We begin with the disciples of Jesus

After his death and resurrection, the disciples of Jesus (c. 4 BCE – 30 or 33 CE) understood their role as one of ministry and service to others. Sent out to spread the Good News of the Way of Jesus, they were called “apostles” from the Greek word apóstolos, meaning “one who is sent out.” In the earliest Christian communities men and women were apostles. There was a variety of ministries; but ordained priesthood was not one of them. There are no texts in the Gospels in which Jesus passed on a special power to perform sacramental actions such as baptizing, ordaining, or presiding over the Eucharist. Jesus gave no organisational blueprint for a future church.

First Three Centuries

As Christian communities developed, ministries and the ways of training and appointing ministers evolved to meet changing cultural conditions and changing social needs. Presbyters, from the Greek presbyteroi, were community elders. Supervisors-overseers (later called bishops) from the Greek epískopoi had oversight and offered guidance in community affairs; and deacons, from the Greek diaconoi, were helpers, entrusted with assisting people in the community by caring for widows, doing charitable work, catechising, and assisting in baptisms.

The letters of Paul, written between 48 and 62 CE, mention a variety of charismatic gifts which can be thought of as ministries benefiting the local Christian community (“the building up of the body”) even though the ministers were not ordained in our sense of the word. For example, members who could teach taught. Those who were good organisers administered community affairs. Those who had the gift of prophesy could speak out and tell the community what God wanted them to hear.

We know as well that men and women who were heads of households presided at the Lord’s Supper and hosted the gatherings in their homes. In Romans 16, Paul greets women leaders such as the deacon Phoebe, the apostle Junia, and the married apostles Priscilla and her husband Aquila. Clear evidence that women were respected leaders in the emerging Jesus movement.

The term “holy orders” comes from the Latin word ordo, which came to mean a rank or class. The Roman army had its military ranks and Roman society was divided into different social classes. The early Christian communities, however, were relatively classless and egalitarian. At least they were supposed to be. “Holy orders” however would come later in Christian history.

The approval and blessing of the community for diverse ministries was indicated by the laying on of hands. These ministries included preaching, prophesy, healing, working miracles, speaking in tongues, and interpreting what was said in tongues (see 1 Cor. 12:12-30, Ephesians 4:11-12, Romans 12:4-8; and 1 Cor 12:4-11). None of the men and women exercising these ministries were ordained. Acts of Apostles, written between c. 90 and 110 CE, mentions the laying on of hands for elders or presbyters, but here it was a form of blessing for those in ministry.

Although Peter (died c. 64 CE) was a key leader in the Jesus movement, the early Christian community in Jerusalem was not led by Peter but James (died c. 69 CE) who was Jesus’ brother. At the Council of Jerusalem (50 CE) Peter, Paul, and others were involved in lengthy debate. Peter gave his argument, but did not have the last word. James concluded the matter and then the vote was taken.

Most contemporary biblical scholars are in agreement with the Catholic scholars Raymond Brown (1928 – 1998) and John P. Meier that the Apostle Peter was never a bishop of Rome. Rome did not have a single supervisor-overseer (bishop) in Peter’s lifetime. When Peter arrived in Rome in the late 50s, Roman Christianity was already constituted with a number of communities with close ties to James and the Jerusalem Community. The much later Catholic assertion that Peter was the “first pope” is, frankly, the result of medieval historical conjecture. The “belief” began to be affirmed in the fifth century by Leo I, who was Bishop of Rome from 440 until 461. The belief was then strongly reinforced by Gregory VII, Bishop of Rome from 1073 until his death in 1085.

End of Third Century

In the first three centuries of Christianity, we have no direct evidence of an ordination ceremony. By the end of the third century, however, Christianity had a clear organizational structure headed by presbyters, supervisor-overseers (bishops), and deacons. Initiation into these orders was accomplished through a rite of ordination that inducted a person into a local office in a particular community. It is important to clarify that ordination at this time was not about passing on some kind of sacramental power. It was a blessing on the minister and an assurance to the community that the ordained man or woman was competent, a genuine believer, and trustworthy.

There is ample evidence that in the West women were ordained as deacons and abbesses well into the Middle Ages. Women continued to be ordained deacons in the East and were ordained to a variety of ministries. Many contemporary scholars agree with Gary Macy, professor of religious studies at the University of San Diego, who argues that, during the first twelve hundred years of Christianity, women were also ordained as presbyters and bishops. I find the arguments in Macy’s book The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination well-documented and convincing.

