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The mystery of the Priesthod

The Priesthood is a Mystery, whereby the Holy Spirit, through the hierarch’s laying-on of his hands [on the head of the ordained] establishes him as minister of the Church to accomplish the sacraments and shepherd the flock of Christ, being included, in Orthodox teaching, within the seven Church Sacraments.[1] Its founding is revealed to be God-established, historically continuous, and it is unavoidably necessary for keeping the general order of authorized ecclesiastical life.

Of the greatness of the Christian ministry, St. John Chrysostom wrote thus: “The priesthood is discharged on earth, but stands among heavenly ranks; and justly so, for neither man, nor angel, nor archangel, nor any other created power,…[but]the priest stands here drawing down not merely fire, but the Holy Spirit.”[2]

The priesthood is so important for Orthodoxy that to the question: “When is the local church regarded as a Church?”, the answer is given: “Where the priest is, there is the local church.”[3]

The Church maintains she could exist without temples and monasteries, without various ritualistic or ecclesiastical articles, but not without the priesthood. With such conceptions, all local churches are concentrated around their shepherd, acting thus as only he has the right to accomplish the sacraments and ordain to the priesthood.


The Lord established the Priesthood in the Old Testament, as Moses tells us:“And take Aaron your brother and his sons with him from the midst of the sons of Israel, that he be a priest to Me – Aaron and Nadab, Abiud, Eliazar and Iliphar, the sons of Aaron” (Exodus 28.1)

The Lord commanded Moses to set apart the tribe of Levi to serve in the Tabernacle and [commanded Moses] to appoint the high priest, priests and Levites, that is, assistants, for the Tabernacle. The high priest corresponded to our bishops (bishops), priests to priests, and the Levites to deacons and their assistants.

In the New Testament, the sacrament of the Christian priesthood was established by the Lord Jesus

Christ Himself through the Holy Apostles – who had been His closest disciples and companions. Hence, one of the most important canonical teachings of the holy Church is the provision of Apostolic Succession, i.e. that through the bestowal upon them of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles received grace for the performance of church ordinances, as well as the authority to transmit this higher grace to their followers.

“Apostolic succession is a God-established way of preserving and transmitting hierarchical ministry in the Church from the Holy Apostles through the Sacrament of the Priesthood. Apostolic succession involves not only a visible expression in a series of episcopal ordinations (consecrations), but also the transfer of the blessed gifts of the Holy Spirit, on which the hierarchical ministry of the Church is based.

As the Holy Scriptures testify, the holy Apostles, having received the fullness of this ministry from the Lord Himself, after the descent of the Holy Spirit (John 20:21-23; Matt. 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24: 47-49; Acts 1:8) ordained the first bishops (Acts 14:23, 20:28; 2 Tim. 1:6 and others) and gave commandment to transmit through the Sacrament of episcopal ordination the fullness of the blessed gifts of the ecclesiastical hierarchy (1 Tim. 5:22; Tit. 1:5). Apostolic succession is attested by the most ancient church Tradition: Irenaeus of Lyons[4], St. Clement of Rome, Blessed Jerome, Tertullian and others. ” – Catechism.

Already in the first century, one the Seventy Apostles, Clement of Rome gave initial formalization to the idea of apostolic succession, in his first epistle to the Corinthians:

“And our Apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife over the office of bishop. For this very reason, having perfectly foreseen this, they ordained the aforementioned ministers, and left a testamentary directive, so that when these men also fell asleep, other tried and proven men should succeed to their ministry. So, we regard it as unlawful to depose from their ministry those men who were appointed thereto by the Apostles themselves or after them by other esteemed men, with the consent of the whole Church, and who have served the flock of Christ without any stain of crime, with humility, meekly and, without fault and, moreover, for a long time have been serving with the approval of all. And our sin will not be small if those who without reproach and And it will be no small sin for us if we eject from the episcopate those who have blamelessly and holily fulfilled its duties.”[5]


The Church’s Body is comprised of the entire people of the Church, divided into clergy and laity, i.e. the clergy and the people. As regards liturgical life, among the Orthodox Church’s clergy, an inequality of ministry exists, through the difference in their share of the hierarchal powers, some being vested with greater spiritual authority and accordingly holding higher rank.

From the very beginning, in the Church a three-fold clergy hierarchy has existed: the orders of bishop, presbyter, and deacon.

The highest sacerdotal rank is held by the bishops, who consecrate the antimens, the holy myrrhon, the sacred temples (although priests can also be entrusted with consecrating temples), and ordain the priests and deacons and other church attendants (the lowest ranks). All bishops are equal to each other, but possess different titles, depending on the size of the areas they govern, as well as the civil rank of the cities in which they reside. In this sense, we differentiate, by a gradation of seniority, patriarchs, metropolitans, archbishops and bishops.

