The oldest ordination prayer

When the Apostles and their successors began to ordain deacons - both men and women - they would impose hands on the candidate (Acts 6,6) and say a prayer to invoke the Holy Spirit and dedicate the person to the ministry.

What ordination prayer did they use?

There were no liturgical books at the time. What happened instead is that they relied on a 'model ordination prayer' with certain fixed elements. This is not something unusual. We find similar model prayers in the case of the Our Father, the Eucharistic Consecration, and the words of baptism. In all these cases, a fundamental basic structure of the prayer was remembered which ministers could use to construct their own more specific prayers around.

We read about this in the so-called Traditio Apostolica of Hippolytus:

It is not at all necessary  that he prays with the very same words given above . . . Each shall pray whatever is according to his ability. If someone has the ability  to pray a lengthy and solemn prayer, that is well. If someone else, in praying, offers a short prayer, this is not to be prevented. That prayer must only be correct in orthodoxy [= include the traditional elements]. c. 9,4-5

What was the 'model ordination prayer'?

Of course, the original 'model prayer' handed on in oral tradition would soon have been committed to papyrus. The same happened to the oral tradition of Jesus' deeds and words. We may safely assume that short written liturgical texts existed by the beginning of the 2nd century. The first texts were, perhaps, written in Greek. Soon a Latin version would have been noted down.

Just as with the Our Father and the Eucharistic Consecration prayer, once a text was written down, it tended to 'freeze', to become a more rigid formula that would not change over time. It might be expanded on, obviously, but the original oldest formula would be passed on from one written text to another.

From liturgical texts of later centuries that have been preserved, we can identify the formula of the model ordination prayer. What is more it shows that the same prayer was used both for priests, male deacons and female deacons. All that needed to be done was that certain elements be adapted to the particular ordination.

Our sources are 6 sacramentaries and 9 pontificals which will be printed by us in detail later. They all preserve the main ordination prayer, as well as later extensions. The words of this prayer are as follows:

"Hear, o Lord, our petition and send down on this your maidservant the Spirit of your ordination so that, since you have conferred on her your heavenly office, she may obtain favour with your majesty and may present to others the example of a good life. Through."

What is the full meaning of this text?


Latin words

English Translation


1. Exaudi, Domine, preces nostras

Hear, o Lord, our prayers

Candidates for the episcopacy, priesthood or diaconate were selected publicly. The ordination was conducted in the middle of the liturgy and in view of the whole congregation. Both clergy and people support the ordaining bishop.

2. et super hunc (hanc) famulum tuum (famulam tuam)

and onto this [man / woman] your manservant / maidservant

These words imply that the bishop was imposing his hand on the head of the candidate [male='famulum' - female='famulam'].

3. spiritum

the Spirit

The classical formula of ordination requires the calling down of the Holy Spirit on the candidate.

4. tuae benedictionis emitte

of your ordination send down

'Benedictio' can also mean 'blessing'. But in the context of 'blessing bishops, priests or deacons' it means what we call 'ordination' today. In other words: the ancient term for ordination was 'blessing'.

5. ut caelesti munere ditatus (ditata)

so that since you have conferred on him (her) your heavenly office

The text says literally: "enriched by your heavenly office". The latin word 'munus' stands for a task, a job, a duty, an office. Classical writers use it for the task of a soldier, the post of ambassador, the ministry of an official. Here it clearly refers to the diaconate ministry conferred on the candidate.

6. et tuae gratiam possit majestatis acquirere

he (she) may both obtain favour with your majesty

Officials who perform their task well will find favour with the person who appointed them to the task.

7. et bene vivendi aliis exemplum praebere.

and present to others the example of a good life.

The deacon's task is a public function. It carries with it the responsibility of giving a good example to the community.


What are our SOURCES?








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