Twelfth Century

In the 12th century, ordination changed from its earlier significance as a blessing for different ministries in service for a specific community to a bestowal of spiritual power “to confect” (make it happen) the sacrament of the Lord’s body and blood. The ordained now belonged as well to a higher social class. The classless and egalitarian church of early Christianity had disappeared.

Sixteenth Century

The Council of Trent, held between 1545 and 1563 in Trento in northern Italy, issued several doctrinal pronouncements about ordination, reacting of course to the Protestant Reformation. The Tridentine bishops declared as required Catholic belief that ordination was a sacrament personally instituted by the historic Jesus. Trent stressed that the sacramental power of ordination was passed on through the tactile laying on of hands “apostolic succession” going back to Jesus’s ordination of the apostles – the very first bishops – at the Last Supper.

About tactile ordination, there was later some debate about whether or not it worked if the ordaining bishop imposed just one hand on the head of the person being ordained. The stress was therefore put on using both hands, just to make certain it really worked.

About the belief that the origin of ordination came from the hands of Jesus at the Last Supper, here are the key words from the twenty-third session of the Council of Trent, July 15, 1563:

The sacred Scriptures show, and the tradition of the Catholic Church has always taught, that this was instituted by the same Lord our Savior, and that to the apostles, and to their successors in the priesthood, the power was delivered of consecrating, offering, and administering his Body and Blood, as also of remitting and of retaining sins… For the sacred Scriptures make open mention not only of priests, but also of deacons; and teach, in the most weighty terms, what things are especially to be attended to in the ordination thereof; and, from the very beginning of the Church, the names of the following orders, and the proper ministrations of each one of them, to wit, those of subdeacon, acolyte, exorcist, reader, and door-keeper, are known to have been in use; though not of equal rank….”

Trent stressed as well that ordination brings about an essential change in the ordained person, which elevated the ordained to a level above the laity, leaving an indelible mark on the person forever. The Tridentine bishops emphasised as well that bishops have the fullest and highest degree of hierarchical sacramental power. “Wherefore, the sacred and holy synod declares that, besides the other ecclesiastical degrees, bishops, who have succeeded unto the place of the apostles, principally belong to this hierarchical order. They are placed, as the same apostle says, by the Holy Spirit, to rule the Church of God; and that they are superior to priests.”

One should not forget of course the influence medieval feudalism still had on the church at this time. There were three estates: the nobility, the clergy, and the peasantry. Bishops, in strongly patriarchal feudalism, held positions of power as feudal lords and as advisers to kings and nobles. Bishops generally lived with the same hierarchical powers, ornate dress, and luxuries as the nobles.

Nineteenth and Twentieth Century

Apostolic succession became a key issue in 1896 when Pope Leo XIII surprisingly declared, in his papal bull Apostolicae curae, that all Anglican ordinations are “absolutely null and utterly void.” The reason was that, due to earlier changes in the ordination ritual in England, the Anglicans had lost their apostolic succession and their sacramental power. (I explored this more fully in my 1980s doctoral dissertation at the Catholic University of Leuven.)

On November 30, 1947, Pope Pius XII solemnly defined once again the official Catholic position about ordination as passed on through apostolic succession, in his Apostolic Constitution Sacramentum Ordinis: “The only minister of this sacrament is the bishop, successor of the Apostles. The matter of the Sacrament of Holy Orders is the imposition of hands by the bishop.’’

Even the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965) in the conciliar document Lumen Gentium stressed apostolic succession: “Bishops have succeeded the apostles, not only because they come after them, but also because they have inherited apostolic power…”

Contemporary Reflections

Official contemporary Catholic teaching is still rooted in scholastic theology and medieval thinking. Leaders struggle with contemporary historical and theological understandings. Change often comes slowly.

Ordination, as a ceremony that celebrates the beginning of a professional life of ministry, could be much more flexible than it is today and open of course to men and women, married and unmarried, and of whatever sexual orientation. It could be for a specific number of years or life-long.

Thinking about ordination and pastoral ministry today, I would like to see some creative changes.

I would like to see ministerial appointments – ordinations — extended to religious educators, youth ministers, pastoral counsellors, social workers, and others whose faith and competence are well recognized. Perhaps some would only be ordained ministers for just a few years, and then others would carry on their ministry. Youth ministers for example could be ministers of confirmation. Pastoral counsellors could be ministers of reconciliation. Religious educators and youth ministers could preside at small group eucharists. Social workers could be ministers of the anointing of the sick during house calls and hospital visits as well as presiders at small group eucharists in residences for the elderly. I am sure there are many other creative ministry possibilities.

