by Professor Contantine Scouteris
Some Theological and Canonical Considerations
1. The records of the early Christian tradition leave no doubt that Christian priesthood is not a “function” necessary for the institutional being of the Church. Nor is it an autonomous, isolated and self sufficient office belonging to the ordained individual. It is rather a ministry related and belonging to the entire ecclesial body. We can think of it as an anaphoral reality which is always in reference to and leads to the saving communion of the Body of Christ.
From the very outset of Christian history priesthood is understood as a living testimony of the constant and continuing presence of Christ in every historic “now” of the life of the Church. It was viewed as a token of the Paschal fulfilment and parousia, bestowed to all Christians through the power of the Holy Spirit. This means that priesthood was considered as an integral part of the ecclesial reality, related with and proceeding from the pentecostal economy.
In order to achieve a comprehensive understanding of the place of priesthood within the Christian community and to estimate its role for the ecclessial unity, it is important to stress its Christological and Pneumatological foundation. Any attempt to approach priesthood from a monistic point of view, i.e. as an autonomous subject, leads to the divergent altered scholastic interpretations and speculations foreign to the Apostolic tradition.
Even a cursory study of the New Testament data reveals the fad that all titles related to ministry and priesthood are rendered to Christ Himself Christ is
- “apostle and high priest” (Hebr. 3: 1);
- “priest” (Hebr. 8: 4),
- “teacher” and “Rabbi” (Matt., 23: 7-8);
- “a prophet … and more than a prophet” (Matt. 11: 9);
- “the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls” (1 Pet. 2: 25),
- “the Chief Shepherd” (1 Pet. 5: 4).
- “among us as the one who serves” (Lk. 22: 27;
- the “diakonos” (Rom. 15: 8).
In His priestly ministry Christ has
“given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma” (Eph. 5: 2).
In the New Testament Christ is both the victim and the priest who performs the sacrificing action.
“We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. Every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down at the right hand of God, from that time waiting till His enemies are made His footstool. For by one offering He has perfected for ever those who are being sanctified” (Heb. 10:10-14).
In spite of the individual characteristics and significant differences in terms of perspective and style among such writers as Matthew, Paul, Peter and Luke there is nothing more striking than the essential unity amid all diversity. This unity is basically that of a common attitude to Jesus Christ. There is among all New Testament authors a common sense that Christ
“is the head of the body, the Church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the pre-eminence” (Col. 1:18).
Thus, from the authors of the New Testament themselves, from their understanding and conception of Christ, we can attest that Christian priesthood is directly related with Christ’s ministry. The point is that priesthood is not simply a result of Christ’s service in the world, not duplicate or parallel to it service, but somehow is ontologically incorporated and identified with Christ’s ministry. If the Church is Christ Himself extended into history, equally Christian priesthood is Christ’s priestly office realized and extended in every historic period of the life of the Church. It is, so to speak, the reflection and the projection1 of the saving work of Christ throughout the centuries. This means that priesthood is so inextricably bound up with the Person of Christ that our perception of the historical Jesus and of His ministry involves and determines our view of Christian priesthood.
At the heart of the early Christian tradition stands the position that Jesus Christ is the “first-born” and the only Archpriest, according to Father’s nature.2 The Apostles and those consecrated thereafter received the gift of priesthood
“from the power of Christ, the eternal priest.”3
By asserting that priesthood is not to be regarded as isolated, but as an event which must be taken in close connection with the fact itself of Christ, we mean that the primary content of priesthood is neither individualistic and functional, in the narrow sense of the term, nor a moralistic but essentially Christological.
2. The Christological understanding of priesthood evidently leads to its Pneumatological foundation, given that
“no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3).
In fact there is no way of understanding the Christological ground of priesthood other than by its Pneumatological dimension. It is only through the “economy of the Spirit” that we can approach the economy of the Son. The Holy Spirit was sent into the world through and in the name of the Son, in order to teach and bring to our remembrance all things that Christ performed for and said to us (John 14:26). It should be observed in this connection that, in relating priesthood with Christ’s ministry, through the operation of the Holy Spirit, we do not propose either an exclusive Christology or an exclusive Pneumatology.
