"Far be it from me to speak adversely of any of these clergy who, in succession from the apostles, confect by their sacred word the Body of Christ and through whose efforts also it is that we are Christians" St Jerome, Letters 14:8 [A.D. 396]
The first Christians had no doubts about how to determine which was the true Church and which doctrines were the true teachings of Christ. The test was simple: just trace the Apostolic Succession of the claimants. Apostolic Succession is the line of bishops stretching back to the Apostles. This was effective because it was known in the shared history of the Church who were and were not the “orthodox” (i.e. taught true and ancient doctrine) from the “unorthodox” (heretical or in error) Bishops. If a man’s succession was traceable back to an Apostle or a Bishop known to have been ordained by an Apostle, the chances were he was authentic (meaning his Sacraments were effective) and that his teaching was sound (an Apostle and a man ordained by an Apostle would not in turn ordain a known heretic).
To this day the Catholic Church still uses this “yard-stick” to determine who authentic teachers of the Apostolic Faith are and who are not, and who can and cannot affect Sacraments. This is important for a variety of reasons but most importantly to ensure that the “inward and invisible grace” of a Sacrament is indeed present, e.g. at the Mass the bread and winereally do become the Body and Blood of Christ.
The Old Roman Catholic Church Latin Rite displays its Apostolic Succession on this website to show that it does hold a recognised traceable Succession (shared with many Catholic Churches including Roman). It is to be noted too that the Old Roman Catholic Church Latin Rite is a Church that enjoys intercommunion and dialogue with other authentic and orthodox Churches, similarly concerned to protect and preserve the authenticity of the Apostolic Tradition.
The role of Apostolic Succession in preserving true doctrine is illustrated in the Bible. Paul himself, who was directly chosen by Christ (through a vision), only becomes a minister after the laying on of hands by a Bishop Acts 9:17-19. This is a powerful proof-text for the necessity of sacramental ordination in order to be a legitimate successor of the Apostles. To make sure that the Apostles’ teachings would be passed down after their deaths, Paul told Timothy, "[W]hat you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" 2 Tim. 2:2. In this passage he refers to the first three generations of Apostolic Succession - his own generation, Timothy’s generation, and the generation Timothy will teach.
There is a tendency in some circles to suggest that Sacramental validity and Apostolic Teaching do not go “hand in hand”, that is to say, it is “ok” to teach doctrine contrary to the received tradition of the Church if one possesses a recognised Apostolic Succession. This is not however true, authentic Apostolic Succession relies on received doctrine and practise of the Apostles as well as traceable succession; if a “valid” Bishop teaches something contrary to the received Faith of the Church, there can be no guarantee that the Sacraments he celebrates are valid because one cannot be sure if he“intends to do what the Church has always done”. In other words, because his teaching is contrary to tradition, his intentions when celebrating a Sacrament may also be in doubt and this of course is of concern to those who want to be sure they are receiving the benefits of Christ’s grace through His Sacraments.
In Old and Independent Catholicism there are many Churches and Bishops who claim to hold a “valid” Apostolic Succession but who do not teach the Catholic Faith as it has been received, believed and taught by the whole Church. These churches and their bishops are, unfortunately misguided and by their unorthodox belief and practice endanger others into the trap of heresy and apostasy. There are other churches which whilst claiming to be or naming themselves “Catholic” do not possess a verifiable or traceable Apostolic Succession at all and these are particularly dangerous to the Faithful who want to receive the graces Christ bestows in His Sacraments through the Church.
It remains as true now as it did for the earliest Christians, if one wants to be sure of authentic teaching and effective Sacraments; one ought to look for the traceable Succession of Bishops descended from known orthodox Bishops as well as comparing the teaching and practise of the Church concerned to those of other orthodox Churches. In this way the Faithful can be assured that Christ, through the Apostles and through His Church is still present and fulfilling His promise “… and I will be with you always until the end of the age” Matt 28:20.