Ordination of Priests
The English word priest comes from the Greek word presbyters, which is usually directly translated as “presbyter” or “elder.” Even today, the priests of a diocese are referred to on the whole as “the presbyterate.”
The sacrament of holy orders is passed on through the laying on of hands (see Acts 6:6).
Paul writing to Timothy referred to Timothy’s ordination: “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was conferred on you through the prophetic word with the imposition of hands of the presbyterate” (1 Tim. 4:14). Paul referring to presbyters (see 1 Timothy 5:17-22) cautions Timothy, “Do not lay hands too readily on anyone” (v. 22).
Note first the parallel between the Israel of God in the Old Covenant and the Christian Church. St. Peter’s calling the Christian faithful a “royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9) echoes Exodus 19:6, where the Lord calls his chosen people, Israel, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Peter is alluding to the continuity between the Israel of God and the Christian Church.
St. Paul identifies Christians as “the Israel of God” in Galatians 6:16. This is not to say that God has abandoned physical Israel (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 674) but that covenantal relationship with the Father is determined by union with Christ and no longer merely by ethnic relationship with Abraham. This comparison between the Israel of God in the Old Covenant and the Israel of God in the New is the key for showing the reasonableness of the existence of a ministerial priesthood within the New Testament Church.
Even though in the Old Testament all the Israelites were considered priests, there existed a specific ministerial priesthood. For example, just a few verses after the Israelites are called a “kingdom of priests,” one discovers a distinct order of men who are considered priests apart from the people: “And also let the priests who come near to the Lord consecrate themselves, lest the Lord break out upon them” (Ex. 19:22).
In verse 24 we find the following: “And the Lord said to him: go down, and come up bringing Aaron with you; but do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the Lord.” What priesthood might this be? It is the firstborn priesthood whose priestly office would be given over to the Levites in Exodus 32 after the golden calf incident. The Lord says to Moses, “Behold, I have taken the Levites from among the people of Israel instead of every firstborn that opens the womb among the people of Israel” (Num. 3:12).
Clearly, the Israel of God in the Old Covenant had two priesthoods: the universal and the ministerial.
Another way of seeing the reasonableness of a ministerial priesthood is by looking at the New Testament against the backdrop of the threefold structure of the priesthood after Israel becomes a nation under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Aaron is constituted as the single high priest according to Exodus 30:30—the top level. His sons Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar minister with him as priests according to Exodus 28:21—the middle level. Finally, as mentioned before, all the Israelites were universal priests according to Exodus 19:6—the bottom level.
When we compare this structure to the New Testament, we can see clearly the top level, which is occupied by a single high priest, Jesus. Hebrews 3:1 reads, “Therefore, holy brethren, who share in a heavenly call, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession.”
Along with the top level, the bottom level is also explicitly revealed in 1 Peter 2:5, 9: “Like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood. . . . But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.”
When one puts these levels of priesthood in the New Covenant alongside the three levels in the Old, the only level missing is the middle—namely, those priests who minister with the high priest, Jesus. Does this mean that the New Covenant doesn’t have this level of the ministerial priesthood? Such an assertion would not make biblical sense.
If the top level corresponds to Jesus and the lower level corresponds to the universal priesthood of baptized Christians, it’s reasonable to conclude that the middle level of priest ministering with the high priest in the Old Testament would have a corresponding middle level of priests who minister with Jesus in the New. The Catholic Church identifies this level as the hierarchical priesthood, which consists of both the episcopate and the presbyterate.
Paul tells us that the Church founded by Christ would have a hierarchy composed of deacons (1 Tim. 2:8-13); presbyters, from where we get the English word priest (1 Tim. 5:17); and bishops (1 Tim. 3:1-7).
The role of the priest is to act as a mediator between God and man, or to intercede on our behalf. As Christians, we have one mediator, that is Jesus Christ (I Timothy 2:5, Heb. 7:22-25). However, those who have been baptized in Christ take on a special participation in Christ’s priesthood through our membership in Christ’s Body (I Cor. 12:12-27, Rom. 12:5, Eph. 1:22-23).
As members of Christ’s Body, we are all priests, part of a royal priesthood (I Peter 2:5-9). As priests, we act as mediators, just as Paul says in I Tim. 5:7; “For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle.” Apostle means “one sent” with the authority of the one who sent him, (ie a ‘mediator’). This does not take away from Christ’s unique role as mediator, as we are only cooperatives, working with Christ in this role as made possible only through the outpouring of grace.