I would also suggest that the ordained be regularly evaluated and certified for a specific number of years. After say five years, the ordained man or woman could be re-certified, provided (1) he or she gave evidence of ongoing theological and pastoral education, and (2) had been re-evaluated and approved by the local Christian community.

Final Thoughts

What is celebrated in an ordination ceremony is not getting power over other people or one’s being elevated above the non-ordained. It is about making a commitment and responding to a call to preach the Gospel and care for others. It is about being of service to others, as genuine and credible ministers: helping others grow in and with the Spirit of Christ.

In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council reviewed the meaning of sacraments and spoke about Christ as the sacrament of God and the church as the sacrament of Christ. This was a welcomed and strong movement in the right direction.

Nevertheless, the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church still teaches: “Only a baptized man (vir) validly receives sacred ordination.The Lord Jesus chose men (viri) to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry. The college of bishops, with whom the priests are united in the priesthood, makes the college of the twelve an ever-present and ever-active reality until Christ’s return. The Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself. For this reason the ordination of women is not possible.”

Catechisms of course are always provisional. After 30 years with this one, it is time for a new edition. We all grow in our understandings and need regular updating.

With the development of the sciences and the growth in human knowledge and understanding, it is time to put the medieval viewpoints and conjectures in a museum and move ahead with contemporary life and ministry.

Ordination ought to be what it was originally: a blessing and approval of the person for ministry. The ordained should be credible, trustworthy, and supportive guides for our Christian life journeys: helping us distinguish what confirms and strengthens faith and what undermines it and tears it down.

Yes, ordination has quite a history. But it is not just a Catholic issue. Regardless what Pope Leo XIII said in his nineteenth century encyclical, ordination exists in and belongs to all Christian traditions. Why? Because all Christians are truly successors in the faith, witness, and ministry of the men AND women who were apostles. That is what we best understand as Apostolic Succession!

  • Jack

Next week some concluding sacramental reflections, with a look at anointing of the sick.

13 thoughts on “Ordination – Holy Orders

  1. You are an invaluable resource in teaching and guiding us. A necessary step to a true appreciation of what “ordination” means is knowing the history.. Thank you for reminding us that all Christians are called to the priesthood of witness to the faith and compassion for one another.

  2. Dear Dr. Jack, thank you so much for your meditation and expansion of the hope and image for sanctifying the life, the matter and the spirit of individuals that constitute a community of servants who care for other souls in the communion of saints. In particular I appreciate the limitations of time and skeletal aging upon talent, upon the graces and giftedness that Nature affords individuals who have cultivated certain abilities, such as music performance in the service of assemblies.

    I have no idea how many “church musicians” — either active or retired like I am — follow your blog, but I applaud your sacramental reflections, from the POV of the work of “ministers of music” within parish settings, throughout time and space. My personal experience “in the field” began as a child trained up with natural talent at keyboards– not the querty type, but on the 88 keys of a piano and more on the pipe organ. I was “churched” in Gregorian chant and in live polyphonic choral and organ performances, and I accompanied all types of liturgies, pre-Vatican II and beyond. Upon personal reflection and perhaps in a timely life-review, long years in seminary in parallel with music education and private lessons blended talent with service within a generous church, but the gift of my natural musicianship eventually eclipsed that of “ordination.” There is no “ordination” for church musicians, only giftedness from Mother Nature, whose regard for individuals is one of tender indifference.

    Depending on the level of class-consciousness among my clerical comrades, collaboration with them over the decades was alternately exhilarating and debilitating. Rarely did the clergy accord or understand the depth of study in historical performance practices, personal discipline, and meditation that allows the efficacy of a musician to reach deeply into the souls of others– both of the providers as well as of the congregational participants in the program. More often than not, “professional jealousy” was in evidence among the clergy, as if the “function” of the priest dominated any and all other actions within the assembly.

    I can’t help but surmise that a personal family life for Roman Catholic priests would have deepened a mutual appreciation for ministry as a collaboration of personal talents in upholding the Word in Music. The history of music shows that churches have offered effective venues and creative inspiration for the vitality of music to transform the spirit of humanity in service to the Holy Spirit. Most musicians’ transformative work occurred within the context of family life, a miracle in itself given the exigencies of the liturgical calendar.

