Dear Father Angelo,
The Council of Trent defined as a dogma of faith that the hierarchy of the Church, in its 3 degrees (bishops – presbyters – deacons), is of divine institution.
I would like to ask you where we deduce that God has established these 3 degrees in a distinct way, given that from the letters of St. Paul the word “bishops” and the word “presbyters” seem to be used synonymously, and also considering that, with regard to deacons, they would seem an institution of the Apostles, rather than divine.
In the certainty that you will be able to remove the difficulties that I have exposed to you, I thank you in advance and I offer you my most sincere wishes for the upcoming Christmas holidays.
Answer of the priest
1. The Sacrament of Holy Orders like all other sacraments was instituted by Christ.
The Gospels report the institution of the apostles by Christ: “He went up the mountain and summoned those whom he wanted and they came to him. He appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) that they might be with him and he might send them forth to preach and to have authority to drive out demons” (Mk 3: 13-15).
He gave them the command to celebrate the Eucharist: “Do this in memory of me” (Lk 22:19) and to forgive sins: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (Jn 20: 23).
2. Jesus did not need rites to confer them this power. Indeed, the Lord is above all the sacraments and is their establisher.
However, “speaking about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1: 3) he must have instructed them on how to transmit their power to others.
There is in fact a constant in the transmission of the divine powers conferred by Jesus. Whoever transfers them, transfers them by praying and laying hands on the candidate.
So it happened for example for Paul and Barnabas: “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». Then, completing their fasting and prayer, they laid hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13: 2-3).
Paul himself transmits to others the power received from the Apostles in the same way. In fact, he writes to Timothy: “I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands” (2 Tim 1,6).
And he recommends Timothy to be prudent in transmitting to others the power conferred on him: “Do not lay hands too readily on anyone, and do not share in another’s sins” (1 Tim 5:22).
To Titus he writes: “For this reason I left you in Crete so that you might set right what remains to be done and appoint presbyters in every town, as I directed you” (Titus 1:5).
3. Likewise, the apostles “prayed and laid hands” (Acts 6,6) on “seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3). They are the first seven deacons.
4. In the Acts of the Apostles we see also how the Apostles appointed for each community some elders (who in Greek are called presbiteroi, presbyters, priests): “After they had proclaimed the good news to that city and made a considerable number of disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch. They strengthened the spirits of the disciples and exhorted them to persevere in the faith, saying, «It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God». They appointed presbyters for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, commended them to the Lord in whom they had put their faith” (Acts 14:21-23).
5. Therefore in the early Christian communities we see the presence of the apostles who participate their power to the priests and deacons.
Diaconate, presbyterate and episcopate are not three distinct sacraments, but degrees of the same sacrament, which has its fullness in the episcopate and is less fully participated to the presbyters and then, for service, to deacons.
6. The Jerusalem Bible notes that bishops and presbyters initially seem to coincide and are placed at the head of the various communities by the Apostles.
But soon each of them took on their own peculiar meaning.
With the constitution of only one episcopos in the communities, the roles were distinguished.
The episcopoi became successors of the apostles and the presbyters became people to whom some powers of the episcopes were participated.
But here is the full text of the Jerusalem Bible:
“In the earliest days each Christian community was governed by a body of elders (“presbyters“, whence English word “priests“) or prominent people. This was the case both in Jerusalem (Acts 11:30; 15:2f; 21:18) and in the Dispersion (Acts 14:23; 20:17; Tt 1:5) and it merely continued both the ancient practice of the Old Testament and the more recent practice of the Jews (Ex 18:13f; Nm 11:16, …).
