Saint Matthias and the Apostolic Succession

Today is the feast day of Saint Matthias, who we read in the Acts of the Apostles (1:12-26) was chosen by the Apostles to ‘take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside’ (v.25). Whilst not much is known about Saint Matthias himself, the account of his being inaugurated into the company of the Apostles sheds a great deal of light on what is claimed about the Apostolic Succession, the importance of Sacred Tradition, and on the nature of the Priesthood.

This episode shows us how keen a sense of their divine calling the Apostles had, and thus how important it was for the foundations laid by Jesus to be maintained. It was also important that the one chosen to take Judas’ place was from amongst those who ‘have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us’, so that he might ‘become with us a witness to his resurrection’ (vv.21-22) – i.e.; it was important that the person to be admitted into the Apostolate was someone who knew Jesus and His teaching well, so that he may witness validly to the claims made by the Church about the Lord. That he was fully included in this apostolic ministry is confirmed later on in Acts 6:2.

To claim that the Apostles were here acting on their own initiative, and that the election of Matthias could somehow have been against God’s will would suggest that the Holy Spirit was not guiding the Church, even at the earliest stages of its history, which I don’t think any Christian or even any serious student of Holy Scripture would want to claim (although this occurred prior to Pentecost, Jesus had already bequeathed the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Eleven – c.f.; John 20:21-23). Therefore, it seems we have here a case of God’s using His Church to highlight the importance of its apostolic foundations, and of the need to transmit that foundational authority to succeeding generations.

This perhaps, is the point at which many would part company with Catholic teaching, and raise the counter-claim that although Jesus invested the Apostles with authority to speak in His name, forgive sins, etc, even to elect a replacement for Judas, that this authority (or at least this kind of authority) was not passed on to succeeding generations – i.e.; that there is no such thing as an Apostolic Succession, and therefore no such thing as an episcopate. However, Saint Paul, who also received a divine calling, albeit of a different sort, emphasises in his first letter to Timothy, to ‘not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the elders laid their hands upon you’ (4:14) and that Timothy himself ‘not be hasty in the laying on of hands’ (5:22).

The above verses strongly suggest that Paul recognised the tradition of formally consecrating a successor who would continue in a line from those who had initially received their authority from Christ Himself, and that this line of succession (and therefore authority) would be continued. Saint Paul himself, was not actually considered an elder until he had had hands laid upon him (c.f.; Acts 11:28; 13:1-3). The question then remains of course, of what this has got to do with bishops – Scripture never uses the word, and refers instead to ‘elders’. Well, first of all, Holy Scripture doesn’t use a lot of words that should be absolutely basic to the belief of all Christians – Trinity, Incarnation, etc – and it is the role that is described there that is important, not the name.

Secondly, this highlights the importance of Sacred Tradition. Saint Paul, in his second letter to the Thesssalonians, urged the people there to ‘stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter’ (2:15), and it is easy to see why he counselled them so. There was no defined canon of Scripture then, and so people relied on the authority of the apostolic Church to inform them of what was authentic belief regarding Jesus Christ – the information they imparted was not all written down; much of it was oral, and as Saint Paul says here, it was just as important that Christians hold to those oral traditions as the written ones.

From our point of view, one has to admit that the historical information about the early Church that is available to us is frustratingly incomplete. So in this light the importance of Tradition also becomes apparent – how are we to know what the early Church really practised and thought (what kind of ecclesiology, what they thought about the Eucharist, etc) when it isn’t explicitly given in Scripture? We look to Sacred Tradition. Our only other option is to base our beliefs on what the Church was and is on the ‘latest scholarly findings’ – the consensus of which changes rapidly, and is filled with competing claims often arising from the agendas of the scholar in question.

If we really want to know what the early Church taught, and to fill in the frustrating gaps in the scriptural account, then the best place to look is in the traditions that stem from the same source as Scripture itself. The first place to look for this is of course in the writings of those living as close to the Apostles as we know. In Saint Clement of Rome and Saint Ignatius of Antioch (for example), who were part of the following generation, there is a strong sense of the importance of Succession, and the authority that has been transmitted with it. Later on (189 AD), Saint Irenaeus of Lyons could still say that:

It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known to us throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors down to our own times, men who neither knew nor taught anything like what these heretics rave about.

The very rule of Faith – what the Church believed, and the test of orthodoxy – is connected here with the traditions passed on by the Apostles to their successors, and the Succession itself. Furthermore, (as in Clement and Ignatius) the term ‘bishop’ is used to describe these successors as well. The subtext to what Irenaeus is saying is that the Apostolic Succession (and the authority that comes with it) is absolutely necessary if we are to be able to know with assurance whether what we are receiving is of Christ.

Thus the office of bishop exists to represent the unity of the Faith, by the preservation of apostolic teaching, and also because of the authority to teach and act in Christ’s name in the first place. This latter function is of supreme importance when we think about the Eucharist, and therefore also the priesthood. Not just anyone can celebrate the Eucharist – the authority to do so was given to the Apostles (c.f.; Luke 22:14-23, 28-30), which authority was passed onto their successors – the bishops. Any priest doing so receives his authority from the bishop, and so the Apostolic Succession also helps us to see that a Eucharist divorced from this context (either because of a disregard for it, or due to a break in the Succession) is not a valid one.

To state that not just anyone can celebrate the Eucharist obviously begs the question as to who can, and it seems plain that the criterion must be applied here is whether or not the person doing so has received his authority from Christ Himself. The Catholic claim is that Christ delegated authority to the Apostles, that they passed this on to their successors, and that this channel of authority continues right up to today. This is not to diminish the sharing in Christ’s Priesthood that is shared by all through baptism, but to emphasise an especial role which is at the service of the rest of the Body:

The ministerial or hierarchical priesthood of bishops and priests, and the common priesthood of all the faithful participate, “each in its own proper way, in the one priesthood of Christ.” While being “ordered one to another,” they differ essentially. In what sense? While the common priesthood of the faithful is exercised by the unfolding of baptismal grace – a life of faith, hope, and charity, a life according to the Spirit – ,the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood…

…These servants are chosen and consecrated by the sacrament of Holy Orders, by which the Holy Spirit enables them to act in the person of Christ the head, for the service of all the members of the Church. The ordained minister is, as it were, an “icon” of Christ the priest. Since it is in the Eucharist that the sacrament of the Church is made fully visible, it is in his presiding at the Eucharist that the bishop’s ministry is most evident, as well as, in communion with him, the ministry of priests and deacons.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1547 and 1142.

            So, whilst we may not know very much about Saint Matthias, the account of his election ties into a number of key issues regarding the nature of the Church. His role in Church history is related to several foundational aspects of its life – the grounding of authority in Christ and the way in which that authority is transmitted, the importance of Sacred Tradition, and the special place that those called to Holy Orders have in the economy of salvation. That such a seemingly peripheral character in the Church’s story can be linked into these issues is a great testament to the unity of the Faith as revealed in Scripture and Tradition, and the depth of riches that are preserved therein.


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