Part 2 History

Chapter p21 History of the Orders

Preliminary Questions


Summary - Grid

1. Apostolic [0-399]

2. Patristic [400-799] 

3. Early Medieval [800-1199]


4. Medieval [1200-1299]

5. Late Medieval [1300-1499]

6. Reformation [1500-1699]

7. After Trent [1700-1899]

8. Before Vatican II [1900-1959]

9. Vatican II [1960-1975]

10. After Vatican II [1975-2050]

To Think About

Preliminary Questions

Kenan Osborne in his book Priesthood: a History of the Ordained Ministry in the Roman Catholic Church states that there are two approaches to Christian ministry that are based on two different sets of presuppositions:

"The first approach is to see Jesus during his lifetime clearly establishing a Church, together with its basic structures and ministries. In other words, the Gospels are read in such a way as to make explicit Jesus' role in establishing a fairly detailed Church community.

The second approach is to see the Church, together with its structures and ministries, arising after the resurrection. In other words, the Church is a post-Easter event, and as such, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the early community begins to shape the details of structure and ministry." (Pp 30-31)

The first approach is that contained in the standard theology manuals such as that of Adolph Tanquerey. This was the textbook I studied during my seminary days for the classes in dogmatic theology. It taught that Jesus founded a Church, governed by the twelve apostles who were bishops and who ordained priests and deacons. This is the approach that is presumed even today in many magisterial statements, catechisms, and legal documents. I find that many students in these courses on sacraments and liturgy simply accept these presuppositions uncritically as historical facts and established dogma.

In the 50 years that have passed since my ordination I have moved from this approach to the second approach described by Osborne. This "move" or changing my way of thinking has come about primarily through my association with Scripture scholars and Church historians. The data of Scripture is much more complex and nuanced than the data presumed in the theology manuals.

When you consider the history of ministry in the New Testament and the early Church in the light of your Church history courses and Scripture studies, you see ministers (with a ministry/discipleship flowing from baptism, not ordination [note that there are no "ordained priests" such as myself in the New Testament]) who are married men [and women?] living in the world, often having secular jobs, raising their families, etc. No distinctive titles, no distinctive clothing, no distinctive life-style (except that they could not be married twice).

What a long way we have come from this Church to the priesthood into which I was ordained in 1966. Priests lived in rectories, not houses. They had distinctive dress, life-styles (e.g. celibacy, living in rectories with other celibates), distinctive financial arrangements (dependent on the bishop for housing, living allowance, car allowance, retirement, health insurance, etc.)

In my own personal experience, I left home and joined the Franciscans when I was 14 years old. I lived in various large friaries -- seminaries, universities, provincial houses, etc. When I was about 45 I moved out of my room at Saint Meinrad Seminary and moved into my current (rented) house in Tell City, IN. I joke that it is the first time in my adult life that I live in a house that cost less than $8,000.000.00. It is the first time that my drive way is shorter than 2 miles long. It is the first time that I have neighbors. It is the first time that I have a water bill or an electric bill. It is the first time I have to fix the roof or shovel snow...or pay rent! And believe me, these are significant changes. A different range of people come to my door for help than came to my door in the seminary!

Do you have some insight into how priests live now and how that might change -- and some vision of the implications of the Pope's exhortation to "smell of the sheep". It requires a bit of "thinking outside of the box."

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Kenan Osborne, O.F.M.  Priesthood:  A History of the Ordained Ministry in the Roman Catholic Church.  Paulist Press.  1988.  ISBN 0-8091-3032-7.  $14.95.

Thomas Franklin O'Meara, O.P.  Theology of Ministry.   Paulist Press. 1983.  ISBN 0-8091-2478-4.  $11.95.    (The -ization terms used below are taken from this book.)

Ray Robert Noll.  Christian Ministerial Priesthood: A Search for Its Beginnings in the Primary Documents of the Apostolic Fathers. San Francisco: Catholic Scholars Press. 1994.  ISBN 1-883255-00-7

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1. Apostolic [0-399] 

The early Christians who came from Judaism recognized the priesthood of the Jews, but did not recognize any type of priesthood in the new Christian communities.   The early community (and Jesus himself) did not have very "positive" experience of [Jewish/religious] priesthood. 

There is no mention of an ordained ministerial priesthood in the New Testament or in other early Christian documents.

