ASK FATHER: Why do priests impose hands during ordinations?

imposition of hands ordination priesthoodFrom a reader…


I attended the sacerdotal ordination of 5 priests for my diocese last Saturday.

After the bishop imposed hands, other priests participating in the Mass also imposed hands on the candidates. Since priests lack the fullness of the priesthood, what is the purpose and effect of the priests’ imposition of hands on the candidates?

The imposition of hands by the priests present at the ordination symbolizes the bond of ordained priesthood that all the men share.

However, on a related note, it seems that it was once possible for priests to ordain priests. There were a number of ancient references to this and we have documentation from the medieval period. In 1400 Pope Boniface I gave permission to the Abbot of S. Osith in Essex to ordain to the priesthood. The permission was revoked in 1403. The validity of their orders was not questioned. Today, however, the Church affirms that only bishops ordain priests.


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  1. Ben Yanke says:

    re: priests ordaining priests

    I have heard rumblings of this as well in the sacristy at ordinations in the past. Would it be reasonable to assume that if they could before, modern priests still could?

    [Authors are divided about the validity. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, thought that they were not valid. He, however, is not equivalent to the Magisterium. The Church gets to determine how sacraments are conferred. Were such a thing attempted now it would most certainly be considered invalid.]

  2. Doesn’t an abbot resemble a bishop in certain respects? Hasn’t this resemblance been historically recognized in that abbots have used symbols of epsicopal office (e.g., the shepherd’s crook and mitre)? Thus it seems to make sense to grant the faculty of ordination to an abbot, more so than to grant it to the average priest on the street. I assume the permission in the case referenced was based on some exigency, since to make the abbot a bishop so that he could then ordain would seem to me to take him out of the religious life. As I understand it, making a religious a bishop effectively relieves him of his vow of obedience to lawful authority within the order, since it is incompatible with the duties of a bishop.

  3. Regarding priests as “extraordinary ministers” of diaconal and presbyteral ordination: (at end of article — and “recently” is the date of publication of the encyclopedia in 1911):

    “One most extraordinary series of concessions, to which attention has recently been called in the English Historical Review (Jan., 1911, p. 124), where the documents are printed, first bestows upon the Abbot of St. Osyth the right to use the mitre and other pontificals (Bliss, V, 334), and then gives power to confer not only the minor orders and subdiaconate but the diaconate and priesthood. This grant made by Boniface IX, in 1397, during the great Schism, was cancelled by the same pope six years afterwards at the request of the Bishop of London.” (refers to Antipope John XXIII, 1410-1415)

    “Pope Boniface IX granted licence on 29 March, 1397, for the abbot to use the mitre, ring and other pontifical insignia and to give solemn benediction provided no bishop or papal legate be present, (fn. 32) and on 1 February, 1400, for him to confer on the canons all minor orders and those of deacon, subdeacon and priest; (fn. 33) but on 6 February, 1403, he revoked (fn. 34) these indults at the petition of the bishop of London, who represented that they were prejudicial to his jurisdiction. Pope John XXIII, however, on 14 April, 1412, granted (fn. 35) licence for the abbot to use the insignia and give the benediction.”

  4. ce lathrop says:

    No, someone in the Latin Church, as happens far too often, had his own idea and went with it. It matters not what a Pope once authorized; priests cannot ordain, period, and never could.

  5. aquinas138 says:

    Anita Moore, there have been varying opinions over the centuries in the Western Church about what, exactly, distinguishes a bishop from a priest. In the Middle Ages, a common opinion was that a bishop was basically just a priest with jurisdiction. If this is true, then certainly an abbot (who was ordained at least a priest) could extraordinarily be given such jurisdiction. That said, after Vatican II, it seems settled that the episcopate is sacramentally distinct from the priesthood (and why post-conciliar texts more frequently speak of a man being “ordained” a bishop than being “consecrated,” which is historically much more common).

  6. jbazchicago says:

    It would seem there was one doctrinal change at the Council, from that of subdeacons, deacon, and priest as major orders, to deacon, priest, bishop, I could never understand this since Scripture never speaks of “levels” of priesthood after general imposition of hands, does it?

    The ordination Rite seems to give clues I would think. Bishops are/were “consecrated” and oil was poured on their head which is similar to the anointing of kings in the Old Testament and a regular practice up until recently. So it would seem that the presbyterial character simply gave the candidate as bishop the authority to govern, without affecting his ontological character? It seems history could be added up to make that conclusion. If a priest is simply imbued with authority, all priests naturally have the ability to ordain I’d think.