    From conversations with parishioners over the years, I heard that the lyrics of hymns and humming their melodies were often a more lasting take-away than the homily at Mass. I say this now not as a complaint or accusation, but as personal experience that comports with your historical analysis about medieval conjectures on Nature: in natural phenomena are embedded the matter of grace reinforced by the Spirit.

    In retirement, and in the expectation of some years still to go, I sometimes substitute on the bench (the “pitch-hitter”) for organists who need a break. I look forward to answering those calls by keeping my chops up with routine practice at home, necessary for a limber skeleton, for muscle memory, for the mind-brain nexus and for the health of the soul. Who knows the Spirit’s next move, but move She will. Think of Galileo’s remark, “Eppur si muove.”

    1. Dan, I greatly appreciate your ongoing observations and support. I have been thinking about our friend Dick Cross. I think he would have been supportive as well. But — I should not just think about myself. Christian life and ministry today is the key issue. Will the synodal way open doors for a creative tomorrow? I hope so but a lot doors have to open and others have be bolted shut for ever.

      In any event, my warmest regards.


  3. Dear Jack,
    Another enlightening sharing with many implications and expectations for the future. Your expansion of the concept of “ordained ministry” to include many roles of service excited me. So many lay servants already spread the gospel through their particular skills and talents that, it seems to me, priests would be thankful to share the burden of responsibility…..unless power is what ordination is about. Your historical perspective really struck me with this sentence: “Ministries and the ways of training and appointing ministers evolved to meet changing cultural conditions and changing social needs.” I sincerely hope we could be in the beginning of one of those times of change.

  4. Dear Jack,

    Thank you, for enlightening our minds on the history of the sacraments.

    I believe that in order for the “church” to change, we need to rethink the meaning of “church” and totally eliminate the word “church” from our vocabulary. Difficult if not impossible since it has been so deeply engrained and so readily misused.

    The notion of ‘Faith Community,’ is a much better identification being more fluidic as in living, evolving, forward moving, thinking, doubting, asking questions, creative, life giving, breathing, ministering to one another, empowering, inclusive, sharing spirituality, celebrating the goodness of human life, becoming mystics, celebrating our evolutionary origin out of the cosmos, a blessing and joyful reality.

    A faith community is the notion Rabbi Yeshua was instilling in his disciples to bring about, and we yet to understand its impact for good. Small communities that could easily gather at table, sharing in spirituality and stories in their communal blessing of bread and wine in his memory.

    In the years after Yeshua was executed for his radical ideas of inclusion and justice, the notion of “church” was created by others who thought differently than Yeshua. They created created a structure of rigidity, bound up by its brick and cut stone architecture, flaunting archaic liturgies and traditions anchored in magical incantations, promoting their orthodoxy, telling their convoluted interpretations of the ‘good news’ as the only truth, limited in vision and thinking, controlling of others, perpetuating male toxicity, lacking joy, exclusive, while perpetuating guilt, sinfulness, alienation, spiritual death, etc.

    We need our Faith Communities to reengage in life giving creative thinking that has been stifled and condemned for centuries by the clerical elite.

    1. thank you Joe for putting into words what I have been thinking about for the past few years and thank you Dr Dick both for this series on the sacraments and for this website

  5. How do we know that Peter was ever in Rome? This was a topic that Prof Boudewijn Dehandschutter addressed in his Ancient Church History course in Leuven. What was the reference you used? Thanks.

    1. My primary reference is Antioch and Rome: New Testament Cradles of Catholic Christianity Paperback – January 15, 2004
      by S.S. Raymond E. Brown (Author), John P. Meier (Author)

  6. Bonjour, Excellent texte. Qu’en est-il de la conception de l’ordination dans la tradition orthodoxe4? Merci

    1. Par le sacrement de l’Ordre, une ordination sacerdotale est effectuée par l’évêque. Mais cela nécessite le consentement de tout le peuple de Dieu, donc à un moment du service, la congrégation acclame l’ordination en criant “Axios!” (“Il est digne!”).

      Les prêtres orthodoxes se composent à la fois d’ecclésiastiques mariés et d’ecclésiastiques célibataires. Dans l’Église orthodoxe, un homme marié peut être ordonné prêtre. Son mariage, cependant, doit être le premier pour lui et sa femme. Il ne peut pas se remarier et continuer son ministère même si sa femme venait à décéder.

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