Christianity begins as a "lay movement" within Judaism.  There are many modes of service.

As the community grows and requires a certain "organization," these various modes of service are named using words and categories from secular society:  overseer, elder, minister, teacher, pastor.

The entire community is "priestly" and there is no need for a "sacred person" who stands between the people and God. 

4 Come to [the Lord], a living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God,
5 and, like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house
to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  ...
9 But you are "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises" of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.  (1 Peter 2: 4-9 NAB)

There is no office of "priest/mediator"  in the community because in the Christian community there is but one mediator, Christ himself, as was proclaimed in an ancient hymn recorded in 1 Timothy 2:5-6 (NAB): 

5 For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus, himself human,
6 who gave himself as ransom for all. This was the testimony at the proper time.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews wants to help the Jews "bridge the gap" between their tradition of priests and high priest to this new "priestless" way of living by speaking of Jesus himself as the one and only high priest:

14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession.
15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.  (Hebrews 4:14-15 NAB -- and about 9 other references in the same letter)

The "host" [Presider?] at the community gathering/meal on the First Day of the Week, the Lord's Day, is usually the one who owned the house in which the community gathered that day.

Second Century, some of these ministries are formalized by the imposition of hands by the overseer.  Overseers [Bishops], elders [presbyters], and ministers [deacons] were designated by laying on hands.

"Ordination" finds its origins in this "imposition of hands".  [Note:  only gradually do those who are "ordained" become "clergy" -- this is a separate development.]

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2. Patristic [400-799]

Priest begins to absorb all ministries.

Beginning of "clerical" and "lay" states. The hierarchy grows more distant from the people.   ministers / elders  rebuked for dressing differently. Clergy become separate from "worldly life."  

Priest begins to be seen as intermediary between God and humankind.

Monastic communities governed by an abbot who appoints his priests and bishops.

Episcopalization: from communal diversity and universality to a small number of ministries with emphasis on service of leadership.

Sacerdotalization: ministry becomes "sacred." 

Soon become "set apart."

Bishop / Priest / Deacon. Prophets disappear. Deacons diversify: readers, caretakers.

Public liturgy calls for expanded ministries: singers, assistants. Bishops and priests absorb ministry. President of eucharist = Sacerdos. OT models.

Laying-on of hands and recitation of prayers are essential elements of ordination.

The 692 Council of eastern bishops at Constantinople agreed that the married men could be received into clerical orders but unmarried clerics had to stay unmarried. Married priests and deacons had to abstain from sexual relations with their wives on the days they presided at liturgy.

Presbyter became synonymous with "priest."

(Mostly in the East) deaconesses led the women's section at prayer, and anointed and dressed the women at baptisms, while also helping the widows and other women in their community.

The presbyters sat with the bishop at the weekly Eucharist celebrations in the west and they sometimes placed their hands over the bread and wine with the bishop and distributed bread and wine with the bishop and distributed communion.


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3. Early Medieval [800-1199]

Peter Lombard's Sentences includes holy orders as a sacrament.

Monasticization = monastic spirituality urged upon diocesan clergy. 11c. private recitation of Hours. Celibacy. Bishop resembles an abbot. Sacerdotalization of monasticism. Conversion = become a monk. Clergy separated from world.

Rome becomes the central authority in the West (East preserves patriarchal collegiality) First cardinals. Pope assumed many of the bishop's administrative duties; presbyters assumed most of the bishops priestly duties (say Mass, hear confessions).

Diaconate as distinct Order disappeared. Bishops begin to be appointed Rome. Episcopacy not considered part of Orders.

Roman theology of priesthood of "in persona Christi" regarding Mass and Confession [This is my body; I absolve you].

Abbots ordain priests (and deacons) for their abbeys.

Bishops were invested with a crozier (mitre).

Gregory VII (becomes pope in 1073, dies 1085)  mandated celibacy for all priests in the Catholic Church.

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4. Medieval [1200-1299]

St. Bonaventure spoke of Christ as prophet, priest, and king. However, this three-fold model was not widely used by the Scholastics.

Evangelization (OP OFM). Individual priesthood defined by real presence in the Eucharist. Episcopacy shifts from ministry to jurisdiction. Orders prior to Charism. Triumph of order. Hierarchization: A dominance of one structure in the order of offices.

Ordination seen as conferring power. Traditio instrumentorum added to Ordination Rite.

