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The Early Church Fathers on the Sacrament of Holy Orders or the Priesthood.


  • Early Church Fathers
  • From the Scriptures



  1. Pope St. Innocent I, (A.D. c.350-417)
    St. Augustine of Hippo, (A.D. 354-428)
    St. Cyril of Alexandria, (A.D. 376-444)
    Pope St. Leo I, ( A.D. c.391-461)
    Theodoret of Cyrus or Cyrrhus, (A.D. 393-458)
    Canons Of The Apostles, (A.D. c. 400)
    Pope St. Gelasius I, (unknown - A.D. 496)


Pope St. Innocent I, (A.D. c.350-417) was pope from (A.D. 401 to 417), he lost no opportunity in maintaining and extending the authority of the Roman See as the ultimate resort for the settlement of all disputes.

"Let the periods fixed by our ancestors be observed: and let no one be made quickly a lector, quickly an acolyte, quickly a deacon, quickly a priest. . . Since therefore, it has by an undoubted definition been shown you, who ought to be admitted, or who rejected, you will have to choose out of all those whom your condescension sees are not to be repudiated, those whom you may make clerics."

Ad Felicem Episcopum, col. 1261, Labi). T. ii.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Page 223

St. Augustine of Hippo, (A.D. 354-428), North African; born in Tagaste in A.D. 354, baptized in Milan in A.D. 387, ordained a priest in A.D. 391 and appointed bishop of Hippo in A.D. 395, Augustine is one of our greatest theologians. His numerous works display genius of the highest order, and have ever had great weight in the Christian churches. He is also a Doctor of the Church.

"What some of these men, forced by truth, have begun to say, "He that recedes from the Church does not forfeit baptism, but yet loses the right of conferring it," is evidently in many ways a useless and foolish opinion.

First, because there is no cause shown why one that cannot lose baptism itself, can lose the right of conferring it. For each is a sacrament, and each is given to man by a certain consecration: Baptism when a man is baptized, the other when he is ordained; and for this cause, in the Catholic Church, neither [sacrament] is allowed to be repeated.

For if, at any time, the (Donatist) prelates return to us from that party, they have, for the sake of the blessing of peace, after renouncing their error of schism, been received; and if it seemed proper that they should exercise the same functions as they had previously exercised, they have not been reordained; but as their baptism, so did their ordination remain entire; for in their separation was the evil, — which by the peace of unity was corrected, — not in the sacraments, which, wheresoever they are, are the same.

And when it is judged expedient for the Church, that such prelates, on returning to Catholic fellowship, should not exercise therein their honors, the sacraments themselves of ordination are not taken away from them, but remain with them. And for this cause hands are not imposed upon them with the people, lest an injury be done, not to the man, but to the sacrament itself."

T. ix. L. ii. Contr. Epist. Fundam. n. 28, col. 105. So passim, see, for instance, Ib. L. i. Contr. Donat. de Bapt. n. 2, col. 159.

"Aerius having fallen into the heresy of the Arians, added some dogmas of his own. ... He also said that a priest ought not to be distinguished from a bishop by any difference."

T. viii. Lib. de Hceres. liii. col. 55.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Page 222-223

St. Cyril of Alexandria, (A.D. 376-444), Egyptian; bishop, theologian and Doctor of the Church. He succeeded Theophilus in the patriarchal see of Alexandria, in A.D. 412, and was the great champion of orthodoxy against Nestorius, against whom the general council of Ephesus was called, in A.D. 431 and in which St. Cyril presided.

"And should any one choose to seek out the orders of the Church, as prefigured in the law, he would be surprised, and not without cause. For to bishops, as being appointed to rule, and to those who fill a lower rank, to priests I mean, has the altar been entrusted, also the things within the veil; and to them also may fittingly be said, "And they shall guard their priest's office {Numbers 3:10)." And to the deacons this applies: "They shall have charge of the coverings of the tabernacle, and of all the vessels thereof, and the watching of the people." Do they not cry aloud, commanding in the churches, when the people ought to say the hymn, and stand orderly, and often enjoin them to keep still, and excite them to prayers, and when the unbloody sacrifice is being celebrated, do they not carry the more sacred vessels? . . . but the laity is withheld from every sacred office and the word threatens the extremest punishment against those who seize on this honor."