The economy of the Son and the economy of the Spirit are not parallel, distinct, independent or self determined divine actions. Theological autonomy does not correspond to orthodox Christology or Pneumatology. As the Son entered into the human reality
“incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary”,
so also the Holy Spirit comes into the world, being sent by the Son, to be an unceasing testimony of His work (John 15:26), i.e., to be a continuous historic possibility for the realization of Christ’s ministry. Thus, through the Holy Spirit, Christ’s priesthood remains present in the “here” and the “now” of the ecclesial life. It is through the Holy Spirit, that priesthood, in its historic manifestation, is related to Christ’s priesthood. Christian priesthood and the priesthood of Christ belong together and should never be conceived as individually apart, given that the Holy Spirit fills with His presence the Church and manifests to all Christ.
The Christological and the Pneumatological aspect of priesthood are present in a harmonious compound. They are inseparably blended together in a unique synthesis. The Christian priesthood involves the participation in Christ’s own priestly mission. It is precisely the personal descent of the Holy Spirit upon the newly-ordained that which guaranties this participation. This means that the ordained person through the Holy Spirit is directly connected with the priesthood of Christ. The theandric principium of the priestly grace is pneumatologically present in the concrete ordained person.
Through the epiclesis and the coming of the Holy Spirit in the ordination, the priesthood itself of Christ is offered to the newly ordained and remains alive and effectual within the ecclesial body. Thus the Holy Spirit, which was from the beginning with the Son, creating the cosmos, leading and inspiring the prophets, incarnating the eternal Logos of God in man, being always with Christ, raising Him from the dead and constituting the Apostolic Church,4 realizes Christ’s own priesthood within the historic life of the Church. In other words, the Holy Spirit remains as the vital link between Christ’s priesthood and the Christian priesthood. In considering priesthood in relation to Pneumatology, we are obliged to make special reference to the Pentecostal economy.
It is well-known that for the Church, Pentecost is not simply a historic event, but rather a continuous and dynamic presence, an always going on vital and flowing life. The late Fr. George Florovsky makes the observation that
“Pentecost becomes eternal in the Apostolic Succession, that is in the uninterruptibility of hierarchial ordinations in which every part of the Church is at every moment organically united with the primary source.”5
Thus, through the ordained ministry, the entire ecclesial body is related to the divine economy. Priesthood becomes an instrument for the realization of the ecclesial communion, which is offered at every historic moment as a continuous pentecostal life. In this perspective, what we call “Apostolic Succession” does not represent a narrow canonical principle, nor an external continuation, but rather indicates and signifies the presence of the Holy Spirit, that unique gift which restrains the entire Church into the continuity of the charismatic life.
3. When adopting the view that Jesus Christ remains actively present, through the Holy Spirit, in the Christian priesthood, in fact we relate priesthood with the One God in Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In the Patristic understanding, both Christology and Pneumatology are always placed in their Trinitarian context.
Pseudo-Dionysius had the Trinitarian dimension and perspective of priesthood in mind when he declared that “the source” of the ecclesiastical hierarchy “is the font of life, the being of goodness, the one cause of everything, namely, the Trinity which in goodness bestows being and well-being on everything.”6 The same notion is stressed by St. Maximus the Confessor who points out that
“the true priesthood is type in all respect of the blessed divinity.”7
Earlier St. Ignatius of Antioch recommended to the Trallians to
“respect the deacons as Jesus Christ, even as they should respect the bishop as being a type of the Father and the presbyters as the council of God and as the college of Apostles.”8
In a spurious treatise, attributed to St. Athanasius, a discussion is developed between an orthodox and an anomoean on the issue:
“the bishop, the presbyter and the deacon, like the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”9
We find a similar typology later, in the liturgical writings of St. Symeon of Thessalonica. There, Christian priesthood is called “divine”, a definition parallel to that of St. Gregory of Nyssa who described priesthood as “divine matter” (theion chrema).10 St. Symeon following and quoting Pseudo-Dionysius says that
“in the type of the Trinity we have three, the deacon, the presbyter and the bishop.”11
4. The Trinitarian foundation of priestly order reveals and emphasizes not only the divine origin of the Christian priesthood, but equally its communal character. If the communion of the three divine persons, that of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, is the communion par excellence, and if priesthood in its threefold aspect, bishop, presbyter, deacon, is an image and a type of the Holy Trinity, then, consequently, the priestly diakonia is an event of communion. Priesthood in its essence is a communal reality.