Priest's hands are anointed at ordination. Lay hands not anointed; only priest can touch host; end of communion in the hand.

Their spiritual ideal in ministry and priesthood was a monastic one.

Priests were forbidden to have other jobs.

Most people still served by married clergy. Monks did not marry but many took wives and concubines.

Rise of mendicant orders non-monastic.

William Durand writes an ordination rite that is liturgically ordered and includes the various actions: laying-on of hands, anointing the hands of the priests, and prayers.

Bishops are understood to be ordained to priesthood only once, and that becoming a bishop confers a power of jurisdiction

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5. Late Medieval [1300-1499]

Developing "job description" of priesthood. Only priests administer the sacraments. (E.g. confession). Many priests in the West still married despite growing prohibitions.

Renaissance Papacy. Nicholas V (1447-1455) established Vatican Library. Sixtus IV (1471-1484) conferred eight different dioceses on one of his nephews (who becomes Julius II). Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503) spent most of his papacy caring for family and his five children.

"The clergy with whom lay people had the most contact were the parish priests, and there were numerous complaints about them. In many localities there were too many of them. In a notorious example, in the German city of Breslau, there were two churches staffed by 236 "altar priests," whose sole duty was celebrating Masses for the dead.  In such churches where many Masses where celebrated every day at the same times on the side altars, many people would run from one Mass to the next to be present at the elevation of the Host.  For many the Eucharist had become an object of adoration rather than a sacrament to be celebrated. Sadly too many people came to think of the Mass as the priest's own private prayer rather than a common act of worship."  (Rev. Thomas J. Shelley Ph.D. in Church History:  A Course on the People of God.  Sadlier, Faith and Witness series, pp 74-75.)

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6. Reformation [1500-1699]

Christ as prophet, priest, and king popularized by John Calvin (consequently, Catholic theologians seldom used this understanding).

Pastoralization. Baroque papacy. Spiritualization.

Pope Julius "The Terrible" (1503-1513) commissions Michelangelo; led armies into battle; celebrated a military victory parade through Rome on Palm Sunday. Pope Leo X (1513-1521), had been made a cardinal at the age of 13 (he was the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, ruler of Florence). Bishops appointed by Kings and nobles. Often Bishops "collected" dioceses for the income. E.g. the Cardinal of Lorraine became archbishop of Rheims at age 14, and had two other archdioceses, seven dioceses, and four wealthy abbeys. "In England, Cardinal Wolsey was archbishop of York and bishop of three other dioceses. He never set foot in any of his four cathedrals until the day when he was carried into one of them for his funeral."

Priests mainly celebrated Mass for the Souls in Purgatory and live on the Mass stipends. "In the German city of Breslau, there were two churches staffed by 236 altar priests whose sole duty was celebrating Mass for the dead." (The above is taken from Thomas J. Shelley, Church History. Sadlier 1998)

Reformation: Back to basics. Basic ministry: preaching the Gospel. Sacraments cause grace by God's power, not the priest's power. Church shares in Christ's Priesthood to do ministry, not an entitled group within the Church. Emphasis on the once and for all redemptive act of Christ. Celibacy of ministers not required in the scriptures.

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7. After Trent [1700-1899]

Bishops must reside in their diocese (end of absentee landlords).

Seminaries mandated. Ideal priest is the monk.

Pius XII defines essential elements of Rite of Ordination.

The "religious priest" is the ideal priest/ not the diocesan priest. (Conformity to obedient Christ)

The lay people of God were ministered to, and the priests and religious were the ministers

"In the ordination rite the manutergium served a practical function. It kept the priest from unjoining his hands (and thereby getting oil on his vestments) until after the presentation of the chalice and paten. In the rite that is presently in use, as well as in the second Latin edition of the ordination rites published in 1990 no longer is there any need to bind the hands together, since the new priest washes his hands immediately after they are anointed and before the presentation of the offerings of the people. Accordingly, the use of the manutergium in the revised ordination rite has been abolished and no one on his own initiative may reintroduce the practice (see CSL 22, par. 3)"

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8. Before Vatican II [1900-1959]

1947-Pius XII instructed that the imposition of hands be considered the essential element of the rite.

 Romanticization of ministry.