    Lastly, the fact al this changed and redirected and limited powers to very few (bishops) wouldn’t that make Vatican II a highly clerical council, more than Trent?

  7. jbazchicago: the shift in emphasis begins with Pius XII’s 1947 “Sacramentum Ordinis.” (

    Christ shared His priesthood (sacerdotium) with His Apostles, and their successors are the bishops (episkopoi – overseers), but He did not directly establish the presbyterate (elders) or diaconate (ministers) — these two, not mentioned in the Gospels but mentioned by St Paul and in Acts as well as in the Epistle of St James and the First Epistle of St Peter (link below), are “of Apostolic origin”, though the presbyterate shares the bishop’s sacerdotium, as can already be read in St Ignatius of Antioch’s Epistle to the Smyrnaeans around 107 or 110 AD: “Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it.” (Chapter 8 —

    “Priests in the New Testament”:

  8. Matt R says:

    It could very well be a hold over from the laying of hands done by the bishops of the other house churches in Rome.

    I think one element in ordinations by an abbot who is not also a bishop is that it always required papal permission. It is as if the pope unlocks a power within him which he, the abbot and priest, has in potency, because he is first a priest and second capable of being a bishop, the ordinary minister, especially since he has jurisdiction. That is not a character imprinted on the soul, but it is different than, say, if Fr. Z. were to ask for this permission in an alternate timeline. This is the same principle as the one behind the now–routine delegation of the power to administer Confirmation given by the bishop to parish priests.

  9. Imrahil says:

    About this ordination by an abbot, we should note that it was (if I am rightly informed) granted only once, and the grant was removed after few years at the request of the responsible diocesan bishop. It is true that the priests in question were not re-ordained; still the easiest solution from a systematical point of view is that that was just a mistake.

    The grant to ordain deacons has been given to more abbots and for longer time. However, if I am rightly informed, the question whether any person is or is not validly a deacon (as opposed to say a subdeacon) does not ever raise validity issues.

    (About the right to ordain subdeacons, though reserved to Bishops in General, the consensus is pretty much that the Pope can grant it to mere priests; which is certain for the minor orders.)

  10. Imrahil says:

    Dear jbazchicago,

    whether the ordination/consecration to episcopacy was long a contested issue, especially since as great a theologian as St. Thomas denied it. The instinct of the Church, the ritual of Consecration (with a phrase like “Ungatur, et consecratur caput tuum coelesti benedictione, in ordine [!] Pontificali”), the Council of Trent (though it did not explicitly settle the issue) all speak for what was later, at Vatican II, officially taught. The Catholic Encyclopedia states with some astonishment that “the view that episcopacy is not a sacramental order finds able defenders even now”, i. e. before Pius XII. and Vatican II – but the consensus had long been what was afterwards taught.

    Of Course, the fact that there are levels within the Sacrament of Orders has been taught dogmatically at Trent. Trent was just not specific which these were.

  11. jbazchicago says:

    Ms. Ross, not sure if you’re just showing off what you know, but you neither added or subtracted from what I said or queried., but we are all really impressed down here, I can tell you that much.

  12. Matt R says:

    Validity issues due arise in the diaconate. Were an Anglican deacon to convert, he would be at least conditionally ordained deacon, assuming he cannot prove his orders are valid. Graham Leonard was not ordained deacon, because apparently he proved that he had valid orders.

    As far as prudence goes in the delegation of ordaining priests, that is different, and so yes, it does seem to be imprudent, but I cannot imagine that the church would be correct in letting the priests be if the pope had erred, presuming he could err in this in the first place.

    The subdiaconate is not definitively a holy order, at least in the full sense of that phrase, but it is a major order, and it is not a minor order.

  13. Matt R says:

    The power is in potency for all priestd but requires a bishop, if not the bishop of Rome himself, to actualize it if one is sitll a priest. I think that the consecration to episcopacy has to be a sacrament, especially since it has been defined as such by Vatican II, but it is always jurisdictional. It actualizes fullness of priestly power, and it gives him authority to unlock it in others. This applies also to cases where absolution may not be given without recourse to the Ordinary or to the Holy See. The bishop thus in sacrament and in authority conforms closely to Christ. Indeed, this is important, for St. Thomas examined Christian perfection in light of the bishop.

    Priests are ordained with chrism in the new rite, because this is consistent with the episcopal consecration. In the traditional rite, the oil of catechumens is used. So, in that sense the traditional rite is more clerical, to borrow your words.

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