The priests likewise possess essential equality, though due to certain merit and length of service in the holy churches are called, in the case of married priests: archpriests, and in the case of monastic priests: archimandrites, hegumens, and hieromonks.

Among the married clergy, the senior deacon is called the protodeacon, while if he is one of the monastic clergy, he will be called the archdeacon, both serve only with the bishop; the clergy servants of the episcopal ministry with the rank below the rank of deacon are called subdeacons.


The grace of the Holy Spirit is transmitted via succession of ordination from bishops to bishops[6] and to clergymen who are ordained by the bishops from the very first Apostolic times. This continuity of succession of gracious gifts and priestly authority is a prerequisite for the efficacy of all the sacraments performed.[7] Ordination is a sacramental act; in it, according to St. John Chrysostom, “a man lays a hand, and God effects everything, and His hand touches the head of the ordained, if he be duly ordained.”[8]

The ordination of a bishop, presbyter and deacon takes place during the Divine Liturgy, but at different appointed times therein. Ordination to the diaconate is performed at the consecration of the Holy Gifts, since the deacon only assists in the performance of the sacraments, but does not have the right to perform them. The ordination to the priesthood takes place after the Great Entrance, so that the newly-ordained can take part in the consecrating of the Eucharist. Consecration to the episcopate takes place at the beginning of the Liturgy, because the bishop has the right not only to perform the sacraments, but also to ordain to the degree of the priesthood. In addition, the ordination of a bishop is performed by a council of bishops (at least two), and the ordination of a presbyter and deacon is performed by one [bishop].


The priests, at their induction into the priesthood, and then at the Divine Service in general, put on sacred vestments. The deacon wears the sticharion, orarion, and epimanikia The priest, over the sticharion (the common clerical vestment) wears the epitrachelion (the stole, “down from the neck”), the belt [zone], cuffs, and phelonion (or chasuble). The bishop is clothed in the same vestments as the priest, but instead of the epitrachelion, the bishop is dressed in a special vestment called the omophorion [“man-carrying” or “same-nature carrying”, an image of the Good Shepherd] – this is a long, wide roll of embroidered fabric is draped across and back around the bishop’s shoulders so that one end hangs down in

front and the other in the back. Metropolitans and archbishops, instead of the phelonion, are clothed over in the sakkos – an additional embroidered vestment of sticharion-shape but less than full length and with shorter sleeves. The miter is the high-priestly headdress of bishops; the panaghia is a small round image of Christ the Savior or the Mother of God, richly decorated, which bishops wear on their chests, like a cross or crucifix. A bishop’s staff or crozier (jezel) is a sign of his episcopal authority. During the service, at certain moments, the bishop takes his stand upon special round ornamental rugs – the orlets, on which is depicted an eagle is flying over the city, whence its name. This signifies that the bishop with his teaching and his manner of living should rise above the flock and serve as an example of aspiration to ascend from the earthly to the heavenly, like an eagle soaring aloft in the air.

In the event that a person, due to sins he has committed, is not worthy to partake of the Holy Mysteries (i.e., excommunicated for a certain time), the spiritual father can provide him with the holy water from the Great Blessing of the Waters, consecrated on

the eve of Theophany, following the festal days of the Nativity of Christ[Christmas]. Previously, this custom was more common, but now in some parishes priests partake of the Great Water.

It is also worth noting that there are certain sins for which one is excommunicated only from the Sacrament (the Eucharist), but also other sins for which there is appointed excommunication from the temple altogether, that is, you cannot approach the Cross, icons, receive prosphora, or drink the holy water. People excommunicated from the temple do not go into the temple (temple proper, i.e., the sanctuary and nave areas), but stand in the narthex.

If you do not belong to the Ancient-Rite Church, then, when you come to the Liturgy, stay in the fore-church [narthex]. You should not go further in, approach the Cross or the icons, nor receive the prosphora [blessed bread or antidoron].

The Epistles of the Apostles and the works of the Holy Fathers instruct us to approach Communion with great reverence and fear, with faith and repentance. This is not simple food and drink, but the very Body and Blood of the Lord. This is described in detail and many times in the church following to the Holy Communion, which contains the sacrament hours, canon and prayers. The sacrament watch reads the Apostle and the Gospel, revealing the meaning of the Sacrament. The following canon and prayers awaken the repentant feeling of a believer, help to realize their sinfulness and unworthiness, and contain prayer requests to the Lord to “cleanse the filth of the soul.” Indeed, according to the word of the Apostle Paul, “For he that eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks damnation to himself, not discerning the Body of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:29).