As priests, we are also called to intercede on other’s behalf by offering prayers and supplications (I Tim. 2:1-4). We also act as mediators through evangelizing and leading others to Christ, the one true mediator.
Although we are all priests, cooperating within Christ’s unique priesthood, there is also a special calling to an ordained ministerial priesthood. When 1 Peter 2:5-9, speaks of a universal priesthood, it is quoting Ex. 19:6,22 which references a universal priesthood, but also acknowledges the existence of a distinct ministerial priesthood. In the Old Testament, the role of a priest was to mediate the forgiveness of sins between God and His people (Lev. 19:21-22). We now see Christ giving this authority to the Apostles (John 20:21-23, II Cor. 2:10, II Cor. 5:18). He also gave them the authority to proclaim the gospel (Matt. 10:40), to minister to others in a priestly service (Rom. 15:15-16, II Cor. 5:20), to offer sacrifice instituted at the Last Supper (Luke 22:28), and to appoint successors to the apostles (Acts 1:20). These successors were referred to as episkopoi, or ‘overseers’ and is where the English word ‘bishop’ is derived. They also appointed Presbyters, or “Elders” (Greek presbyteroi), from which the English word ‘priest’ is derived (James 5:14). These men were given authority over the Church (1 Thes. 5:12-13, Heb. 13:7, Heb.13:17, 1 Tim 5:17, Phil. 1:1, 1 Pet. 5:1-2, 1 Tim 3:1)
While the Greek word for ‘priest’ is hiereus rather than presbyteroi, which means ‘elder’, the fact remains that the New Testament describes the role of the presbyteroi as a priestly one, which inevitably led to the English word ‘priest’ being derived from the Greek presbyter instead of hiereus.
The primary role of a priest is to offer sacrifice (see Leviticus 9:7, 14:12; Hebrews 8:3). Because Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was sufficient to merit salvation of mankind, there would no longer be a need for Old Testament sacrifice. However, Jesus’ sacrifice is an eternal one, being “once and for all”, just as his priesthood is an eternal one. Part of a sacrifice involves the people partaking in it. This is accomplished through the ministerial priesthood of the New Testament. At the Last Supper, Jesus commanded His apostles to “Do this.” The Greek verb for “do,” poieo, can be literally translated as “offer” in the sense of offering a sacrifice.
For example, in Exodus 29:36-41 of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament used by Jesus and the apostles) poieo is used five times in reference to Moses offering sacrifice as part of the ritual for ordaining Aaron and his sons as priests:
- “Every day you shall offer [Greek—poieseis] a bull as a sin offering for atonement” (v. 36).
- “Now this is what you shall offer [Greek—poieseis] upon the altar: two lambs a year old day by day continually” (v. 38).
- “One lamb you shall offer [Greek—poieseis] in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer in the evening” (v. 39).
- “And the other lamb you shall offer [Greek—poieseis] in the evening, and shall offer [Greek—poieseis] with it a cereal offering and its libation, as in the morning, for a pleasing odor, an offering by fire to the Lord” (v. 41).
The use of poieo in Leviticus 9:7 makes it clear that Moses transferred this priestly duty to Aaron and his sons. The passage reads: “Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘Draw near to the altar, and offer [Greek, poieson] your sin offering and your burnt offering, and make atonement for yourself and for the people; and bring the offering of the people, and make atonement for them; as the Lord has commanded.”
In light of this Old Testament use of poieo (offer), it’s reasonable to conclude that Jesus was commanding his apostles to offer the Last Supper as a sacrifice. And since offering sacrifice is a priestly function, it follows that Jesus instituted his apostles as his New Testament ministerial priests.
This conclusion we’re drawing from the use of poieo is further supported by the use of the word “remembrance,” which translates the Greek word anamnesis. Anamnesis has sacrificial meaning in both the Old and New Testaments.
For example, in Numbers 10:10 of the Septuagint the sacrifices of peace offerings are said to “serve you for remembrance [Greek, anamnesis] before your God.” Anamnesis is also used in Hebrews 10:3 in reference to the Old Testament sacrifices that serve as a “reminder” year after year.
