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What you need to know about the Sacrament of Ordination

What you need to know about the Sacrament of Ordination

by John Wijngaards

Why sacramental signs?

There is more to life than just chemistry and physics. God is the tremendous mystery hidden behind everything we can see, hear and touch. The people and things that surround us can become symbols of that deeper all-pervasive presence. Then they become windows to what is invisible. They point to reality beyond themselves. For instance, a volcano that erupts presents a picture of unimaginable force. It becomes a symbol for us if we, as it were, look through it and see the inexhaustible mysterious force behind the universe.

Experiencing our mother’s love, we may suddenly grasp that in her we are touching love itself, another aspect of our mysterious human existence. Our mother’s love has then been made transparent. Apart from its own value, it assumes a deeper meaning. It has been discovered to be a symbol pointing beyond itself. This is the basis for all religion.

It is natural for us to give the high-points of our existence a festive form charged with significance. When someone is born or reaches puberty or gets married or dies, we mark the event by a celebration which contrasts with the dullness of everyday life. In cultures all over the world symbols have been created that express the deeper meaning of such moments: rituals, customs, special dresses, specific food and drink. Through these symbols, which are often religious in origin, we reach out to what lies beyond us and celebrate the mystery of our existence. In fact, we cannot deal with the most important realities in our life without signs and symbols.

How are sacraments related to Christ?

Enter Jesus Christ. He was, in his own person, the deepest religious symbol par excellence. Scripture calls him the ‘reflection of the Father’s glory’, ‘the imprint of the Father’s being’(1), ‘image of the invisible God’(2). Jesus Christ showed us, in his humanity, what God is like. Whoever saw him, saw the Father.(3) Who heard his words, heard the Father speak.(4) Everything Jesus did, was a visible, audible, tangible expression of God’s love for us. Jesus was, therefore, the living sign of God among us; or, to use the proper theological term, he was the sacrament of God meeting us, speaking to us, forgiving us, healing us, making us God’s adopted children. For ‘sacrament’ means ‘sign’.

We Christians believe that in Jesus Christ religion attained a new dimension. Although natural religious symbols still preserve their meaning, after Christ’s coming a whole new set of religious symbols was created that continue Christ’s presence. It is known as the sacramental order. The community of believers, which we call the Church, is the overriding sacrament: it is the lasting sign of Christ surrounding us and holding us. In and through his community Christ speaks to us, saves us, heals us, fulfils our spiritual needs.

Sacrament is, therefore, a typically Christian term. And although all actions of the community of believers somehow take place within the sacramental order, in the course of time certain specific symbols were selected to become ‘sacraments’ in a very special way.

  • The central sign of all was shaped very personally by Jesus Christ himself on the night before he died. He used the typically human custom of eating together as a sign to manifest and to bring about his unity with us. He took bread and wine and said, “This is my body for you… This is my blood of the new covenant”. But it is not only in the eucharist, the great sacrament of his presence, that he acts upon us.
  • When a child is born or a person received into the Church, we celebrate baptism in Christ. We mark a person through confirmation for the moment of Christian maturity.
  • When a man and a woman marry each other, their shared life becomes a lasting sign of Christ’s presence.
  • The imparting of pastoral responsibility through ordination is another gesture of Christ.
  • When we fall and sin, he is there for us in the sacrament of penance.
  • And in that critical moment of our lives when we are gravely ill, he is with us in the anointing of the sick.

Christ stands at the origin of all the sacraments even though their precise form was worked out by the Church in the course of the centuries.

Theological terms associated with ‘sacrament’

Since the twelfth century these signs have been known as the seven sacraments. The growth of specialist language about this was unavoidable.(5)

Years ago, in a popular TV programme Esther Rantzen used to award the weekly prize for ‘beaurocratic gobbledygook’. One gem I remember was the letter from a municipal planning department:

“Considering inadequate reciprocal first-degree fire-proof-consistent anti-corrosive adhesion treatment as stipulated in Amended County Building Regulations sect. IV art. 5b, your application signaling preliminary intent fails to meet minimal municipal safety standards requirements.”

Now we must note that the text may sound gobbledegook to us, while making perfect sense to a building engineer. Specialists who try to be precise, invent their own language. The same has happened in theology. Theologians have created a distinct academic dialect. What scholars are saying when speaking of holy orders, sacrament and ordination can only be fully understood by us when we take the trouble to absorb their vocabulary.