T. i. L. xiii. de Ador. in Sp. et Ver. p. 454.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Page 224

Pope St. Leo I, ( A.D. c.391-461), also known as Leo the Great, bishop of Rome (A.D. 440 to 461); an Italian aristocrat, remembered theologically for issuing the Tome of Leo, a document which was foundational to the debates of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon.

"That, therefore, which we know was, with more earnest care, observed by our fathers, that do we wish to be adhered to by you also, that the sacerdotal, or levitical, ordination be not celebrated indiscriminately on all days. . . . For besides the authority of a custom, which we know comes from apostolic teaching, the sacred Scripture also shows, how, when the Apostles were, by the command of the Holy Ghost, sending Paul and Barnabas to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles, they fasting and praying imposed hands upon them: that we may understand, with what religious attention both of those who give, and of those who receive, care is to be taken lest the sacrament of so great a benediction seem to be negligently accomplished."

Ep. ix. Ad Dioscorum, Ep Alexand. c.i. page 629.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Page 225

Theodoret of Cyrus or Cyrrhus, (A.D. 393-458), Greek; an influential author, theologian, and Christian bishop of Cyrrhus, Syria (A.D. 423-457). He played a pivotal role in many early Byzantine church controversies that led to various ecumenical acts and schisms. His friendship for Nestorius embroiled him, for a time, with his great contemporary, St. Cyril of Alexandria.

"Though tens of thousands of men are baptized by one priest, they diminish not the grace of that priest; and though very many have hands laid on them by the chief priests, and receive the priestly dignity, they lessen not the gift of that chief priest."

T. i. Qucest. xix. in. Num. p. 233.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Page 224

Canons Of The Apostles (A.D. c. 400) the Apostolic Canons or Ecclesiastical Canons of the Same Holy Apostles is a collection of ancient ecclesiastical decrees concerning the government and discipline of the Early Christian Church, first found as last chapter of the eighth book of the Apostolic Constitutions and belonging to genre of the Church Orders. Thought to have been really compiled by the Apostles, whilst, by others, it is repudiated, and referred to the close of the fifth century.

"Let a bishop be ordained by two or three bishops."

Can i. col. 25, Labbe, t. i.

"Let a presbyter, deacon, and the other clerics, be ordained by one bishop."

Cann. ii. col. 25, Labbe t.i.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Page 220

Pope St. Gelasius I, (unknown - A.D. 496) was pope from A.D. 492 until his death in A.D. 496; prolific writer whose style placed him on the cusp between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. His reign was characterized by a call for strict orthodoxy.

"No less do we prohibit priests to go beyond their bounds; that they assume not presumptuously to themselves the things due to the episcopal dignity (summit); that they are not to seize to themselves the power of making the chrism, or the episcopal seal; ... let them remember that on no account is it allowed them to have the right of making a subdeacon, or an acolyte, without the chief pontiff; and let them be assured, that if they think that, of their own choice, they may perform anything which belongs specially to the episcopal ministry, they will be (are) at once deprived of the dignity of the priesthood, and of sacred communion. . . . The ordinations also of priests and deacons ought not to be performed except at certain seasons, and on certain days, that is, during the fast of the fourth, seventh, and tenth months."

Ep. ad Episc. Lucan. cap. vi. xi.,col. 1189-91, T. iv. Labb.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Page 225



Holy Orders is the sacrament through which the mission entrusted by Christ to his apostles continues to be exercised in the Church until the end of time: thus it is the sacrament of apostolic ministry. It includes three degrees: episcopate (the bishop), presbyterate (the priest), and diaconate (the deacon).