Given that anamnesis is a word loaded with sacrificial meaning, and it is used to describe what the apostles are to do, our interpretation that Jesus commanded the apostles to offer the Last Supper as a sacrifice has contextual support.
The English word “priest” is derived from the Greek word presbuteros, which is commonly rendered into Bible English as “elder” or “presbyter.” The ministry of Catholic priests is that of the presbyters mentioned in the New Testament (Acts 15:6, 23). The Bible says little about the duties of presbyters, but it does reveal they functioned in a priestly capacity.
They were ordained by the laying on of hands (1 Tm 4:14, 5:22), they preached and taught the flock (1 Tm 5:17), and they administered sacraments (Jas 5:13-15). These are the essential functions of the priestly office, so wherever the various forms of presbuteros appear–except, of course, in instances which pertain to the Jewish elders (Mt 21:23, Acts 4:23)–the word may rightly be translated as “priest” instead of “elder” or “presbyter.”
Episcopos arises from two words, epi (over) andskopeo (to see), and it means literally “an overseer”: We translate it as “bishop.” The King James Version renders the office of overseer, episkopen, as “bishopric” (Acts 1:20). The role of the episcopos is not clearly defined in the New Testament, but by the beginning of the second century it had obtained a fixed meaning. There is early evidence of this refinement in ecclesiastical nomenclature in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch (d. A.D. 107), who wrote at length of the authority of bishops as distinct from presbyters and deacons (Epistle to the Magnesians 6:1, 13:1-2; Epistle to the Trallians 2:1-3; Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 8:1-2).
In other passages it’s clear that although men called presbuteroi ruled over individual congregations (parishes), the apostles ordained certain men, giving them authority over multiple congregations (dioceses), each with its own presbyters. These were endowed with the power to ordain additional presbyters as needed to shepherd the flock and carry on the work of the gospel. Titus and Timothy were two of those earlyepiscopoi and clearly were above the office of presbuteros. They had the authority to select, ordain, and govern other presbyters, as is evidenced by Paul’s instructions: “This is why I left you in Crete . . . that you might appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Ti 1:5; cf. 1 Tm 5:17-22).
The Historical Development of the Doctrine:
Church Father Quotes:
St. Ignatius of Antioch
“Now, therefore, it has been my privilege to see you in the person of your God-inspired bishop, Damas; and in the persons of your worthy presbyters, Bassus and Apollonius; and my fellow-servant, the deacon, Zotion. What a delight is his company! For he is subject to the bishop as to the grace of God, and to the presbytery as to the law of Jesus Christ” (Letter to the Magnesians 2 [A.D. 110]).
“Take care to do all things in harmony with God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God, and with the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles, and with the deacons, who are most dear to me, entrusted with the business of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father from the beginning and is at last made manifest” (ibid., 6:1).
“Take care, therefore, to be confirmed in the decrees of the Lord and of the apostles, in order that in everything you do, you may prosper in body and in soul, in faith and in love, in Son and in Father and in Spirit, in beginning and in end, together with your most reverend bishop; and with that fittingly woven spiritual crown, the presbytery; and with the deacons, men of God” (ibid., 13:1–2).
“It is necessary, therefore—and such is your practice that you do nothing without the bishop, and that you be subject also to the presbytery, as to the apostles of Jesus Christ our hope, in whom we shall be found, if we live in him. It is necessary also that the deacons, the dispensers of the mysteries [sacraments] of Jesus Christ, be in every way pleasing to all men” (Letter to the Trallians 2:1–3 [A.D. 110]).
“In like manner let everyone respect the deacons as they would respect Jesus Christ, and just as they respect the bishop as a type of the Father, and the presbyters as the council of God and college of the apostles. Without these, it cannot be called a church” (ibid., 3:1–2).
“He that is within the sanctuary is pure; but he that is outside the sanctuary is not pure. In other words, anyone who acts without the bishop and the presbytery and the deacons does not have a clear conscience” (ibid., 7:2).
“I cried out while I was in your midst, I spoke with a loud voice, the voice of God: ‘Give heed to the bishop and the presbytery and the deacons.’ Some suspect me of saying this because I had previous knowledge of the division certain persons had caused; but he for whom I am in chains is my witness that I had no knowledge of this from any man. It was the Spirit who kept preaching these words, ‘Do nothing without the bishop, keep your body as the temple of God, love unity, flee from divisions, be imitators of Jesus Christ, as he was imitator of the Father’” (Letter to the Philadelphians 7:1–2 [A.D. 110]).