It took a long time for the precise meaning of the term ‘sacrament’ to be fully worked out. St. Augustine (354 - 430) offered the first technical definition of a sacrament as “a visible sign of invisible grace”. Since some people dismissed sacraments as ‘only signs without effect’, St. Thomas Aquinas explained that they cause grace insofar as they signify it.(6) For example, when someone is baptised, that person’s sins are truly forgiven and he or she becomes an adopted child of God. This explanation was repeated by the Council of Trent in 1547 which declared that the seven sacraments ‘contain’ the grace which they signify and produce their effect not just by the faith of the recipient but by God whose power is attached to the symbol itself.(7)

In other words, the seven sacraments are effective symbols. The tearing up of a contract does not only signify the end of mutual obligations, it brings it about. When a king or queen knights a person by laying a sword on his or her left shoulder, he/she changes the person’s status in law.

Catholics believe that, on the full sacramental level, what is symbolised really happens. The priest gives the absolution - sins are truly forgiven. In the eucharist Christ is really present under the species of bread and wine. When a priest is ordained, the bishop consecrates him/her to bring Christ present in his or her ministry of teaching, healing, presiding, gathering.

The concern to safeguard the intrinsic value of the sacrament, led theologians to distinguish three elements:
* the sign itself (sacramentum tantum),
* the grace it conveys (res tantum)
* and its intrinsic value (res et sacramentum).

When hosts are consecrated in the eucharist, they achieve their purpose of uniting the faithful to Christ when they are received, with faith, in holy communion. But what happens to the hosts that remain? If they had a purely transitory function, they could be simply disposed of after Mass -- as indeed happens in some Protestant Churches. But the Catholic tradition has come to regard these hosts as somehow permanently linked to Christ, which is expressed by Catholic belief in ‘the Real Presence’. So the hosts are kept in a tabernacle. They can be used later to bring the viaticum to the sick. They retain some lasting intrinsic link to God.

In three sacraments, baptism, confirmation and holy orders, this lasting intrinsic link is called ‘character’. Once a person is baptised, he or she is never baptised again, even if the person gave up her beliefs and her Christian practice for many years. Because the link to Christ acquired through the original baptism remains. Once a person is ordained to be a deacon, priest or bishop, the commission to ministry is there to stay. The Greek word character means a ‘seal’. The image was derived from the seal branded into the flesh of a slave or a soldier by which that person was for ever identified as belonging to a particular master.

Theologians loved to talk of ‘an indelible mark’ branded into the soul by these sacraments, but this goes over the top. The meaning is simply that these sacraments have a lasting effect. In other words: once performed, the sign retains its value and should not be repeated. It was for that purpose that the Council of Trent declared it to be a heresy “if anyone says that the Holy Spirit is not given through sacred ordination, or that it is in vain that bishops say: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’, or that through ordination no character is imprinted; or that he who has once been ordained a priest, can be a lay person again”.(8)

Ordination as a sacrament

If we could have visited a Christian community during the first century of the Church’s existence, we would have met three kinds of ministers: ‘overseers’ [episcopoi], ‘elders’ [presbyteroi] and ‘servants’ [diakonoi]. We might also have observed that these ministers were dedicated by the community to their task through prayer and the imposition of hands. The Apostles prayed and laid their hands on the newly selected deacons (Acts 6,6).

Paul and Barnabas ‘laid their hands on elders’ in Lystra and Iconium, ‘dedicating them with prayer to the Lord’ (Acts 14,23). Later Paul addressed the assembled elders of the communities of Asia Minor when he passes through Miletus. He urged them to care for their flock ‘over whom the Holy Spirit has made you episcopoi (Acts 20,28). By the time St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, died for his faith (110 AD), the three ministries of bishop, presbyter and deacon were widely established.

But it would be a mistake to imagine that these three functions had the same contents that they have for us today. In the course of the centuries so much changed, with variations between different countries as well, that it is difficult to even summarise the enormous shifts that took place. All I can do is to sketch some of the major developments.

The ministry that is most clearly recognisable in today’s terms would have been that of the bishop. He had full pastoral charge of the local community and presided over its eucharist. In many respects he did what a parish priest does today. Only gradually did bishops acquire authority over wider areas, which brought with it the coordinating and supervising roles now enjoyed by diocesan bishops.