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9. Vatican II [1960-1975]

Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Dec. 4, 1963; AAS 56 (1964) pp 7ff; Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium Nov. 21, 1964: AAS 57 (1965) p 5ff; Decree Christus Dominus on Pastoral Duties of Bishops, Oct. 28, 1965; Decree on Priestly Training, Oct. 28, 1965.

The Second Vatican Council was divided on the issue of priestly status. The scholastic view of priesthood was that the priest was "ontologically" changed by the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Vatican II does not speak of an ontological change, but says that the priesthood of the faithful is "essentially" different from ministerial priesthood (Constitution on the Church, 10) and leaves it to theologians to "spell out" what that essential difference is. The Council is explicit in stating that all are called to holiness.

Church = People of God. Universal call to holiness. Permanent Diaconate. Lay ministries. 1966 Reader and Acolyte. 1969 Ministers of Communion.

Diversity. Secularization. Charism prior to Orders.

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10. After Vatican II [1975-2050]

I have published what I consider to be a summary of period ten in my article "Sacrament of Holy Orders: Priesthood in Transition"  The text is available at:

Primary mission of priest: preach the word of God; to sanctify, to lead. 1983 Code of Canon Law reads that orders is a ministry of divine law; requires servant-ministry found in Gospels. Ministry includes bishops, priests and deacons. Deacons ordained for liturgical and other ministries. Laity more active in ministries. Church questions itself over many issues. 1976 official stand against ordaining women; John Paul II, 1994 upholds stance as infallible teaching. Married priests from Anglican and Episcopal faiths to join Roman priesthood. Married permanent deacons; formation programs began in '80s.

"plurality" of ministers

Role of priest changing to one of service. Decline in priestly vocations. Lay ministry involvement in the church

Lay ministry explodes exponentially

At his first Chrism Mass, Pope Francis spoke of the mission of priests to be true spiritual shepherds of the people of God: “This I ask you: be shepherds, with the “smell of the sheep”, make it real, as shepherds among your flock ...”

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To Think About

Class exercise  In the light of your study of the history of ministry in the Church, which of the following scenarios are possible in period 10 of the grid, and which scenarios are not possible?   [Note:  The following are not intended to be "a wish list" or "political statements."  This is an exercise in Church history and the theology of Orders.]  Following each is the number of students responding possible / not possible.

1. Priesthood disappears from the Church?  (0 possible, 8 not possible)

2. Sunday Eucharist disappears from the Church? (0 possible, 8 not possible)

3. The distinction between the clerical state and the lay state disappears from the Church?(2 possible, 6 not possible)

4. Married men are ordained priests?  (8 possible, 0 not possible)

5. Married deacons are ordained priests?  (8 possible, 0 not possible)

6. Gay men are allowed to be ordained priests?  (6 possible, 2 not possible)

7. Laicized priests are allowed to return to active ministry?  (7 possible, 1 not possible)

8. Priests are allowed to marry?  (8 possible, 0 not possible)

9. The majority of parish priests in the United States are from India, Africa, and Korea?  (6 possible, 2 not possible)

10. Woman are ordained deacons?  (4 possible, 4 not possible)

11. Woman are ordained priests?  (1 possible, 7 not possible)

12. Woman are made cardinals without ordination?  (0 possible, 8 not possible)

13. Bishops are not appointed by the pope but elected by the laity of the local Church?  (1 possible, 7 not possible)

14. One can be ordained priest without having been ordained deacon?  (2 possible, 6 not possible)

15. One can be ordained bishop without having been ordained priest?  (7 possible, 1 not possible)


Once, many years ago, under a different Pope and a different Curia, when we priests were struggling to accept the Spirit of Vatican II rather than struggling to forget it as we are now, I was giving a workshop on the (then "new") liturgy to the pastors of a (here unnamed) diocese -- no associate pastors allowed, only pastors.  The retreat began Sunday evening, and continued through the week.  Our first Eucharist together was scheduled for Monday evening before supper.  I was asked to preside.  At the close of my 3:00 pm conference on Monday, I suggested:  "Fathers, you all had 3 or 4 Masses yesterday.  You all were busy and occupied with preaching the Word and converting your flock.  Today, for Mass, why not just 'rest and pray'.  There is no one here but us priests.  We all know one another.  There is no need to indicate who we are by vestments, etc. ...."    And one of the pastors who got what I was suggesting, spoke up and asked:  "You mean, just go to Mass like lay people? It would be so boring!"  

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