In the Roman Catholic Church, the first requisite for lawful ordination is a Divine vocation; by which is understood the action of God, whereby He selects some to be His special ministers, endowing them with the spiritual, mental, moral, and physical qualities required for the fitting discharge of their order and inspiring them with a sincere desire to enter the ecclesiastical state for God's honor and their own sanctification. The reality of this Divine call is manifested in general by sanctity of life, right faith, knowledge corresponding to the proper exercise of the order to which one is raised, absence of physical defects, the age required by the canons. Sometimes this call was manifested in an extraordinary manner (Acts, i, 15; xiii, 2); in general, however, the "calling" was made according to the laws of the Church founded on the example of the Apostles.
Though clergy and laity had a voice in the election of the candidates, the ultimate and definite determination rested with the bishops. The election of the candidates by clergy and laity was in the nature of a testimony of fitness, the bishop had to personally ascertain the candidates' qualifications. A public inquiry was held regarding their faith and moral character and the electors were consulted. Only such as were personally known to the electing congregation, i.e., members of the same Church, were chosen.
Age for Ordination
A specified age was required, and, though there was some diversity in different places, in general, for deacons the age was twenty-five or thirty, for priests thirty or thirty-five, for bishops thirty-five or forty or even fifty (Apost. Const., II, i). Nor was physical age deemed sufficient, but there were prescribed specified periods of time, during which the ordained should remain in a particular degree. The different degrees were considered not merely as steps preparatory to the priesthood, but as real church offices.
The History of Ordination
In the beginning no such periods, called interstices, were appointed, though the tendency to orderly promotion is attested already in the pastoral Epistles (I Tim., iii, 3, 16). The first rules were apparently made in the fourth century. They seem to have been enforced by Siricius (385) and somewhat modified by Zosimus (418), who decreed that the office of reader or exorcist should last till the candidate was twenty, or for five years in case of those baptized as adults; four years were to be spent as acolyte or subdeacon, five years as deacon.
This was modified by Pope Gelasius (492), according to whom a layman who had been a monk might be ordained priest after one year, thus allowing three months to elapse between each ordination, and a layman who had not been a monk might be ordained priest after eighteen months. At present the minor orders are generally conferred together on one day.
Requirements for Ordination
The bishops, who are the ministers of the sacrament ex officio, must inquire about the birth, person, age, title, faith, and moral character of the candidate. They must examine whether he is born of Catholic parents, and is spiritually, intellectually, morally, and physically fit for the exercise of the ministry. The age required by the canons is for subdeacons twenty-one, for deacons twenty-two, and for priests twenty-four years completed. The pope may dispense from any irregularity and the bishops generally receive some power of dispensation also with regard to age, not usually for subdeacons and deacons, but for priests.
Bishops can generally dispense for one year, whilst the pope gives dispensation for over a year; a dispensation for more than eighteen months is but very rarely granted. For admission to minor orders, the testimony from the parish priest or from the master of the school where the candidate was educated—generally, therefore, the superior of the seminary—is required. For major orders further inquiries must be made. The names of the candidate must be published in the place of his birth and of his domicile and the result of such inquiries are to be forwarded to the bishop. No bishop may ordain those not belonging to his diocese by reason of birth, domicile, benefice, or familiaritas, without dimissorial letters from the candidate's bishop.
Testimonial letters are also required from all the bishops in whose dioceses the candidate has resided for over six months, after the age of seven. Transgression of this rule is punished by suspension latæ sententiæ against the ordaining bishop. In recent years several decisions insist on the strict interpretation of these rules. Subdeacons and deacons should pass one full year in these orders and they may then proceed to receive the priesthood. This is laid down by the Council of Trent (Sess. XXIII, c.xi.), which did not prescribe the time for minor orders. The bishop generally has the power to dispense from these interstices, but it is absolutely forbidden, unless a special indult be obtained, to receive two major orders or the minor orders and the subdiaconate in one day.
For the subdiaconate and the higher orders there is, moreover, required a title, i.e., the right to receive maintenance from a determined source. Again, the candidate must observe the interstices, or times required to elapse between the reception of various orders; he must also have received confirmation and the lower orders preceding the one to which he is raised. This last requirement does not affect the validity of the order conferred, as every order gives a distinct and independent power.
One exception is made by the majority of theologians and canonists, who are of opinion that episcopal consecration requires the previous reception of priest's orders for its validity. Others, however, maintain that episcopal power includes full priestly power, which is thus conferred by episcopal consecration. They appeal to history and bring forward cases of bishops who were consecrated without having previously received priest's orders, and though most of the cases are somewhat doubtful and can be explained on other grounds, it seems impossible to reject them all. It is further to be remembered that scholastic theologians mostly required the previous reception of priest's orders for valid episcopal consecration, because they did not consider episcopacy an order, a view which is now generally abandoned.
Ceremonies of Ordination
From the beginning the diaconate, priesthood, and episcopate were conferred with special rites and ceremonies. Though in the course of time there was considerable development and diversity in different parts of the Church, the imposition of hands and prayer were always and universally employed and date from Apostolic times (Acts, vi, 6; xiii, 3; I Tim., iv, 14; II Tim., i, 6). In the early Roman Church these sacred orders were conferred amid a great concourse of clergy and people at a solemn station. The candidates, who had been previously presented to the people, were summoned by name at the beginning of the solemn Mass.
They were placed in a conspicuous position, and anyone objecting to a candidate was called upon to state his objections without fear. Silence was regarded as approval. Shortly before the Gospel, after the candidates were presented to the pope, the entire congregation was invited to prayer. All prostrating, the litanies were recited, the pope then imposed his hands upon the head of each candidate and recited the Collect with a prayer of consecration corresponding to the order conferred.