When we speak of a priest today, we are inclined to think of him as a person who receives spiritual power that enables him to offer the sacrifice of Mass and administer the sacraments. For many Catholics a ‘priest’ is what is technically known as a sacerdos, a sacrificial priest, using a term derived from the Temple in Jerusalem and Roman pagan practice. But this is not what ‘elder’, presbyter, stood for in the early Church. During the first two centuries there existed no sacerdos, except for Christ. The whole people of God was sacerdotal. From the third century onwards the bishop is at times called the sacerdos of his community, but this is not applied to the elders. Originally these were not even allowed to preside over a eucharist. Only gradually, in small places where there was no bishop, elders began to preside at the eucharist. They had become second-rank bishops. But only the Middle Ages shaped the theology of the individual sacred priestly ‘character’ that would dominate Church thinking until Vatican II.

The ministry of deacons too underwent many changes. The Acts of the Apostles report that seven men were ordained deacon to care for the poor. Soon afterwards we hear of the deacon Stephen preaching and performing miracles. And the deacon Philip preached and baptised in Samaria (Acts 6,7 - 7,60; 8,4-40). Later we find deacons entrusted with pastoral work, baptism, and service at solemn liturgies. They were much closer to the bishop than the presbyters, and often much more influential. During St. Chrysostom’s time, the management of all church property, as well as the care of the poor, the sick, and widows, the upkeep of churches and cemeteries, in a word the entire government of the temporal affairs of the church, lay in the hands of the deacons. Chrysostom enumerates as sources of church income: ‘fields, houses, rents from dwellings, vehicles, pack-horses, mules, and much more of that kind of thing’. At least this was the case in Antioch and Constantinople.

The point I am trying to make is that the ministries varied greatly in contents, status and function from place to place and from one era to the next. It would be a mistake to generalise.

More about the theology of ministry in E.J. Kilmartin, ‘Apostolic Office: Sacrament of Christ’, Theological Studies 36 (1975) pp. 243-265.

Sacramental ordination and the community

The ministry, whether of bishop, priest or deacon, is an ecclesial function. From a theological point of view, it should be transmitted through sacramental ordination. Sacramental ordination is not a personal privilege, no promotion to higher spirituality nor an ontological change of personality. By sacramental ordination the community with its leaders expresses that this task that transcends the power of any individual can only be undertaken through the power of the Spirit. “Woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel - woe to me if I do not live up to my ministry!” This human ‘woe to me!’ is met by the ‘success to you!’ in the calling down of the Holy Spirit at ordination.(9)

What makes a sacrament a ‘valid’ sacrament?

In the practice of the Church the question has often arisen as to whether a particular action had been a true sacrament or not.

The Synod of Arles in France decided in 314 that converts from the Donatist sect should be asked if they had been baptised in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If they had, their baptism had been valid and they should not be re-baptised. But the Council of Nicea decreed eleven years later that the baptism of the followers of Paul of Samosata, the heretical bishop of Antioch in Syria, was not valid. The reason was that the Paulicians considered Jesus to be a human being who only became divine gradually. Paulicians had to be re-baptised.

Then how to determine what the minimum conditions for a particular sacrament are?

St. Augustine had already noted that baptism requires ‘the word and a material substance’. He meant: it requires the formula ‘I baptise you’ and immersion in water.(10) Other Fathers of the Church noted the same duality. It was the medieval theologians, however, who worked this out in great detail. For they often were also church lawyers by profession. They loved to define the exact conditions of a sacrament’s validity. And they drew their terminology from Greek philosophy that had been rediscovered by the universities of the time.

Any object was deemed to consist of two components: matter and form. A cat, for instance, was thought to be composed of two distinct elements, its body and its inner life, its ‘soul’. Take away the cat’s soul, and only a corpse is left. Adam was just a clay model [matter] until God blew the human soul [form] into his nostrils.(11) In the same way, each sacrament has its matter and its form, both of which are essential for its validity. In the case of baptism, the matter is washing in water, the form the baptismal words: “I baptise you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”, or an equivalent phrase. With regard to each and every sacrament, they determined matter and form by observing how the Church actually administered the sacraments and what had been said about them in earlier tradition.

Now ‘the form’ is identical to the words that accompany the material sign. Although standard formulas are often used, this need not be the case. There have been different ways of expressing baptism. The Trinitarian formula has been widespread. However, there is also ancient evidence for the use of “I baptise you in the name of Jesus”.(16) Different forms have been used for the eucharist, for penance and confirmation. What counts is the intention of the person administering the sacrament. His or her intention gives inner life to the form. But what happens if the person administering the sacrament does not fully understand the form? What if she is an uneducated mother baptising her dying baby? The theologians replied that the ‘minister’ must at least have the intention of ‘doing what the Church does’.

