Laying On of Hands at Ordinations

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: [Received from a bishop in Africa] Some years back I attended an ordination of a priest and there were five bishops present with a large number of priests. All the bishops first laid on hands and then the priests. I took it to be the norm. Then sometime later I was in a neighboring diocese for the ordination of a priest, and I noticed that only the ordaining bishop laid on hands, followed by the priests present. The two other bishops present did not lay on hands. This set me thinking in terms of liturgical symbolism. The laying on hands by the priests recognizes the admission of the newly ordained priest to the presbyterium; similarly, laying on hands by all the bishops in the episcopal ordination symbolizes the acceptance of the newly ordained bishop into the college of bishops. Would it be correct then to say that in the ordination of a priest, out of respect for liturgical symbolism, only the ordaining bishop (plus his auxiliary, if he has one, or the bishop-emeritus of the diocese, if there is one) would lay on hands and not other bishops present?

A: In this case our episcopal reader has already framed the question correctly, in placing the rite of imposition of hands by others other than the ordaining bishop (or bishops) as reflecting the entrance into that particular grade of priesthood. 

This is an ancient tradition that is still reflected in the rubrics of ordination today. The principal source of this custom is the so-called Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus of Rome, written about the year 215 but reflecting well-established customs. Modern scholars have called into question the authenticity of the authorship of these texts and tend to locate their composition in the Middle East rather than Rome. They are in broad agreement, however, regarding the early date of its composition and its influence on later liturgical practice in the universal Church.

Regarding the choice and ordination of bishops this text says:

“2. Let the bishop be ordained after he has been chosen by all the people. When he has been named and shall please all, let him, with the presbytery and such bishops as may be present, assemble with the people on a Sunday. While all give their consent, the bishops shall lay their hands upon him, and the presbytery shall stand by in silence. All indeed shall keep silent, praying in their heart for the descent of the Spirit. Then one of the bishops who are present shall, at the request of all, lay his hand on him who is ordained bishop, and shall pray as follows, saying ….”

With respect to priestly ordination the Apostolic Tradition states:

“8. But when a presbyter is ordained, the bishop shall lay his hand upon his head, while the presbyters touch him, and he shall say according to those things that were said above, as we have prescribed above concerning the bishop, praying and saying ….”

Finally, when dealing with ordination to the diaconate, the author offers further details as to the meaning of the imposition of hands:

“9. But the deacon, when he is ordained, is chosen according to those things that were said above, the bishop alone in like manner laying his hands upon him, as we have prescribed. When the deacon is ordained, this is the reason why the bishop alone shall lay his hands upon him: he is not ordained to the priesthood but to serve the bishop and to carry out the bishop’s commands. He does not take part in the council of the clergy; he is to attend to his own duties and to make known to the bishop such things as are needful. He does not receive that Spirit that is possessed by the presbytery, in which the presbyters share; he receives only what is confided in him under the bishop’s authority. For this cause the bishop alone shall make a deacon. But on a presbyter, however, the presbyters shall lay their hands because of the common and like Spirit of the clergy. Yet the presbyter has only the power to receive; but he has no power to give. For this reason a presbyter does not ordain the clergy; but at the ordination of a presbyter he seals while the bishop ordains. Over a deacon, then, he shall say as follows …:”

This is basically still the common practice of the Church, although with some changes with respect to Hippolytus.

For example, rather than one bishop ordaining a new bishop as in the Apostolic Tradition, current canon law requires at least three bishops to be present. Thus the ordaining bishop is always accompanied by two co-consecrators. It is true that one bishop is sufficient for the validity of the ordination, but the Holy See grants a dispensation from this norm only in extraordinary cases such as during persecutions or in missionary contexts. This latter situation was more common in the past but is very rare today.

This law also obeys an ancient practice that assures the apostolic succession and symbolizes the bishops’ communion with the whole college of bishops. Thus the 13th Canon of the Council of Carthage (394) states, “A bishop should not be ordained except by many bishops, but if there should be necessity he may be ordained by three.”

Apart from the three bishops, the rite also foresees that all other bishops present lay their hands upon the one being ordained. No one else should do so.

At a priestly ordination, in principle only the ordaining bishop lays his hands upon the ordinand to confer the Holy Spirit.

All priests present, or if there are too many, a representative group, also lay their hands upon the candidate as a sign of their communion in the one priesthood of Christ.

In principle another bishop who happens to be present should not participate in this symbolic laying on of hands — first, because the rite itself clearly states that this is done by priests; second, so as not to create confusion with the rite of episcopal ordination.

This line of reply is also supported by a response to a doubt published in Notitiae in 1980 by the Congregation of Divine Worship.

The question was: If, during a priestly ordination, could an assisting bishop participate in the imposition of hands after the principal celebrant and with him recite the essential part of the consecratory prayer?

To this the Congregation for Divine Worship consulted with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which replied that it should not be done or that it is not expedient or advantageous (non expedire).

If the number of candidates warrants it, another bishop or bishops may assist with the complementary rites such as handing over the chalice and paten and anointing of hands.

At a diaconal ordination only the ordaining bishop imposes hands on the candidate.

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Readers may send questions to [email protected]. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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