These “episcopoi” (supervisors, overseers, watchers, guardians; cf. Acts 20:28) who are not yet “bishops“ and who are mentioned in connection with the “diaconoi“ (Philippians 1:1; …) seem in some passages (Titus 1:5,7; Acts 20:17,28) to be identical with the elders. (…) The episcopoi in the college of presbyters may have taken turns to carry out their official duties, cf. 1 Tim 5:17. It is quite certain that Christian presbyteroi or episcopoi were not merely concerned with the practical side of organising things: they had to teach (1 Tim 3:2; …) and govern (1 Tim 3:5; Tt 1:7). They were appointed by the apostles (Acts 14:23) or their representatives (Titus 1:5) by the imposition of hands (1 Tim 5:22; …), their powers derived from God, (Acts 20:28) and were charismatic (1 Cor 12:28). The word episcopos eventually replaced analogous titles like “prolstamenos“ (official; Rm 12:8; 1 Thes 5:12), “volmen“ (pastor, shepherd; Eph 4:11), “hegoumenos“ (guide, leader; Heb 13:7,17,24). These heads of the local community who developed into our priests (presbyteroi) and bishops (episcopoi) were helped by diaconoi (deacons). The transformation of a local assembly ruled by a body of bishops or presbyters, into an assembly ruled by a single bishop set over a number of priests (a stage reached by the time of Ignatius of Antioch, died c. 107 A.D.) must have involved the intermediate stage when a single episcopos in each community was given the same powers over that local community which had previously been exercised over several communities by the apostles or their representatives like Timothy or Titus” (note to Titus 1,5).
6. J. Ratzinger and J. Auer seem to elaborate the theology of this sacrament with regard to its institution precisely starting from what is also noticed by the Jerusalem Bible.
Here is what they write in a small chapter entitled “The institution of the sacrament of Holy Orders by Christ”:
1. The question of Christ’s institution of the sacrament of Holy Orders is not primarily a question of the sacramental sign, but rather of the reality of the ministerial priesthood itself, for which this question was raised especially starting from the reformation.
Is there a special ministerial priesthood in addition to the universal priesthood of all the faithful by virtue of baptism (1 Peter 2:9)?
If Christ has entrusted his doctrine and his work, his church, without distinction to all his listeners, who likely believed in him, then the question of the sacrament of Holy Orders is also illusory.
According to the testimony of the Gospels, however, Christ, in the years of his public activity, chose twelve from the group of seventy disciples, who for their assignment already in the primitive church were called – according to Luke by Jesus himself – “apostles”, that is envoys, appointees, plenipotentiaries (Mt 10: 1-4; Mk 3: 13-19; Lk 6: 12-16).
He instructed them on the mysteries of the kingdom of God (Mt 13:11; Mk 4:11; Lk 8:10), gave them particular tasks together with special powers: they had to proclaim his gospel throughout the world (Mt 28:19; Mk 16:15); they had to administer baptism (Mt 28:19; Mk 16:16), celebrate the Eucharist (Lk 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24: “Do this in remembrance of me”), forgive sins (Jn 20:23).
He promised them a broad power to bind and loose, which includes the pastoral power to teach and to govern (Mt 18:18; cf. Mt 16:18f.).
He passed on the mission, which he had received from the Father, to the apostles (Jn 17:18; 20:21) and gave them his authority (Mt 10:40; Lk 20:16).
Especially the fact that the risen Christ still instructed and sent his apostles (Acts 1:1-8; Mk 16:14-18; Mt 28:16-20) can make us understand that the appointment and the mission concern only these twelve and no one else.
They constitute the foundation of the church (cf. Eph 2:20; 3:5), the twelve fundamental stones of the wall of the new Jerusalem (Rev 21:14).
2. Ecclesiology will show us how from the beginning Christ established a certain structure of the church and how this structure must be preserved over time until the Lord’s return. This fundamental structure of the church gives the right to speak of an “institution of the sacrament of Holy Orders by Christ” even where the apostles have deduced in this regard a rite of the contemporary practice of Israel, of the Old Testament people of God, as a sign of the conferral of an office.
The power to do this must be implicit in the mission given by Christ to the apostles, since this mission does not mean only a personal distinction, but rather the assignment to an office that governs the ecclesiastical structure created by Christ. In this the particular character of the sign of this rite of the imposition of hands (which in Israel was also used as a sacrificial rite) is not primarily important. It is sufficient that by the same rite in Israel the rabbis and the elders were constituted, that they were then invested as successors of essential offices of late Judaism.
The particular symbolic meaning of the rite is determined by the internal figure of the church itself: with this imposition of hands the investiture of the ministry of the church instituted by Christ takes place, an investiture that represents and operates together the communication of the grace of the office that is connected to it and the transmission of the duties and rights implicit in this office” (J. Auer – J. Ratzinger, The sacraments of the Church, pp. 421-423 It. ed.).
I wish you well today, I remind you to the Lord and I bless you.
Translated by Chiara P.