History of Ordination within the Catholic Church
A selection from: Eucharist and the Early Church
By Rev. Rich Hasselbach
For the first three centuries of its existence, the church existed without churches – buildings in which to gather. In the earliest Jewish Christian communities in Jerusalem, Judea, and throughout the Levant, Christians celebrated the Lord’s Supper in the homes of members of the community. These home churches were small in comparison to the large groups of worshipers that would gather in the large church buildings, the basilicas, which were built in Constantine’s time and thereafter. Home churches tended to be smaller, more intimate gatherings of friends and believers, at which all the brothers and sisters, of whatever social rank or standing, were welcome.
The early church was not hierarchic, though it was not without its structure. In Paul’s church, and because of his letters his is the church we know most about, ministry was not a function of office, but of gift of the Spirit. Members of the community were called to exercise different gifts through the spirit, as they were given. …
In Paul’s church there was a radical equality of all in Christ, including an equality of the sexes. There truly were no Jews or Greeks, no slaves or free, no man or woman, but all were one in Christ. Consequently the gifts of all were recognized and allowed to flourish. There was no need for ordination – indeed there was, as yet, no cultic priesthood. The brothers and sisters gathered to share a meal, literally and ritually, and to remember the Lord. The entire community celebrated, the entire community prayed, and if there were a presider at all, that person was called from the community to lead it in prayer.
Gradual clericalization and emergence of the monarchic episcopacy
Gradually, especially after Paul’s death, a natural leadership emerged in the communities Paul founded. In later letters attributed to Paul there is mention of elders ‘(presbeteroi), and leaders (episkopoi), though no distinction is drawn between the two, and there is certainly no claim of authority based on a call from the apostle through ‘ordination.’ In fact, there is NO mention of “ordination” in the New Testament. And during Paul’s lifetime he never asserted an authority of coercion, never attempted to impose uniformity or conformity, or centralized authority (his or anyone else’s) on the communities he founded. Paul was content to trust in the Spirit to guarantee unity, precisely through the diverse gifts of the members of the community, and in particular through the “greatest” of the gifts of the spirit – agapic (selfless) love.
Women, it is clear, played an important role in the early church – Paul addresses women, as well as men, as his synergoi, his “fellow workers.” At the end of his letter to the Romans, Paul acknowledges twenty-nine leading Christians in the Roman community to whom he sends greetings – ten of them were women. He calls Phoebe, a “woman active in the Church in Cenchreae, a diakonos, indicating that she was the leader of a home church. He writes of the woman Junia as being “distinguished among the Apostles,” suggesting that she was instrumental in spreading the faith, and eminent in the Christian community – in every respect Paul’s equal.
Women in the early church were welcomed to share their gifts as the Spirit gave them; many women were considered prophets, and teachers, both considered higher gifts than the gift of leadership. Though cultural biases against women would gradually take root, in the earliest Christian communities women were accepted as the equals of the likes of the Apostle Paul, their ministry welcomed and unrestricted.
Over the course of the first hundred and fifty years of Christianity the function of presbyter and bishop slowly developed into a clerical caste of professional ministers over and against the “laity.” Bishops, at first merely the informal leaders among the many priests in a community, took on increasing authority, especially after the conversion of Constantine, when the monarchic episcopacy began to develop, and bishops emerged as powerful authorities in both civil and ecclesial society. More gradually still, the bishops of the great cities of the Roman Empire, Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople, emerged as the Episcopal powerbrokers and Rome, claiming association with both Sts. Peter and Paul, claimed central authority. What had been born as a gathering of people proclaiming the Lordship of Christ had become the world’s first fully functioning bureaucracy – the Institutional Church.
What the past can teach us: Back to the future
What is essential in the Church can be found in its origins, and those origins also point the way, at least potentially, to the church of the future. There can be no Christianity without the Eucharist – and that meal belongs to the people of God as a gift from the Spirit. As Christians are asked to go without the Eucharist because there are no priests to preside at the Lord’s Table, it is important to remember that long before there was a professional, hierarchical priesthood, Christians gathered to remember the Lord and experienced his presence in bread broken and shared. The Eucharist cannot and must not be held hostage by a moribund hierarchy.
The early church can show us a different, yet completely authentic, way to be church. As early Christian communities allowed ministry to emerge from within it – not as offices of authority, but as ministries of loving service — so small Christian communities today, meeting in homes or other informal places, can call one of their own to lead, to preside at the Lord’s Supper while remaining completely faithful to the tradition. Both men and women may receive the call when the gift of leadership is discerned – a refreshing return to the fundamental equality of all the sons and daughters of God in Christ.
We do not need an ordained priest for a “valid” Eucharist – we merely need a community of faith calling one of its own to lead it in prayerful celebration of the Lord’s meal.
[Note from the Diocese: those “called by the community”, as described above, are some of the ones the Catholic Diocese of One Spirit opens to ordination as community priests, thus blending the informality of the early Church with the often-felt desire to be a part of a limited structure and to be acknowledged in today’s society. While we may not “need” an “ordained” priest, such ordination has a historic and cultural value, and it acknowledges not just the community’s validation, but that of a larger community within the Church as well. It also provides a sense of belonging to the community and to its ordained leaders.]
In these communities all should be welcome at the table as all were welcome at the Lord’s own table. We should particularly welcome those shut out by the Institutional church. The apostles were those believers in the Risen Lord who, inspired by the Spirit, zealously worked to create a path of holiness for all God’s beloved creation. Their mission was to extend the compassionate, loving, hope filled message of Christ to the ends of the earth. We are their successors NOT when a bishop with the proper ‘apostolic succession’ lays hands on us, but when we do what the apostles did: when we bring good news, and build communities of hope and healing through the power of the Spirit. This is radical Christianity – a faithful return to the root of the tradition.
Used with permission © 2005 Rev. Richard Hasselbach firstname.lastname@example.org