Intention and form are closely related. When Leo XIII declared Anglican orders invalid, he did so not only on account of defects in the ordination prayer (the ‘form’), but also because he judged the intention of some crucial bishops in the chain of succession to have been insufficient. For, being influenced by Protestant ideas, they did not want to ordain sacrificial priests with a view to offering the eucharist. He judged this sufficient to invalidate the sacrament, for the words they used, did no longer mean what the Church meant by them.(13)

Notice also the difference between an action being ‘licit’ or ‘valid’. A bishop, for instance, can impart a valid priestly ordination to a boy who is only sixteen years old. But the ordination would be illicit, since church law prescribes the minimum age to be twenty-four. It is the validity question that predominates in theology.

And what about ‘sacramentals’ ?

The community of believers has created many smaller symbolic actions which are not sacraments [therefore not strictly sacramental], yet somehow belong to the wider sacramental [= symbolic] order of Christian life. They are, unfortunately, called the ‘sacramentals’. Perplexity can easily arise from the same word being used in different senses. In English, ‘sacramental’ as an adjective means ‘belonging to a sacrament’; ‘a sacramental’, as a noun, means ‘belonging only to the wider sacramental order’. Confused? You may well be. A theologian may say: “Yes. Confirmation is sacramental [adjective]. But blessing holy water is only a sacramental [noun]”? He/she would mean that confirmation is a true sacrament, but blessing holy water is not.

Such subtle differences exist in other contexts. A similar shifts of meaning can be seen in the words ‘mobile’ and ‘a mobile’ [= a hand-held phone]. Compare: “I’m sick in bed and not mobile. But I have a mobile.” Or think of ‘ordinary’ and ‘an ordinary’ [= church parlance for the bishop of a diocese]: “It is not ordinary for an ordinary to drive his own car.” Someone can be ‘a secular’ [= church parlance for a diocesan priest] without being secular [= worldly] in his life style!

Examples of sacramentals are: marking oneself with holy water when entering a church building, the blessing of the throat on St. Blaise’s feast, dedicating a home to the Sacred Heart, exorcism, consecrating a church or chapel, the installation of readers and ministers of holy communion.

It makes a huge difference whether a theologian judges the ancient diaconate of women to have been ‘sacramental’ [= a full, true sacrament], or ‘only a sacramental’ [= no more than a blessing]. Be forewarned!

Is talking of sacraments in the Early Church an ‘anachronism’?

Webster’s Dictionary defines an anachronism as ‘a chronological misplacing of persons, events, objects or customs in regard to each other’. For instance, if I read in a book: “Jesus phoned St. Andrew and asked him to hop on the Underground and meet him over a hamburger at MacDonalds in Bethesda”, I know it is fiction. There were no telephones, underground trains, hamburgers and fast-food shops in Jerusalem during Jesus’ time. Are we making the same mistake when we judge ordination to have been a true sacrament from the earliest times?

Someone once wrote to me:

“Your use of the word sacrament in the context of the early women’s diaconate is an anachronism. The distinction between ‘a sacrament’ and ‘a sacramental’ arose only in the 12th century. Hugo of St. Victor (1096 - 1141) was the first to contrast ‘the minor sacraments’ and ‘the sacraments through which our salvation is mainly found’. Peter Lombard (1100 - 1160) coined the term ‘sacramentals’ in opposition to the ‘seven sacraments’. You may not apply our present theological terminology to the Byzantine Church of the first millennium.”

Anachronism involves placing persons, events or objects in the wrong time. If I say: “Jesus took a taxi to Jerusalem railway station”, I am committing an anachronism. But what if I say: “Jesus instituted the sacraments”? This phrase was actually used by the Council of Trent in 1563. But Jesus did not know the word ‘sacrament’, you may object.


But he was very much aware of the symbolism of the actions he established, such as baptism and the eucharist. The same applied to the Byzantine bishops who ordained women deacons. They did not know the word ‘sacrament’, but they understood its substance. The circumstance that people at a particular time did not have a clear term for an object or an event, or did not define it theologically as we do today, does not disprove the reality of that object or event.

In 1995 the archeologist David Soren of Arizona University discovered a cemetry for children dated to around 450 AD. All the children had died through a mysterious disease. Soren correlated this event with evidence of an epidemic sweeping through that part of Italy at about the same time. Some indications pointed to malaria as the culprit. Then Robert Sellares of the University of Manchester identified the genes of the falciparum malaria bacilla in the bones of one of the children. This fatal form of malaria must have been transported from Africa to Italy and caused an epidemic. The contemporaries realised that something terrible had hit them, but they could not give it an exact name. In 467 AD the Roman writer Sidonius described the illness with symptoms that match malaria, but he simply called it a ‘fever’, a ‘pestilence’. Now it is perfectly legitimate for us to say that those children died of falciparum malaria, even though it is a term Romans would not have recognised.