Traditionally, preparation for Holy Communion among the followers of the Old-Rite includes a “devotional rite”(fasting and a special rule of preparatory prayers), the sacrament of Confession, and the completion of the Post-Communion Prayers. Usually adult followers of the Old-Rite begin to receiving the Holy Mysteries during extended periods of fasting: the Great Fast (Great Lent), the Apostles’ Fast (Fast of Peter and Paul), the Dormition Fast and the Nativity (Pre-Christmas) Fast.

[1]           Not as though only 7 existed, but to affirm the commonly-disputed 7 are in fact divine and sacred, not man-made.

[2]           For the priesthood is discharged on earth, but stands among heavenly ranks; and justly so: for neither man, nor angel, nor archangel, nor any other created power, but the Holy Spirit Himself instituted this rank… Fearful, indeed…and full of awe,…For when you see the Lord of all sacrificed, and laid upon the altar, and the priest standing and praying over the Victim,… He who is on high enthroned with the Father …do these seem fit to be despised, or to lift oneself up against?… Picture Elijah …, and the sacrifice laid upon the altar of stones,…while the prophet alone offers up prayer: then the sudden rush of fire from Heaven down upon the sacrifice (3 Kings 18)…marvellous things, full of terror. Now…stands the priest, bringing down from Heaven, not fire, but the very Holy Spirit Himself…not that some flame from on high may burn up offerings, but that Divine grace descending on the Sacrifice may thereby fill with its light the souls of all…Who can think lightly of this most awful Mystery?…[G]reat is the honor bestowed on priests through the Spirit’s gift …For…they received authority which God has not given to angels or archangels. For not to angels was it said, ‘Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in Heaven, and whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall have been loosed in Heaven.’ (Matthew 18:18) Earthly rulers have authority to place in bonds only the body: the priest’s binding lays hold on the soul and extends beyond hence into the heavens; what priests do here below God ratifies above, and the Master confirms the sentence of His servants. For… heavenly authority…He has given them when He says, ‘Whose sins ye remit they are remitted, and whose sins ye retain they are retained…’(John 20:23) What authority could be greater than this?… To despise so great a dignity, without which it is not possible to obtain either our own salvation, or the good things which have been promised to us, is clearly insane!….They who despise these priests incur a much more cursed fate than even Dathan and his confederates (Numbers 16:31; Hebrews 10:29)” “For if ‘no one can enter into the kingdom of Heaven except he be reborn through water and the Spirit,’ (Jn. 3:5-6) and ‘he who does not eat the flesh of the Lord and drink His blood is excluded from eternal life’ (Jn. 6:53-54), and if all these are effected only through the holy hands of the priest, how will anyone, without these, escape the fire of Gehenna, or obtain the crowns kept for the victors?… Wherefore these ought justly to be feared by us more than rulers and kings, but also than parents…For our natural parents begat us into this life only, but these into life eternal. And parents cannot deliver their offspring from death…but priests can deliver a soul from perdition…, not only by instruction and admonition, but through their prayers. For…they have authority to forgive sins. ‘Is any sick among you?’ it is said, ‘Let him call for the presbyters of the Church and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up: and if he have committed sins they shall be forgiven him.’(James 5:14-15)… The wrath, not of human rulers, but of God Himself is provoked against them, and priests have reconciled…Hear blessed Paul, or rather Christ speaking in him, who says: Obey these who rule over you, and submit yourselves, for they are watching out for your souls as ones about to render account. (Hebrews 13:17) Can the dreadfulness of the implied threat be slight? It is impossible to fully express: but these considerations are sufficient to convince even the most incredulous and obdurate…” (Chrysostom, On the Priesthood, Book III:4-6,17).

[3]           “As Christ Jesus follows the Father, as you would follow the Apostles, see to it that all of you follow the bishop and the presbytery and reverence the deacons, as it is the commandment of God. Let nothing belonging to the Church be done without the bishop. Regard that Eucharist as a valid one, which is administered either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop is, there let the multitude of the people also be, even as where Jesus Christ is, there the Church catholic (η καθολικη εκκλησια) will be (Mt.16:24, Lk.14:27,Rev.14:1-5). Without the bishop, it is neither lawful to baptize nor to make an offering nor to present a sacrifice, nor to hold a charity feast (agape). But, that all may be safe and lawful, let it be what seems good to him as pleasing to God”(St. Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans). Καθολικη: “according-to-the-whole”, with no part left out  as to the handed-down Faith or Unity, not divisive&dissenting heresy(St Pacian, Ep.1;St. Cyril, Cat.18:23;St. Cassian, Comm.2:4-6).