The Gallican Rite was somewhat more elaborate. Besides the ceremonies used in the Roman Church, the people approving the candidates by acclamation, the hands of the deacon and the head and hands of priests and bishops were anointed with the sign of the Cross. After the seventh century the tradition of the instruments of office was added, alb and stole to the deacon, stole and planeta to the priest, ring and staff to the bishop. In the Eastern Church, after the presentation of the candidate to the congregation and their shout of approval, "He is worthy", the bishop imposed his hands upon the candidate and said the consecrating prayer.
We now give a short description of the ordination rite for priests as found in the present Roman Pontifical. All the candidates should present themselves in the church with tonsure and in clerical dress, carrying the vestments of the order to which they are to be raised, and lighted candles. They are all summoned by name, each candidate answering "Adsum". When a general ordination takes place the tonsure is given after the Introit or Kyrie, the minor orders after the Gloria, subdiaconate after the Collect, the diaconate after the Epistle, priesthood after Alleluia and Tract. After the Tract of the Mass the archdeacon summons all who are to receive the priesthood.
The candidates, vested in amice, alb, girdle, stole, and maniple, with folded chasuble on left arm and a candle in their right hand, go forward and kneel around the bishop. The latter inquires of the archdeacon, who is here the representative of the Church as it were, whether the candidates are worthy to be admitted to the priesthood. The archdeacon answers in the affirmative and his testimony represents the testimony of fitness given in ancient times by the clergy and people. The bishop, then charging the congregation and insisting upon the reasons why "the Fathers decreed that the people also should be consulted", asks that, if anyone has anything to say to the prejudice of the candidates, he should come forward and state it.
The bishop then instructs and admonishes the candidates as to the duties of their new office. He kneels down in front of the altar; the ordinandi lay themselves prostrate on the carpet, and the Litany of the Saints is chanted or recited. On the conclusion of the Litany, all arise, the candidates come forward, and kneel in pairs before the bishop while he lays both hands on the head of each candidate in silence. The same is done by all priests who are present. Whilst bishop and priests keep their right hands extended, the former alone recites a prayer, inviting all to pray to God for a blessing on the candidates.
After this follows the Collect and then the bishop says the Preface, towards the end of which occurs the prayer, "Grant, we beseech Thee etc." The bishop then with appropriate formulæ crosses the stole over the breast of each one and vests him with the chasuble. This is arranged to hang down in front but is folded behind. Though there is no mention of the stole in many of the most ancient Pontificals, there can be no doubt of its antiquity. The vesting with the chasuble is also very ancient and found already in Mabillon "Ord. VIII and IX." Afterwards the bishop recites a prayer calling down God's blessing on the newly-ordained. He then intones the "Veni Creator", and whilst it is being sung by the choir he anoints the hands of each with the oil of catechumens.
In England the head also was anointed in ancient times. The anointing of the hands, which in ancient times was done with chrism, or oil and chrism, was not used by the Roman Church, said Nicholas I (A.D. 864), though it is generally found in all ancient ordinals. It probably became a general practice in the ninth century and seems to have been derived from the British Church (Haddan and Stubbs, "Councils and Eccl. Documents", I, 141).
The bishop then hands to each the chalice, containing wine and water, with a paten and a host upon it. This rite, with its corresponding formula, which as Hugo of St. Victor says ("Sacr.", III, xii), signifies the power which has already been received, is not found in the oldest rituals and probably dates back not earlier than the ninth or tenth century. When the bishop has finished the Offertory of the Mass, he seats himself before the middle of the altar and each of those ordained make an offering to him of a lighted candle.
The newly-ordained priests then repeat the Mass with him, all saying the words of consecration simultaneously. Before the Communion the bishop gives the kiss of peace to one of the newly-ordained. After the Communion the priests again approach the bishop and say the Apostle's Creed. The bishop laying his hands upon each says: "Receive ye the Holy Ghost, whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained." This imposition of hands was introduced in the thirteenth century. The chasuble is then folded, the newly-ordained make a promise of obedience and having received the kiss of peace, return to their place.
Time and Place of Ordination
During the first centuries ordination took place whenever demanded by the needs of the Church. The Roman pontiffs generally ordained in December (Amalarius, "De offic.", II, i). Pope Gelasius (494) decreed that the ordination of priests and deacons should be held at fixed times and days, viz., on the fasts of the fourth, seventh, and tenth months, also on the fasts of the beginning and midweek (Passion Sunday) of Lent and on (holy) Saturday about sunset (Epist. ad ep. Luc., xi). This but confirmed what Leo the Great laid down, for he seems to speak of ordination on Ember Saturdays as an Apostolic tradition (Serm. 2, de jejun. Pentec.) The ordination may take place either after sunset on the Saturday or early on Sunday morning. The ordination to major orders took place before the Gospel.
Minor orders might be given at any day or hour. They were generally given after holy communion. At present minor orders may be given on Sundays and days of obligation (suppressed included) in the morning. For the sacred orders, a privilege to ordain on other days than those appointed by the canons, provided the ordination takes place on Sunday or day of obligation (suppressed days included), is very commonly given.
Though it was always the rule that ordinations should take place in public, in time of persecution they were sometimes held in private buildings. The place of ordinations is the church. Minor orders may be conferred in any place, but it is understood that they are given in the church. The Pontifical directs that ordinations to sacred orders must be held publicly in the cathedral church in presence of the cathedral chapter, or if they be held in some other place, the clergy should be present and the principle church, as far as possible, must be made use of.
Source The Catholic Encyclopedia (1914 ed. in the public domain), "Holy Orders" with minor edits.