The Hittite language had no word for ‘covenant’ or ‘treaty’, and certainly not of ‘vassal treaty’. Hittites would vaguely speak of ‘the oath’, or ‘swearing a pledge’. Yet stone tablets found at Bogazköj in Turkey, contained the complete texts of at least 19 ‘vassal treaties’, imposed by Hittite emperors on the kings of Amurru, Ugarit, Kizuwatna and other countries during the second milennium BC. All these treaties display the characteristic structure of the names of the partners, prologue, main stipulation of loyalty, covenant obligations, the invocation of blessings and curses. (14) Is speaking of the Hittite vassal treaties an anachronism?

From the ritual of the ordination rite it is clear that ordaining a deacon, whether man or woman, was a very holy and solemn act, through which the power of the Holy Spirit was bestowed on the ordinand for a sacred task. Here is clear evidence of the sacramental order of sacred symbols through which Christ is present to his community. Pseudo-Dionysius (around 500 AD) says that only three kinds of leaders belong to the ‘order of sacred ministers’ : those who purify (= deacons), those who enlighten (= priests) and those who perfect (= bishops).(15)

Such considerations make it clear that “both in the West and the East there were equivalent notions to sacramentality . . . There existed a widely received theology that understood cheirotonia or cheirothesia [the imposition of hands] as the act that mediated the empowerment and the grace of the Holy Spirit on the ordinand. It clearly entails the substance of ‘sacrament’ even if the word is not used” (Peter Hünermann).(16)

“From at least 400 AD a clear distinction between major and minor orders began to emerge . . . Ordination is understood in terms of what we today would call a sacrament” (A. C. Lochmann).(17)

In other words, Byzantine Christians recognised the ordination to the diaconate as a sacrament, just as baptism, confession, the eucharist and extreme unction were sacraments for them, even if they used other terms. Aimé Martimort is mistaken calling talk of sacrament an anachronism in this case.


(1) Heb 1,3.

(2) Col 1,15.

(3) John 14,7-9.

(4) John 7,16.

(5) A readible and up-to-date introduction to the sacraments can be found in R. P. McBrien, Catholicism, London 1980, vol. 2 pp. 731-745.

(6) Summa Theologica III, qq. 60-65.

(7) The expression used was ‘ex opere operato’ - ‘by the working of the deed itself’. Trent, Session VII, canons about the sacraments; Denz 1601-1613. This expression was misunderstood by later theologians who wrongly ascribed almost quasi-magical powers to the sacraments.

(8) Denz. 1774.

(9) B. J. Hilberath, ‘Das Amt der Diakonin: ein sakramentales Amt?’, in Diakonat. Ein Amt für Frauen in der Kirche - Ein frauengerechtes Amt?, Ostfildern 1997, pp. 212-218; here p. 218 (my own translation).

(10) ‘Verbum et elementum’: ‘Take away the word and what can water do? When the word joins the material substance, it becomes a sacrament’; Treatise on St. John 80,3; J. P. Migne, Patrologia Latina vol. 35, 1840.

(11) Gen 2,7.

(12) Acts 2,38; 8,12.16; 10,48; 19,5; Ambrose, De Spiritu Sancto 1,3, 39-45, J. P. Migne, Patrologia Latina vol. 16,742-743; Basil, De Spiritu Sancto 12,28, J. P. Migne, Patrologia Graeca, vol. 32, 116.

(13) Pope Leo XIII, ‘Apostolicae Curae’, 18 Sept 1896; Acta Sanctae Sedis 29 (1896/97) pp. 198ff.; Denz. 3315-3319. In the view of later studies by Church historians and ecumenical relations with the Church of England, it is not sure of this view is still retained by the Vatican.

(14) M.Noth, ‘Das alttestamentliche Bundesschliessen im Lichte eines Mari-textes’, Gesammelte Studien, Munich 1957, pp. 142-154.

(15) The Heavenly Hierarchy 5, 1, 3; J. P. Migne, Patrologia Graeca, vol. 3, 504C.

(16) P. Hünermann, ‘Stellungnahme zu den Anmerkungen von Professor Otto Semmelroth SJ betreffend Votum der Synode zum Weihediakonat der Frau’, Diaconia Christi 10, no 1 (1975) 33-38.

(17) A. Ch. Lochmann, Studien zum Diakonat der Frau, Siegen 1996, pp. 167, 189-190.

John Wijngaards

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

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