[4]           “It is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the Church, since the Apostles, like a rich man, lodged in her hands, as in a bank, most abundantly all things pertaining to the Truth. Now every man, whoever wants to, can draw from Her the water of life. For she is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers.” (St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Falsely-Called Knowledge, or Against Heresies, 3:4:1)

       “The true knowledge is the doctrine of the Apostles, and the ancient organization of the Church throughout the whole world, and the manifestation of the Body of Christ according to the succession of bishops, by which succession the bishops have handed down the Church which is found everywhere” (ibid., 4:33:8).

       “And that well-grounded system conducting man to salvation, the Faith preserved by us which we received from the Church, also ever regenerates us by the Spirit of God, as if it were some priceless deposit in a most costly vessel, even causing the vessel carrying it to be always renewed to its first vitality. For this gift of God has been entrusted to the Church  for this purpose, that all Her members may receive it and live…”  (ibid., 3:24:1)

       “Wherefore we in the Church are obliged to obey the presbyters, who, as I have shown, possess succession from the Apostles and who, according to the good pleasure of the Father, together with the succession of the episcopate, have received the reliable imparting of the Truth. But to hold in suspicion others who abandon the line of continuity from the first times, and form assemblies for themselves apart in any other place, either as heretics of deviant minds, or as schismatics puffed up and pleasing themselves, or again as hypocrites who act thus for their private gain and vainglory. For all these have fallen away from the truth.… From all such persons it behooves us to stay aloof, but to adhere to those who … do hold the doctrine of the apostles, and who, together with the priestly order, display sound speech and blameless conduct for the confirmation and correction of others.

       “Where, therefore, the gifts of the Lord have been deposited, there it behooves us to learn the truth—from those who possess that succession of the Church which is from the Apostles, and among whom exists that which is sound and blameless in conduct, as well as that which is pure and incorrupt in speech. For these also preserve this Faith of ours… They expound the Scriptures to us without danger… ”(St. Irenaeus of Lyons, ibid., 4.26.2-5)

[5]           1 Clement, Epistle of the Church of Rome to the Church of Corinth, 44.

[6]           St. Clement of Rome, Ss. Peter and Paul’s co-worker to whom Peter delegated the episcopate at Rome and the duty of transmitting their discipline more fully, transmitted the following rule of the Apostles, confirmed and ratified by the Oecumenical Councils: “Let a bishop be ordained by two or three bishops, but let a presbyter be ordained by a single bishop, likewise a deacon and the remaining ranks of the clergy.” And: “These constitutions concerning this mystical worship, we, the Apostles, do ordain for you, the bishops, presbyters, and deacons ….a constitution to determine by how many a bishop ought to be elected. Let a bishop be ordained by three or two bishops; but if anyone be ordained by one bishop, let him be deprived, both himself and him who ordained him. But if there be a necessity that he have only one to ordain him, because more bishops cannot come together, as in time of persecution, or for such like causes, let him bring the suffrage of permission from more bishops.” (Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, Bk.VIII:27& 47[canons 1-2]). In the course of  Church history, in times of persecution, sometimes one bishop by himself ordained another, but this was afterwards in peacetime confirmed by a council of bishops. St. Paulinus of Antioch was ordained in 362 A.D. by Lucifer of Cagliari for the Eustathian faction among Antioch’s Orthodox, who did not re-unite until 413 A.D. This happened because, the Arian-sympathizing Emperor having banished St. Eustathius, Antioch’s Orthodox bishop, the remaining Orthodox and Crypto-Arian clergy chose St. Meletius, which made him suspect&unacceptable to the strict “Eustathian” party. The Church eventually recognized both Paulinus and Meletius had been valid Orthodox bishops. 

[7]           “…it seemed good to the ancient authorities, I mean Cyprian and our own Firmilian, to reject all these,…by one common condemnation, because the origin of separation arose through schism, and those who had apostatized from the Church had no longer on them the grace of the Holy Spirit, for it ceased to be imparted when the succession was interrupted. The first separatists had received their ordination from the Fathers, and possessed the spiritual gift by the laying on of their hands. But they who were broken off had become laymen, and, because they are no longer able to confer on others that grace of the Holy Spirit from which they themselves are fallen away, they had no authority either to baptize or to ordain…”(St. Basil the Great, 1st Canonical Letter, To Amphilocius On the Canons, Letter 188).

[8]      Chrysostom, Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles, 14:3.