The function of the bishops' ministry was handed over in a subordinate degree to priests so that they might be appointed in the order of the priesthood and be co-workers of the episcopal order for the proper fulfillment of the apostolic mission that had been entrusted to it by Christ.


Both bishops and priest, liturgically act, "in the person of Christ, the man", in the service of God and for the salvation of souls. Deacons share in Christ's mission and grace in a special way.



The Church's Scriptures that support the Sacrament of Holy Orders or the Priesthood:


The Great Commission

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in Heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age."


Matthew 28:16,18-20

The Institution of the Lord's Supper according to Luke.

14 And when the hour came, he sat at table, and the apostles with him. 15 And he said to them,
"I have earnestly desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer; 16 for I tell you I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God." 17 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, "Take this, and divide it among yourselves; 18 for I tell you that from now on
I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes." 19 And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me."

Luke 22:14-19

Jesus sends His Apostles, His first priests, to preach the Gospel.

21 Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you."

John 20:21

Matthias chosen to succeed Judas as the twelfth Apostle.

17 For he was numbered among us, and was allotted his share in this ministry. . . . 21 So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us— one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection." 23 And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. 24 And they prayed and said, "Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men, show which one of these two thou hast chosen 25 to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside, to go to his own place." 26 And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was enrolled with the eleven apostles.

Acts 1:17, 21-26

The twelve Apostles ask the fellow body of disciples to chose seven more to serve the Church; and the Apostles ordain or lay hands on the chosen ones.

2 And the twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, "It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3 Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty.
But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word." 5 And what they said pleased the whole multitude, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands upon them.

Acts 6:2-6

Barnabas and Saul Commissioned

1 Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.


Acts 13:1-3

The Apostles Preach in Cyprus

4 So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia; and from there they sailed to Cyprus. 5 When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them.

Acts 13:4-5

Paul bears witness to his priesthood and speaks to the Ephesian Elders and reminds them of their key role as overseers of the Church

17 And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church. 18 And when they came to him, he said to them: "You yourselves know how I lived among you all the time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials which befell me through the plots of the Jews; 20 how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance to God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. 22 And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, bound in the Spirit, not knowing what shall befall me there; 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. 24 But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may accomplish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. 25 And now, behold, I know that all you among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom will see my face no more. 26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, 27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. 28 Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God which he obtained with the blood of his own Son.

Acts 20:17-28

Paul emphasizes the importance of priests in the Church so all may be saved.

14 But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? 15 And how can men preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!"

Romans 10:14-15

The ministry of the Apostles

1 This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. 2 Moreover it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.

1 Corinthians 4:1-2

The Church is made up of many types of callings ... one of which is the priest.

28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?

1 Corinthians 12:28-29

The gifts of the Holy Spirit vary and given to various members in the Church.

11 And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers.

Ephesians 4:11

Paul encourages his fellow priests not to neglect their priestly calling by their ordination or laying of hands by the council of elders.


14 Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the council of elders laid their hands upon you. 15 Practice these duties, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. 16 Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.

1 Timothy 4:14-16

Paul reminds his fellow priest of their ordination day.

6 Hence I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands;

2 Timothy 1:6

Paul encourages his fellow priests to seek others that can continue to faithfully carry out their priestly ministry.

1 You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, 2 and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.


2 Timothy 2:1-2

Titus appoints bishops in Crete while correcting incorrect teaching.

5 This is why I left you in Crete, that you might amend what was defective, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you.


Titus 1:5

Those called to the priesthood are chosen (among men) by the Church to be priests.

1 For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. 3 Because of this he is bound to offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. 4 And one does not take the honor upon himself, but he is called by God, just as Aaron was.

Hebrews 5:1-4

The pastors and priests of the Church are accountable to those entrusted their care: their parish.

7 Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith. . . . . 17 Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account. Let them do this joyfully, and not sadly, for that would be of no advantage to you.

Hebrews 13:7, 17

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