St. Clement of Alexandria
“A multitude of other pieces of advice to particular persons is written in the holy books: some for presbyters, some for bishops and deacons; and others for widows, of whom we shall have opportunity to speak elsewhere” (The Instructor of Children 3:12:97:2 [A.D. 191]).
“Even here in the Church the gradations of bishops, presbyters, and deacons happen to be imitations, in my opinion, of the angelic glory and of that arrangement which, the scriptures say, awaits those who have followed in the footsteps of the apostles and who have lived in complete righteousness according to the gospel” (Miscellanies 6:13:107:2 [A.D. 208]).
St. Hippolytus of Rome
“When a deacon is to be ordained, he is chosen after the fashion of those things said above, the bishop alone in like manner imposing his hands upon him as we have prescribed. In the ordaining of a deacon, this is the reason why the bishop alone is to impose his hands upon him: he is not ordained to the priesthood, but to serve the bishop and to fulfill the bishop’s command. He has no part in the council of the clergy, but is to attend to his own duties and is to acquaint the bishop with such matters as are needful. . . .
“On a presbyter, however, let the presbyters impose their hands because of the common and like Spirit of the clergy. Even so, the presbyter has only the power to receive [the Spirit], and not the power to give [the Spirit]. That is why a presbyter does not ordain the clergy; for at the ordaining of a presbyter, he but seals while the bishop ordains” (The Apostolic Tradition 9 [A.D. 215]).
Origen of Alexandria
“Not fornication only, but even marriages make us unfit for ecclesiastical honors; for neither a bishop, nor a presbyter, nor a deacon, nor a widow is able to be twice married” (Homilies on Luke17 [A.D. 234]).
The Council of Elvira
“Bishops, presbyters, and deacons may not leave their own places for the sake of commerce, nor are they to be traveling about the provinces, frequenting the markets for their own profit. Certainly for the procuring of their own necessities they can send a boy or a freedman or a hireling or a friend or whomever, but, if they wish to engage in business, let them do so within the province” (Canon 18 [A.D. 300]).
The Council of Nicaea I
“It has come to the knowledge of the holy and great synod that, in some districts and cities, the deacons administer the Eucharist to the presbyters [i.e., priests], whereas neither canon nor custom permits that they who have no right to offer [the Eucharistic sacrifice] should give the Body of Christ to them that do offer [it]. And this also has been made known, that certain deacons now touch the Eucharist even before the bishops. Let all such practices be utterly done away, and let the deacons remain within their own bounds, knowing that they are the ministers of the bishop and the inferiors of the presbyters. Let them receive the Eucharist according to their order, after the presbyters, and let either the bishop or the presbyter administer to them” (Canon 18 [A.D. 325]).
St. John Chrysostom
“[In Philippians 1:1 Paul says,] ‘To the co-bishops and deacons.’ What does this mean? Were there plural bishops of some city? Certainly not! It is the presbyters that [Paul] calls by this title; for these titles were then interchangeable, and the bishop is even called a deacon. That is why, when writing to Timothy, he says, ‘Fulfill your diaconate’ [2 Tim. 4:5], although Timothy was then a bishop. That he was in fact a bishop is clear when Paul says to him, ‘Lay hands on no man lightly’ [1 Tim. 5:22], and again, ‘Which was given you with the laying on of hands of the presbytery’ [1 Tim. 4:14], and presbyters would not have ordained a bishop” (Homilies on Philippians 1:1 [A.D. 402]).
St. Patrick of Ireland
“I, Patrick, the sinner, am the most rustic and the least of all the faithful . . . had for my father Calpornius, a deacon, a son of Potitus, a priest, who belonged to the village of Bannavem Taberniae. . . . At that time I was barely sixteen years of age . . . and I was led into captivity in Ireland with many thousands of persons, in accordance with our deserts, for we turned away from God, and kept not his commandments, and were not obedient to our priests, who were wont to admonish us for our salvation” (Confession of St. Patrick 1 [A.D. 452]).
“I, Patrick, the sinner, unlearned as everybody knows, avow that I have been established a bishop in Ireland. Most assuredly I believe that I have received from God what I am. And so I dwell in the midst of barbarous heaths, a stranger and an exile for the love of God” (Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus 1 [A.D. 452]).