It is a way of communion with God, i.e., it is a peculiar communion in terms of the divine grace conferred in ordination. It is as well an intercommunion of Church ministry and a syndiakonia between the three ranks of the ordained priesthood.
The priestly diakonia, as a sacramental consecration, is not an abstract and mysterious appointment, but a concrete ministry deeply bound to the very being of the ecclesial communion. Through the ordination, every individual priest accepts a unique commission to serve a community. His mission is inseparably related and destined to a concrete ecclesial body. In the canonical tradition of the Eastern Church, it is prohibited to ordain a person “in abstracto” and in a general sense. An ordination without a specific appointment is not acceptable. The ordained person should always be associated with a parish, with a concrete Christian community.
The sixth canon of the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon is absolutely clear:
“No one should be ordained without a concrete appointment. Neither presbyter, nor deacon nor any other in the ecclesiastical rank. The ordained must be designated to serve in a concrete ecclesial community of a city or of a village or of a martyr’s sanctuary or of a monastery. The Holy Council has ordered that an ordination without a concrete appointment should be void and the person ordained should not have the right to serve anywhere. This punishment should be understood also as a disapproval of the bishop who ordained him.”
The same is true of the bishops. The assignment for. a particular episcopal ministry is the sine qua non condition for his ordination. Both bishop, priest and deacon should be related with a concrete diocese, or congregation. This spiritual relation is a kind of matrimonial connection. Thus, any one of the clerics is dedicated to serve the flock which was assigned specifically for him. In order to guarantee this unique communion between the ordained and his faithful the First Ecumenical Council in its fifteenth rule declared a direct prohibition for all clergy to move from one place to another. Neither a bishop, nor a priest nor a deacon has the right to leave his place and go elsewhere.
Speaking of priesthood as a diakonia within the concrete ecclesial community we should underline the communal character of the ordination service itself. In any circumstance secret ordination is absolutely unacceptable.12 The ordination is always an ecclesial praxis; a spiritual action realized within the body of the Christian community; it is open and public, before the community and together with the community. It is not performed by the bishop or the bishops alone, but by the bishop or the bishops, together with the other clergy and the congregation. In the eastern ordination the “axios”, the “Kyrie Eleison” and the “amen”, pronounced by the entire community, is not a mere ceremonial exaltation, but a responsible testimony and a way to express the ecclesial approval. This ecclesial approval is shown in a direct way by the exclamation pronounced by the deacon, both to the Bishop and to the congregation, before the ordination ceremony begins: “give the command” (keleuson, keleusate). These exaltations have deep ecclesiological significance. This means that the ordination is performed by the bishop or the bishops together with the entire people of God. The bishop is not acting alone, but as the person who has the sacramental power to ordain within and together with the Christian community. He is the person charismatically appointed to safeguard the unity of the Church, connecting, by what we call Apostolic Succession, the present with the initial fulfilment.
The canonical tradition of the Eastern Christendom and the patristic treatises are full of evidences and indications that all ordinations are inseparably connected with a given community, and through this concrete community with the catholic ecclesial body. In approaching the ordination of a bishop in this perspective, we can infer that the participation of at least three bishops has substantial ecclesiological meaning. The fourth rule of the First Ecumenical Council commends that the ordination of a bishop should be performed by all bishops of the district, and if this is not possible, because of practical difficulties, by at least three of them.
Every bishop is taking part in the ordination of the new one as representative and as a living presence of his entire flock; and all of them are a visible image of the Catholic Church. Thus, the new bishop who is appointed to serve in a concrete diocese, through his ordination is related with the whole Church. The ordination of a bishop did not simply convey to the newly ordained juridical privileges, but elevates him to the relational rank of a catholic person and places him in the midst of the community as a living image and testimony of the ecclesial oneness.
