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


  • Early Church Fathers
  • From the Scriptures



  1. St. Ignatius of Antioch, (A.D. 50-107)
    Pope St. Clement I of Rome, (A.D. 60-97)
    St. Justin Martyr, (A.D. 100-163)
    St. Theophilus of Antioch, (unknown - A.D. c.186)
    St. Irenæus of Lyons, (A.D. 125-202)
    St. Clement of Alexandria, (A.D. 150-220)
    Tertullian, (A.D. 160-218)
    St. Hippolytus of Rome, (A.D. 170-236)
    Origen of Alexandria, (A.D. 184-253)


St. Ignatius of Antioch, (A.D. 50-107), Syrian; ecclesiastical writer, bishop, martyr. A disciple of St. John, the Apostle; he was bishop of Antioch, in which see he succeeded St. Peter, or, as others think, Evodius. He is supposed to have governed that church for about forty years. He suffered martyrdom at Rome in the year 107.

"I exhort you that ye study to do all things in a divine unanimity, the bishop holding presidency in the place of God; and the presbyters in the place of the council of Apostles; and the deacons most dear to me, entrusted with the service of Jesus Christ.... Be ye made one with the bishop, and with those who preside for a pattern and lesson of incorruption."

Ep. ad Magnes. n. 6.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Page 212-213

Pope St. Clement I of Rome, (A.D. 60-97), Roman; Pope from A.D. 88-97; martyr. That St. Clement was honored by the friendship of the great Apostle, St. Peter, is not doubted. There are good reasons to believe that he was designated by that Apostle as his successor in the see of Rome. The authenticity and genuineness of St. Clement's First Epistle to the Corinthians are acknowledged. We learn from Eusebius and from other writers, that it was publicly read in many churches. This second epistle is the oldest extant Christian homily we have attributed to him, (A.D. 150).

"There are proper liturgies (sacred offices) delivered to the chief priest; and a proper place assigned to the priests; and there are proper ministrations incumbent on the Levites; and the layman is adjudged to the appointments of laymen."

"Let every one of you, brethren, give thanks to God in his proper station, with a good conscience, with gravity, not going beyond the prescribed rule of his sacred office (liturgy)."

"The Apostles have preached to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ from God. Christ, therefore, was sent by God, and the Apostles by Christ. . . . Preaching through countries and cities, they appointed their first-fruits, having proved them by the spirit, bishops and deacons."

"Our Apostles knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that contention would arise regarding the name (or dignity) of the episcopate. And for this cause, having a perfect foreknowledge, they appointed the aforesaid (bishops and deacons), and then gave direction, in what manner, when they should die, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry (liturgy). Wherefore, we account that they who have been appointed by them, or afterwards by other eminent men, the whole Church consenting, and who have ministered blamelessly to the flock of Christ, with humility . . . that such men are not to be, without injustice, thrown out of the ministry (liturgy). For it would be no small sin in us, if we should cast off from the episcopacy those who offer up the gifts blamelessly and holily."

Ep. i. ad Corinth, n. 40-44.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Page 211-212

St. Justin Martyr, (A.D. 100-163), Samaritan; born in Sichem (Naplousia) in Palestine; a platonic philosopher, apologist, and martyr for the faith; he was a convert to Catholic Christianity in A.D. 133. He wrote two Apologies for the Christian religion, one addressed to Antoninus, the other to Marcus Aurelius. He was martyred at Rome in the year 163.

After having thus washed him who has been convinced, and has expressed his agreement with us, we lead him to those who are called brethren, where they are assembled, that we may earnestly make prayers in common, both for ourselves and for the baptized (illuminated) person, and for all others in every place; that, having learned the truth, we may be found by works, good administrators, and observers of the commandments, that so we may obtain the eternal salvation. Having ceased from the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss: after which, to him who presides over the brethren bread is brought, and a cup of wine mixed with water. And he, having taken them, sends up praise and glory to the Father of all things, through the name of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and employs much time in offering up thanks for having been deemed worthy of these things by Him; when he hath ended the prayers and the thanksgiving, all the people present express their assent by saying, Amen, which, in the Hebrew tongue, signifies, so be it. He who presides having given thanks (eucharistized), and all the people having expressed their assent, they who are called amongst us deacons, give to each of those present a portion of the bread, and of the wine mixed with water, over which the thanksgiving has been made, and carry away a portion to those who are absent.

66. And this food is called amongst us Eucharist: of which no one is allowed to partake, but he who believes that what we teach is true, and has been washed in the laver (of baptism) which is for remission of sins and unto regeneration, and who so lives as Christ has delivered. For we do not receive these things as common bread and common drink; but in the (same) manner as Jesus Christ, our Savior, being made flesh by the word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation; even so we have been taught, that the food over which thanksgiving has been made (eucharistized) by the prayer of the word which came from Him, — by which (food) our blood and flesh are nourished by transmutation, — is both flesh and blood of that same incarnate Jesus. For the Apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have delivered, that Jesus gave them this injunction: that, having taken bread, and given thanks, He said: Do this in remembrance of me; this is my body; and that, in like manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said: This is my blood; and that He distributed (them) to these alone. And this, too, the wicked demons have in imitation commanded to be done in the mysteries of Mithra. For, that bread and a cup of water are set forth, in the rites appointed for the initiated, ye either know, or may learn."

