Jesus Christ chose the Cenacle as the site of the first ordination, which took place on the evening of Maundy Thursday in that richly decorated upper room. He instituted the Sacraments of Holy Orders and the Holy Eucharist there, ordaining and consecrating the Apostles Himself and telling them, “It was not you who chose me, it was I who chose you,” and, “I do not speak of you any more as my servants…and so I have called you my friends” (Jam non dicam vos servos..., St. Jn. 15:15-16).
The Rite of Ordination underwent three principal periods of development after its institution. The earliest period is that of the very early Roman Rite, from the Apostolic Age through the first three centuries, in which the imposition of hands and consecratory prayer are specifically indicated, and these remain the key components of the rite: the matter and form. The second period, which lasted through the ninth century, adds slight developments of Gallican origin (from the territories of northern Italy, Gaul, and beyond). The third period, from the ninth to thirteenth centuries, incorporated still a few more Gallican elements and resulted in the present rite; hence the result is called the Romano-Gallican ritual. This was principally due to the untiring work by Bishop Durandus of Mende (†1296) on the Pontificale Romanum, the liturgical tome used by Bishops. These three phases of development led to one of the most splendid liturgical rites that Divine Providence and the ingenuity of the Church have ever produced. We present here the history and ceremonies of each component of this rite.
I. Call and Postulation. This portion of the rite is seen in the Gelasian Sacramentary, which contains material from as early as the pontificate of Pope Gelasius (†496). At the beginning of the Ordination rite the ordinands are called by name by the Archdeacon, a role exercised in practice by the Assistant Priest of the Pontifical Mass, who requests their ordination on behalf of Holy Mother Church and has a short exchange with the Bishop regarding their preparation and worthiness. The Bishop then instructs the faithful and pauses briefly for their tacit assent before continuing with the rite.
II. Litany of the Saints. The ordinands lie prostrate before the altar as the Litany is sung. During the Litany, the Bishop rises to thrice bless the ordinands with variants of: Ut hos electos benedicere, sanctificare, et consecrare digneris (That Thou wouldst deign to bless, sanctify, and consecrate these elect). This blessing during the litany dates to no later than the twelfth century.
III. Instruction of the Ordinands. The Bishop traces the historic types of the priesthood—the seventy elders of Moses and the seventy-two sent by Christ—and reminds the ordinands of the duties of the Order they are to receive: to offer sacrifice, to bless, to govern, to preach, and to baptize. He instructs them on the holiness of life the priesthood requires: “Let your preaching be a spiritual medicine for the people of God and the fragrance of your lives a delight for the Church of Christ.” The present instruction, called Consecrandi, pre-dates the twelfth century.
IV. Imposition of Hands. This ancient gesture comes from the time of the patriarchs of the Old Testament and was continued in the Priesthood of the New Covenant, where several examples are to be found in the Acts of the Apostles and in the Pauline Epistles. St. Jerome (†420) attests to the use of this gesture in ordinations at his time when he wrote that ordination is not effected by the consecratory prayer alone, but by the imposition of hands as well, an outward gesture which makes the ordination visible to all. Other references from the Patristic age abound (e.g., Sts. Ephrem, Basil, Augustine, Chrysostom, et al.) The Bishop’s imposition of hands upon the ordinand was observed through all centuries of the Church and is in fact the essential matter of the sacrament. After the Bishop’s imposition of hands, all priests present impose their hands as well upon the ordinands, and along with the Bishop they continue the imposition by extending their right hands over all of the ordinands collectively during the ensuing prayer which dates to the early Roman rite.
V. Consecratory Prayer. This is a prayer in preface form, at the nucleus of which is found the essential form of the sacrament, the few words so crucial that the ordaining Bishop reads them clearly, whereas he chants all the rest of the prayer. In the historic texts, this prayer is called the oratio consecrationis (prayer of consecration) in the ordination of priests. The form is almost identical to that given in the Gregorian Sacramentary of the seventh century and reads as follows: “Bestow, we beseech Thee, Almighty Father, on these Thy servants the dignity of the Priesthood. Renew in their hearts the spirit of holiness, so that they may be steadfast in this second degree of the priestly office received from Thee, O God, and by the example of their lives may they show forth moral discretion.” Upon the conclusion of these words, the indelible priestly character is imprinted for eternity.