The same is applicable for the ordination of a priest. Through his ordination the new presbyter is again existentially related, in a unique and specific way, to the entire Body of the Church, thus becoming himself an instrument for the edification of the ecclesial unity. This means that the ordination of a presbyter is not an isolated sacramental action, in itself and for itself, but a sacramental and spiritual event related to the concrete community and through it to the life of the whole Church. If we maintain that the Risen Lord remains present in the eucharistic community through the power of the Holy Spirit, and if we profess, as we have already done, that the presbyter through his ordination is directly connected with the priesthood of Christ by that same Spirit, then we can assert that the ordained person receiving the priesthood within the community and being a member of the Christian community has the vocation and commission to serve, in cooperation with Christ and the community, for the establishment of the kingdom of God in the entire world. Thus, the diakonia of priesthood is not limited and exhausted to the given community but in its eucharistic dimension is extended dynamically to the entire Christian body. Again every priest becomes through his ordination and the offering of the eucharistic sacrifice a catholic person.
5. Both the bishop and the presbyter, as celebrants of the Holy Eucharist, are the builders of the ecclesial unity. It is there, in the eucharistic bond that all believers are united together in the one sacred relation to Christ, the living Lord. In the Eucharist the people of God are indeed in a constant, personal and at the same time communal relation to Christ, the risen Lord. It is not accidental that all ordinations, already from the early Christian times, are liturgically and theologically inseparable from the eucharistic communion. The fact that the eucharistic gathering is the unique and exclusive locus for all ministerial consecrations asserts that the priesthood belongs to the eucharistic community. It is begotten for the community and because of this, every consecration is realized within the context of the eucharistic assembly. It is the reality of the people of God, gathered together in the eucharistic communion, that constitutes the basis for the existence of the priestly diakonia. Priesthood was born for the Church and within the Church.
The implications of this perspective are of paramount importance for both a theology of priesthood and an understanding of its role for the ecclesial unity. The first point we have to firmly stress once more is that priesthood cannot exist as such apart from the community. Priesthood is not an authority or a power above the community, nor a function or an office parallel or outside it. Priesthood is indeed intrinsically related to the eucharistic sacrifice, which is the central empowering event and the source of unity of the ecclesial community. This means that the local community finds its unity in the priest, in the sense that through him it forms a eucharistic body, sacramentally linked and canonically conjoined with the catholic fulness of the Church. Through the charisma given to the ordained person the ecclesial unity and catholicity is realized in a concrete place as eucharistic participation. Thus, Priesthood exists as a charisma which belongs not to an individual but to a person who is dedicated to serve the community. The words of Christ, addressed to His disciples, are significant and clearly describe the otherness of the priestly service.
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and give his life a ransom for many’ (Matt. 20:25-28; Mark 10:42-45).
In his ordination the priest or bishop receives a power of a different level and order. One has to estimate this power in light of the eucharistic gathering. In fact we cannot think of a gift “possessed individually,”13 nor of a juridical authority within the ecclesial body, but of a charismatic ministry belonging to all the people of God. One can talk of a divine economy, of a ministry which has catholic consequences and which ministers in the Eucharistic Synaxis as a force transforming the entire community to
“a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5).
Although priesthood elevates the community to the level of “a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pet. 2:9), it is the community which has always been the permanent and the efficient basis of priesthood.