Apol. i. n. 5-6, pp. 82-3.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Page 192-194

St. Theophilus of Antioch, (unknown - A.D. c.186), Patriarch of Antioch, born pagan but embraced Christianity by studying the Holy Scriptures, especially the prophetical books. Wrote against idols, made contributions to Christian literature, polemics, exegetics, and apologetics.

"Know then that I have made Saturus a lector, and Optatus, the confessor a subdeacon; whom we had already, by common advice, made next to the clergy."

Ep. xxiv. Presbyter.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Page 217

"This too we see to be derived from divine authority, that a priest be chosen in presence of the people, in sight of all, and be approved worthy and fit by public judgment and testimony, as in Numbers, the Lord commanded Moses (Numbers 25:26). God commanded a priest to be appointed before all the synagogue, that is, He instructs and shows that the ordinations of priests ought only to be solemnized with the knowledge of the people standing by, that so by the people being present, either the crimes of the wicked may be detected, or the merits of the good proclaimed, and the ordination be just and lawful, which has been examined with the suffrage and judgment of all. This is afterwards observed in the Acts of the Apostles, in accordance with the divine teaching, when Peter speaks to the people of ordaining a bishop to replace Judas (Acts 1:15); and we notice that the Apostles observed this, not only in the ordinations of bishops and priests, but also in those of deacons (Acts 6:2). This surely was done so diligently and carefully, the whole people being called together, that no unworthy person might creep into the ministry of the altar, or to the priestly office."

Ep. Ixviii. Laedio.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Page 217-218

St. Clement of Alexandria, (A.D. 150-220), Greek; theologian, a scholar of Pantaenus, to whom he succeeded as head of the Catechetical School at Alexandria, Egypt. His writings display great acquaintance with the Gentile philosophy. He wrote with the express design of hiding the mysteries of the Christian religion from the Pagans, and the uninitiated, while at the same time, laboring to show the immense practical superiority of the Christian code of morals over that of every Pagan sect and system of philosophy.

"But, that Paul taught plainly those things which he had also learned, and this not to those only who were with him, but to all his hearers, he himself makes manifest. For, at Miletus, having convoked the bishops and presbyters, who were from Ephesus, and the other neighboring cities, for that he was hastening to Jerusalem to celebrate the Pentecost, testifying many things unto them, and declaring what must needs befall him at Jerusalem, he added: I know that ye shall see my face no more. (Acts 20)"

Adv. Hæres. L. iii. c. 14, n. 2, p. 201.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Page 213

St. Clement of Alexandria, (A.D. 150-220), Greek; theologian, a scholar of Pantaenus, to whom he succeeded as head of the Catechetical School at Alexandria, Egypt. His writings display great acquaintance with the Gentile philosophy. He wrote with the express design of hiding the mysteries of the Christian religion from the Pagans, and the uninitiated, while at the same time, laboring to show the immense practical superiority of the Christian code of morals over that of every Pagan sect and system of philosophy.

"The degrees in the Church on earth of bishops, presbyters, deacons, are, in my opinion, imitations of the angelic glory, and of that dispensation which is said in Scripture to await all who, walking in the steps of the Apostles, live in perfect righteousness according to the Gospel."

Strom. L. vi. n. 13, p. 793.
See also Paedag. L. iii. c. 12, p. 309.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Page 213

Tertullian, (A.D. 160-218), North African; ecclesiastical writer, Christian apologist and lawyer, son of a centurion and contemporary of St. Irenæus, a native and citizen of Carthage. The zeal and ability with which he defended the Christian cause, and vindicated its faith and discipline, have immortalized his name, though it has suffered by his adoption, around the year A.D. 200, of some of the Montanist's errors, whose cause he is thought to have supported until his death. His works are numerous, and are written with great ability and erudition, but in an harsh style.

"To conclude my little work, it remains that I give an admonition also concerning the right rule of giving and receiving baptism. The right of giving it indeed hath the chief priest, which is the bishop: then the presbyters and deacons, yet not without the authority of the bishop, for the honor of the Church, which honor being preserved, peace is preserved. Otherwise laymen have also the right, for that which is equally received may equally be given, unless the name disciples denotes at once bishops, or priests, or deacons. The word of the Lord ought not to be hidden from any; wherefore also baptism, which is equally derived from God, may be administered by all: but how much more incumbent on laymen is the duty of reverence and modesty! Seeing that these things belong to superiors, let them not assume to themselves the office of the bishopric set apart for bishops. Emulation is the mother of divisions. A most holy Apostle has said, that all things are lawful, but all things are not expedient. Let it in truth suffice thee to use such things in thy necessities, whensoever the circumstances of place, or time, or person compel thee."

