Best of Sicily
Food & Wine
Map of Sicily
Scipione "Fabrizio" Rebiba's not-very-famous name is closely linked to an arcane concept
in the pre-reform church called apostolic succession. Every Pope
since Benedict XIII (Pietro Orsini), consecrated bishop in 1675, traces his line
of apostolic succession through Scipione Rebiba. This might be a good time to explain
what - precisely - is meant by "apostolic succession" and why it is
important in certain churches.
In the tree of the historical churches which existed before the Reformation, the principle of apostolic succession
forms part of the trunk close to the roots. The Eastern Orthodox and Roman
Catholic churches parted ways at the Great Schism in 1054, but one of
the reasons they still recognise each other as "churches" (a label
they rarely attach to other denominations except sometimes the Church of England) is because each possesses an unbroken line of
episcopal tradition - bishops consecrating bishops - handed down from the time of the
Apostles. It is thought that in Norman Sicily most
of the episcopate traced its succession through "Greek" predecessors (like Nicodemus)
rather than "Latin" ones, even though the Norman kings introduced
bishops from England and Normandy. Whatever the case, apostolic succession
remains important today. It is a detail that reflects the historical continuity
of the Catholic and Orthodox
churches over many centuries, much as a family tree indicates genealogical
descent from a remote ancestor.
Building upon the teachings of Jesus and earlier Judaic
tradition, the basis of Christianity is faith, belief and a moral code,
all bound in scripture and millennial tradition. Apostolic succession reflects
certain influences of earlier practices among the priesthoods of the Egyptians,
Hebrews and other ancient peoples. In the early church, Clement, Ignatius
of Antioch (a personal disciple of the apostles Paul
and John), Timothy and Titus (followers of Paul) and other early church
fathers advocated apostolic succession. The Papacy, like the Orthodox Patriarchates,
is built upon it, and the councils of Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381)
confirmed it. Until 1054, the Church could indeed be said to be one, holy,
catholic (universal) and apostolic. Apostolic succession guaranteed the
validity of the orders (sacraments) handed down from the apostles as leaders
of the early Christians to the bishops who, in turn, ordained priests. This
transmission of "aspostolicity" is an important feature of the
continuum of the church but it isn't magic.
Like baptisms, weddings, knightly investitures
and other religious rites, episcopal consecrations were rarely recorded
in medieval times. It really wasn't necessary. A few surviving documentary
records chronicle coronations and other events relating to royalty or the
aristocracy, but in an era dominated by the Church, ordinations and consecrations
were too public for their occurrences to be called into question, while the social environment was
sophisticated enough that somebody impersonating a bishop wouldn't be very convincing.
For this reason, the apparent lack of the documentary
record before 1500 has never bothered anybody in the Vatican enough to doubt
the veracity or continuity of apostolic succession, especially considering
that at least two bishops are required to effect a valid consecration. That
said, one would hope for more complete consecration records than what have been handed down to us.
Let's not confuse the term apostolic succession with Patriarchal or Papal succession.
Papal succession is simply the list of Popes and their pontificates in chronological order beginning in the
Who was Scipione Rebiba?
Sicilian-born Scipione Rebiba would be remembered no more than any other
sixteenth-century bishop of the Roman Catholic Church did he not boast a
particular historical distinction which arose long after his death. Over
ninety-five percent of the bishops serving the Church today trace their
line of apostolic succession through this cardinal.
This is the so-called Rebiban Succession, and it descends through numerous bishops to every
pope elected since 1724. In truth, Scipione Rebiba wasn't particularly zealous
in consecrating bishops, but some of his successors were.
While it is generally accepted that Rebiba was consecrated by Giovanni
Pietro Caraffa, founder of the Theatines and later Pope Paul IV, most recent
episcopal "lineages" begin with Rebiba himself, who was a contemporary
of Emperor Charles V.
He was born into a noble family in San Marco d'Alunzio in the Nebrodi
Mountains in 1504. The Rebiba (or Ribiba or Ribibo) family was of Catalonian origin, an
ancestor, Pietro, having arrived with Peter of Aragon in 1283
during the War of the Vespers. Pietro's son, Antonio became part of the civic (though untitled) nobility of Messina.
Boasting the remains of a royal castle and an Orthodox
monastery, San Marco was once the rural refuge of Sicily's Hauteville dynasty
(Roger II spent his childhood there). Scipione, sometimes called Fabrizio, was
the second of three sons of Francesco Rebiba, a landholder, and Antonia
Filangeri, a noblewoman whose brother, Girolamo, was Count of San Marco.
His privileged birth ensured Scipione's career as a church bureaucrat.
Scipione joined his uncle in Palermo, where he studied theology and law.
He was ordained around 1526 and assigned a parish, but around 1536 he went
to Rome, where he met Cardinal Caraffa, who was then archbishop of Chieti.
In 1541 he was consecrated auxiliary bishop of Chieti, and it is believed
that he then assumed the coat of arms shown here. When he became bishop
of Naples, Caraffa took Rebiba along with him.
Rebiba eventually ended up working in the Roman curia, receiving appointment
to the commission of the Holy Office (Inquisition)
for the Naples district in 1553, but he assumed similar duties in Rome in
1555, the same year he became a Cardinal.
The following year, he travelled to Brussels and France on a diplomatic
mission, returning to Italy to accept the See of Pisa, which he administered
through a vicar. In 1559 he participated in the conclave which elected his
mentor, Caraffa, as Paul IV. By now he was a Vatican bureaucrat in every
sense - which is how he is depicted in the painting shown here. He participated
in the next conclave, in 1565, which elected Pius V, and that of 1572, which
elected Gregory XIII. He eventually became Major Inquisitor.
But it is his position in the documented apostolic succession of the Catholic
Church, rather than his support of the Counter Reformation, that assured
this Sicilian aristocrat's place in history.
Scipione Rebiba died in 1577 and is buried in the Church of San Silvestro
nel Quirinale, in a tomb dedicated by his nephew Prospero Rebiba.
About the Author: Palermo native Vincenzo Salerno
has written biographies of several famous Sicilians, including Frederick II and
Giuseppe di Lampedusa.