6. In the Apology of the monk Leontius of Jerusalem, which was appended to the Acts of the Fourth Ecumenical Council,14 we find an unusual and interesting narration that illustrates our discussion. A mime actor of the theater accused of subversive activity and homicide, fled his homeland in order to avoid arrest and judgement, retreating to the desert in a foreign land. After some time there, he once more met adversity, this time being captured a hostage by certain Saracen Christians. These Christians, reckoning he was a priest because of his external appearance, demanded that he celebrate for them the Holy Eucharist. His attempts to persuade his captors otherwise, were judged to be pious acts of humility prevalent among the holy ascetics. Not succeeding in convincing them he gave in to their obstinate demands and agreed to perform the ritual. At his instructions, they built together an altar table out of wood and straw, setting over it a woven cloth and on this they placed the bread and wine in a wooden cup. The imprisoned actor sealed the gifts with the sign and looking up to heaven, glorified the Holy Trinity. This was the only thing he did. After that he broke the bread and gave it to the Christians, taking the wooden vessel he gave them wine from the cup. Upon finishing the believers took with devotion the altar cloth and the cup leaving behind only the altar. Just as they were leaving the place of worship, fire fell from heaven and burned the altar without touching or harming any of the faithful and yet consuming the altar entirely, leaving nothing remaining of it not even ashes. Beholding this awesome and frightening sign, the grateful Christians wanted to recompense the one whom they thought to be a priest and asked him what he desired. He responded that the only thing he wanted was for him and those with him to be set free; the Saracen Christians set them free.
7. Leontios of Jerusalem is not discussing Eucharistic theology in his Apology. His intention was rather to expose the heresies of Nestorianism and Monophysitism and the possibility of miracles both in the Orthodox Church and in circles of schismatics and heretics. At any rate, the reference to Eucharist and priesthood it seems to me is useful for our discussion.
First of all, we observe that for the Christians in this narrative, priesthood has been understood as ark undoubted necessary condition for their communal constitution. As a Christian group, as a small ecclesial community could not exist other than in the fellowship with him who has the gift and the power of sacramental action. It is through the priesthood that the Holy Spirit abide in their fraternal gathering, transfiguring it to a pentecostal body. Although the person chosen to celebrate the Eucharist was not in fact an ordained one, the Saracen Christians took it for granted that he was a priest. There was no doubt among them that their community is fulfilled and integrated through the priestly ministry. Their communal being was precisely transformed into an ecclesial being through and in priesthood.
The second point we have to stress is that for the people in the narrative of Leontius, the Eucharist was considered as an indispensable necessity for their spiritual being, as a sacrament decisive for their ecclesial existence. Obviously, Eucharist here is not seen as an objectified ritual, disassociated from their corporate identity, but flows from the community itself. Indeed, Eucharist needs to be apprehended as a gift related to the community, both to the minister and the “laos”. Nicholas Cabasilas says that the Eucharist is a command of Christ “to the Apostles and through the Apostles to the whole Church.”15 In this sense Eucharist is not a praxis of an ordained individual but that of a community, i.e., performed by the priest together with the people. The Eucharist is a liturgical praxis; liturgical with the etymological meaning of the term (ergon laou), work of the people, not of one single minister isolated from the ecclesial community. In the final analysis the actor of the Eucharist is Christ Himself, through the priest and the community building up His Body in this way.
8. This kind of approach leads us to come to point that the priest does not possess in himself an indelible mark as if it were a magical seal which grant him a private efficacy to perform the Eucharist or any other liturgical action, apart from the ecclesial body. The priestly ministry is rather a charismatic gift to serve and edify the body of the Church. It is a permanent rank of service only in union and by the discerning authority of the Church.
The doctrine of the “indelible mark” attained at ordination to the priesthood seems to have originated in the Scholastic period of the Western Church. This same conception was at times borrowed by Eastern theologians thereafter. The teaching purports the grace of ordination as an indelible irrevocable mark upon the soul of the ordained individual that sets him apart for priestly service analogous to the Levite rank and the priesthood according to the order of Melchizedek in the Old Testament. It is interesting to mention here that the sixth Ecumenical Council in its 33rd canon condemns the practice of Armenian Christians who had embraced the Old Testament custom concerning the Levitic rank and did not accept for the priesthood anyone who was not of this so called “priestly lineage”. The reasoning for the adoption of the Old Testament typology in both cases seems to be that an identification mark is a constitutive element of priesthood. In the later case it is conceived as an inherited trait, while in the former which concerns us here, it is viewed as irrevocably and individually attained at the ordination rite.
