daily life of the community. In particular that meant administering Baptism and celebrating the Eucharist (as well as the other Sacraments), transmitting and guarding the teachings of the Apostles to the whole community and serving as administrators of the temporal affairs of the local ecclesial community. To do this, the Apostles would anoint certain men as Bishops and in anointing them, bestow the same powers they were given by Christ upon the ordained. Because they had the full power of the priesthood given to the Apostles, these Bishops could also ordain other Bishops as well as Presbyters (what we call Priests) and Deacons to assist them.
St. Clement of Rome summarizes what the Apostles sought to accomplish best:
“Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty, for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier…. Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry.” (Epistle to the Corinthians 42:4-5, 44:1-3 [80 AD])
But the Apostles were not in the business of ordaining other Apostles. It is very clear from the story of Matthias that it is not Peter per se that appoints Matthias, but God Himself (Acts 1:24-26). Likewise, it was God, Who, once the Church began to scatter from Jerusalem and into the Gentile world, appointed St. Paul as the Apostle to the Gentiles (Gal 2:8). As his letters to Timothy illustrate, Paul had the full measure of Apostolic power including the power of episcopacy. Timothy however was never an Apostle, only a Bishop.
As an aside, St. Paul is chosen as a thirteenth Apostle in order to show that the New Israel includes a tribe that was not included in the Old Israel, namely the Gentiles. Once again we see an example of how God is both telling a continuous story with Israel and the Church, yet has “made all things new” (Rev 21:5) in the Church.
Therefore, we must understand that contained within the office of Apostle is the power of episcopacy. But this obviously is not the full measure of the Apostolic office. It is the power of episcopacy that the Apostles handed on and it is this power that we are referring to when we use the term Apostolic Succession. St. James was fully an Apostle, even if he never exercised his episcopal power on a local Church the way that some of the other Apostles did. He did not need to in order to be an Apostle.
God never intended for the office of Apostle to endure until the end of time. But he did intend for certain powers contained within their office to be passed on, including the power of episcopacy. This same power resides only within the Episcopal College of the Catholic Church, with the Pope as its head.