VI. Investiture with the Priestly Vestments and Veni Creator Spiritus. This ceremony begins the Gallican portion of the rite, which is referred to in some formularies as the consummatio presbyterii (completion of the priesthood). In the earlier Roman use, the ordinands presented themselves for ordination already vested with the insignia of the priestly order, but by the tenth century, the vestments were expressly conferred on them with the customary formula: “Receive the priestly vestment which signifies charity; God is indeed powerful to advance you in charity and in perfection.” By the thirteenth century, the chasuble was worn folded up (plicata) until the end of the ordination ritual, at which point it was unfolded, as done at present, to signify the full reception of all priestly powers. After the investiture, the Bishop chants the extensive prayer Deus sanctificationum and intones the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus, which is continued through the following rites.
VII. Anointing of the Hands. The anointing pre-dates the tenth century. Theodulf d’Orleans (†821) writes to his diocesan priests, “You must always be mindful of the holy unction which you received upon your hands.” Bishop Amalarius of Metz (†850) explains that a priest’s hands are anointed with oil “so that they may be pure in offering the host to God.” The priest’s two hands are anointed together in the form of a cross with the Oil of Catechumens, accompanied by the prayer: “Deign, O Lord, to consecrate and sanctify these hands by this anointing and our blessing: that whatever they bless may be blessed, and whatever they consecrate may be consecrated and sanctified in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” Afterwards, the consecrated hands are bound together with a linen cloth until after the conferral of instruments, at which time the new priests purify their hands with bread and lemons.
VIII. Conferral of Instruments, or “Traditio Instrumentorum.” This ceremony is found in all ordinations, even those to the minor orders, each with its own instrument. The “instruments” of the priest are a chalice with water and wine, and a paten with a host, which the newly-ordained touches with his bound hands as the Bishop reads: “Receive the power to offer sacrifice to God and to celebrate Masses both for the living and for the dead, in the name of the Lord.” It is understood that this ceremony illustrates a capacity already received with the sacerdotal character itself, but many theologians previously held that the conferral of instruments was in fact the essential matter of the sacrament. Pius XII definitively settled the question with Sacramentum Ordinis, in which he declared that the essential matter of ordinations is the imposition of hands only.
IX. Celebration of Mass with the Bishop. At the Offertory, the newly-ordained present their candles to the Bishop and from the Offertory prayers onward the new priests celebrate the Mass along with him. St. Thomas Aquinas explains: “According to the custom of some Churches, as the apostles co-supped when Christ supped, so the newly ordained co-celebrate with the ordaining Bishop” (S. Th., III, 82, 2). The new priests kneel behind the Bishop and missals are customarily resting on stools before them for their use. After receiving Communion from the Bishop, they drink some unconsecrated wine from an extra chalice near the Epistle side of the altar.
X. Complementary Rites: Credo, Power to Absolve Sins, Obedience, Pax, Solemn Blessing. These remaining elements pre-dating the thirteenth century admirably express certain aspects of the priestly character. The Bishop intones the antiphon Jam non dicam vos servos (I no longer call you servants), after which the new priests make their profession of faith with the Apostle’s Creed. They each go up to the Bishop, who puts in evidence their power to absolve sins by laying his hands on them, saying: “Receive the Holy Ghost; whose sins thou shalt forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins thou shalt retain are retained,” after which he unfolds the new priest’s chasuble, saying: “May the Lord clothe thee with the robe of innocence.” The priests then pledge their priestly obedience and place both of their hands in the Bishop’s, after which he gives them the Pax gesture; then, after his final instruction to the new priests, he gives them his solemn blessing. At the very conclusion of the Ordination Mass, he requires of the new priests three votive Masses to be said: one in honor of the Holy Ghost, one in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and one in suffrage for the faithful departed. He then concludes with the humble petition etiam pro me orate (pray also for me), which brings the rite to its conclusion.
A convenient summary of this complex rite is provided by the liturgical scholar Bishop Sicard of Cremona (†1215), who explains that the ceremonies of Ordination can be summed up in four principal acts: the candidates are called, instructed, ordained, and blessed. This fourfold action is seen in each ordination rite, even more clearly in those for the minor orders. The rich history of the Rite of Ordination is an eloquent expression of how each new priest ordained is sustained by centuries of Catholic Tradition like all of the priests before him, but at the same time he is not just “one more priest” in this long and venerable line: he shares in the one Priesthood of the Eternal High Priest. He is an alter Christus.