The logical conclusion of the “indelible mark” is that the ordained individual possesses forever this peculiar mark of priesthood which can never be removed by anyone nor can it be surrendered in any circumstance. It is evident that such a doctrinal consideration absolutizes and isolates priesthood from the event itself of the ecclesial communion. Priesthood here is distortingly objectified and over-estimated assuming a totalitarian magnitude. It is imposed over the Church which is unable to deprive the ordained. individual of its characteristic mark, even if he is unworthy to maintain the ecclesial grace. In fact this doctrine concerning the indelible mark divorces the priesthood from its organic context of the ecclesial life. Thus the ordained person possess a self sufficient power which is higher than the Church itself And the Church is not able to take back the indelible mark from an individual even if he is defrocked and excommunicated.
Interpreting the 68th Apostolic Cannon which refers to the impossibility of repeating the sacrament of ordination,16 St. Nicodimos the Agiorite explains that ordination cannot be repeated because it is done according to the Type of the First and Great Priest who entered once and for all into the holy of holies and there granted eternal salvation. Yet, he unswervingly rejects the doctrine of the “indelible mark” of priesthood and attests that it is the “invention of scholastics.”17 Nevertheless, according to St. Nicodimos, the doctrine is borrowed by Nicholas Bulgaris, Koresios and many other theologians of the past century and some still somehow adhere to it today.
Despite the fact that the indelible mark theory acquired dogmatic formulation in the Council of Trent,18 in most circles of the Roman Catholic Church, after the Second Vatican Council, the foundational framework of effecient causality and ex opere operato, which gave rise to such an understanding of priesthood, is reckoned as belonging to a bygone age and abandoned for a more dynamic and ecclesiological approach of sacrament.19
It should be mentioned in this connection that as far as we know, no evidence concerning the indelible mark theory can be found in Patristic teaching. On the contrary, the canonical data leave no doubt that a defrocked priest or bishop, after the decision of the Church to take back his priesthood, returns to the rank of the laity. The anathematized or the defrocked are in no way considered to maintain their priesthood. The canonical tradition that in the case of his ministerial rehabilitation this person is not re-ordained does not imply a recognition that he was a priest during the period of his punishment.20 It simply means that the Church recognizes that which had been sacramentally performed and the grace of ecclesiastical ministry is restored upon his assignment to an ecclesial community with no other sacramental sign or rite.
9. In the light of what has been said thus far, we may conclude saying that priesthood in no way is a ministry introducing division or classification within the ecclesial body. Between a priest and a lay person there is no legal distinction but precisely what we may call charismatic distribution. As we read in I Corinthians (12:4-6):
“There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministry but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all”.
This means that through ordination a member of the Church is set apart in order to minister the sacrament of ecclesial unity. In the Patristic tradition, priesthood is never understood as an of five based on an objectified mark imprinted on the soul of the ordained person, but rather as an ecclesial gift, as a vocation aiming to edify the Body of Christ. It has been rightly said that an Orthodox understanding of priesthood is beyond any “ontological” or “functional” definition.21 Priesthood cannot be considered in itself and for itself, but rather as relational reality. In other words, the only way to have an adequate understanding of the priestly charisma is to see it in its anaphoral dimension and in connection to the ecclesial communion.
17. “… Hoi scholastikoi tegoun dioti aphinoun kai typonoun auta charaktera anexaleipton, hos tis kat’ autous poiotes pragmatike enyparchousa te psyche kai dynamis hyperphyes” (The Pedalion, Athens 1970, 90). “Ho para ton scholastikon epinoetheis charakter ..:’ (Ibid.).
18. Canon 4: “Si quis dixerit, per sacram ordinationem non dari Spiritum sanctum, ac proinde frustra episcopos dicere: Accipe Spiritum Sanctum; aut per eam non imprimi characterem; vel eum, qui sacerdos semel fuit, laicum rursus fieri posse, anathema sit.”
19. See for example B. COOKE, Ministry to the Word and Sacraments. History and Theology, Philadelphia 1978 (‘Third printing), 187 ff. T. O’MEARA, “Orders and Ordination,” in: The New Dictionary of Theology, 725-726.