This week, Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin celebrated the Woods’ opening day Mass. How can I explain why it was such a big deal to me to meet Abp. Tobin—why I felt (and, alas, may have acted) like a schoolgirl meeting a pop sensation? It isn’t because he’s an impressive man, although he is that; he has won universal acclaim in an increasing balkanized church.
I have been seeking a way to explain it my wife (who is an evangelical, and is thus pleasantly bemused by such things) and to non-Catholic Christian friends. I tried it this way: Suppose, I said, you were to meet the Apostle St. James. Imagine how it would feel—perhaps he is an impressive man, doubtless he is, but what is more important is that he was commissioned by Our Savior to represent Him to you! Jesus sent him! To you, I said! Well, I said, James in turn commissioned and sent to you Symeon; Symeon, in turn, sent Justus, who sent Zacchæus, who sent Tobias, who sent Benjamin, who sent John, who sent Matthias, who sent Philip, who sent Seneca, who sent Justus, who sent Levi, who sent Ephres, who sent Joseph, and so on. (Eusebius, 4 H. Ecc. 5.) Christ “was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ,” wrote St. Clement at the conclusion of the first century, appointments “made in an orderly way according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first-fruits of their labors, having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe.” (1 Clem.)
So, I explained, he isn’t just Joe Tobin, a man of his own merits, or even just Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin, the duly-appointed shepherd of the geographic portion of the Church in which I am located. No, to stand before him is to stand before bishop Joseph Tobin: who was sent by Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, who was in turn sent by Archbishop Albino Mensa, who was sent by Archbishop Albino Mensa (+1998), who was sent by Bishop Gaudenzio Binaschi (+1968), who was sent by Bishop Giuseppe Castelli (1943), who was sent by Agostino Cardinal Richelmy (+1923), who was sent by Gaetano Cardinal Alimonda (+1891), who was sent by Archbishop Salvatore Magnasco (1892), who was sent by Gustav Cardinal Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst (+1896), who was sent by Pope Pius IX (1878), who was sent by Francesco Cardinal Castiglioni (+1830), who was sent by Giuseppe Cardinal Pamphilj (+1816), who was sent by Buenaventura Cardinal Córdoba Espinosa de la Cerda (+1777), who was sent by Archbishop Manuel Quintano Bonifaz (+1774), who was sent by Enrique Cardinal Enríquez (+1756)… And so on, in lineal succession all the way to the eleven, and thence to Christ, and thence to the Father. To stand before Tobin, then, is to stand before a successor of the apostles in the most literal sense imaginable; for this reason, the Second Vatican Council reminds us: “bishops by divine institution have succeeded to the place of the apostles, as shepherds of the Church, and he who hears them, hears Christ, and he who rejects them, rejects Christ and Him who sent Christ.” And who meets them… The apostolic succession is not some abstract principle or intellectual construct, but of the most tangible character imaginable.
Yes, of course, men are but men, and there have been unworthy men consecrated as bishops. But that is beside the point. The Tractarian John William Bowden explains this point beautifully in a passage that I quoted recently:
“Since the Apostolic age [twenty] centuries have rolled away … and, blessed be God, the Church is with us still. Amid all the political storms and vicissitudes, amid all the religious errors and corruptions which have chequered, during that long period, the world’s eventful history, a regular unbroken succession has preserved among us ministers of God, whose authority to confer the gifts of His Spirit is derived originally from the laying on of the hands of the Apostles themselves. Many intermediate possessors of that authority have, it is true, intervened between them and these, their hallowed predecessors, but the gifts of God are without repentance; the same Spirit rules over the Church now who presided at the consecration of St. Paul, and the eighteen centuries that are past can have had no power to invalidate the promise of our God. Nor, even though we may admit that many of those who formed the connecting links of this holy chain were themselves unworthy of the high charge reposed in them, can this furnish us with any solid ground for doubting or denying their power to exercise that legitimate authority with which they were duly invested, of transmitting the sacred gift to worthier followers.
. . . .
“The unworthiness of man, then, cannot prevent the goodness of God from flowing in those channels in which He has destined it to flow; and the Christian congregations of the present day, who sit at the feet of ministers duly ordained, have the same reason for reverencing in them the successors of the Apostles, as the primitive Churches of Ephesus and of Crete had for honouring in Timothy and in Titus the Apostolical authority of him who had appointed them.
. . . .
“Wonderful indeed is the providence of God, which has so long preserved the unbroken line, and thus ordained that our Bishops should, even at this distance of time, stand before their flocks as the authorized successors of the Apostles.” (Tr.5.)
Toward the end of my conversion process—the clincher, really—I had an experience with Tobin’s predecessor, Archbishop Daniel Buechlein. (I regret that I never had the chance to Buechlein this, but I did tell Tobin and found a certain sense of relief in that.) I had done a lot of book learning and absorbed on an intellectual level all this business about apostolic succession. But it didn’t really sink in, I didn’t internalize it, until I was at a conference a few years ago at which Abp. Buechlein gave the benediction. He walks in, unassuming as can be, up to the podium and looks around with that wan smile on his face—we didn’t yet know it, but he was pretty sick by then—and it suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks: I’m standing in front of a successor of the apostles! And it wasn’t something abstract or intellectual, it suddenly became viscerally real and personal. It was a sudden moment of realization that this wasn’t abstract theory, but rather was something that I judged to be true, and which had enormous consequences for what I had to do next in my “walk,” as my wife would phrase it. I had another moment like that yesterday, receiving communion from Tobin—there are moments in life when all this stuff that we talk about in abstract, intellectual ways suddenly obtain the concrete, pinpoint focus of a laser beam and become incredibly, uncomfortably real.