De Baptismo, n. 17, pp. 230-31.
See also De Prceserip. n. 41, cf. n. 32.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Page 213-214.

St. Hippolytus of Rome, (A.D. 170-236), Roman; bishop and martyr, probably a scholar of St. Irenæus of Lyons.

"The emperor does not despise the generals that are under him, nor governors despise their subjects; and without leaders, a kingdom cannot stand: but neither let the bishop conduct himself haughtily towards the deacons, or the presbyters; nor the presbyter towards the laity; for the existence of a congregation depends on both; for both bishops and presbyters are the priests of certain others. . . . To be a Christian is in our power, but to be an Apostle, or a bishop, or anything of the like, is not in our power, but in God's, who is the giver of His free gifts."

De Charismatibus, Traditio Apostolica, Gall. T. ii. p. 502, n. 1 (Fabr. T. i. p. 247).

"The bishop gives a blessing and does not receive it; he ordains, he offers. he receives a blessing from bishops, but by no means from priests. The bishop deposes every cleric that deserves deposition, except a bishop, for one (bishop) only is not sufficient (to depose a bishop). The presbyter gives a blessing, and does not receive it: he receives a blessing from a bishop and from a fellow-priest: he imposes hands, but does not ordain; he deposes not, but excommunicates those under him that may come under that punishment. The deacon blesses not, he gives not a blessing, but receives it from a bishop and from a presbyter; he baptizes not, he offers not, but when the bishop or the presbyter has offered, he distributes to the people, not as a priest, but as ministering to priests."

Ib. p. 507, n. 17. This passage is also found in the Apost. Const., lib. viii. n. 28.

"For you know undoubtedly that bishops have been nominated by us, and presbyters, and deacons, with prayer and laying on of hands, pointing out by the difference in the names, the difference of the offices (things). Having been taught by the Lord the series of things, we have assigned to the bishops what belongs to the high-priesthood, to the presbyters what belongs to the priesthood, to the deacons what belongs to the ministering unto both; that what appertains to divine worship may be celebrated in a pure manner. For it is not lawful for a deacon to offer up sacrifice, to baptize, or to give the greater or the lesser blessing; nor for the presbyter to perform ordinations. For it is not a holy thing for the order to be reversed; for He is not the God of confusion, that inferiors may tyrannically usurp what belongs to their superiors. For such do not war against us, or against the bishops, but against the universal bishop and the high-priest of the Father, Jesus Christ, our Lord. For by Moses, the beloved of God, high-priests, and priests, and Levites were appointed; by the Saviour we the thirteen Apostles; but by the Apostles, I James and I Clement and the rest with us, not to give a list of all. But in common by each of us (were appointed) presbyters, and deacons, and subdeacons, and lectors. Wherefore, the first high-priest, the only-begotten Christ, did not seize to Himself that honor, but was constituted by the Father. He having become man for us, and offering to His own God and Father the spiritual sacrifice before His passion, to us alone did He give commission to do this, although there were others like unto us who had believed in Him; but not by any means was everyone that believed. at once appointed a priest, or in possession of the dignity of the high-priesthood. But after His ascension, we offering up, according to His appointment, a pure and unbloody sacrifice, set apart bishops, and presbyters, and deacons seven in number, of whom Stephen was one, that blessed martyr . . .he never appears in the exercise of what does not appertain to the deaconship, neither offering sacrifice, or imposing hands on any one, but keeping to his deacon's order to the last."

De Charism. Trad. Apostol. n. 26, Galland, t. ii. p. 512. This passage, with slight additions, is found in the Apost. Const. l. viii. n. 46.

Similar passages occur in other writers of the third century.
See Archelai Disp. cum Manete, Galland. t. iii. p. 605, n. 51, col. 2.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Page 215-217

Origen of Alexandria, (A.D. 184-253), Alexandrian; born in Egypt, philosopher, theologian, writer.

"Besides these which are more general, there is one thing due to the widow, of whom the Church takes care; another to the deacon; and another to the presbyter; and what is due to the bishops is the weightiest, and will if not rendered be required, and avenged by the Saviour of the whole Church."

T. i. De Oratione, n. 28, p. 253.
See also De Oratione L. iii. Contr. Celt. n. 30. pp. 466-67.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Page 214

"Does thou think that they who exercise the ministry, and glory in the order of the priesthood, walk according to this order, and do all things which beseem their order?
In like manner, deacons, do they walk according to the order of their ministry? Then, whence is it that we often hear men blaspheme, and say, see "What a bishop." or, "What a presbyter." or "What a deacon?" Is not this said, when either a priest, or a minister of God, has dared to proceed in any way contrary to His order, and do something contrary to the sacerdotal, or Levitical, order?"

T. ii. Hom. ii. in Numer. n. 1, p. 278, col. 2.
See also:
T. iii. Lib. ii. in Cantic. Cant, p. 48, col. 1.
T. iii. Lib. ii, in Matth. T. xii. n. 14, p. 731 ; Hom. xx. in Lucam, n. 1, p. 956.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Page 214-215



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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