On the Priesthood: Saint John Chrysostom


My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,




The priesthood is an institution of Christianity for which a man "of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom" (Acts 6:3) is ordained a priest and held the post of serving the Church. About this diakonia many of the early Church Holy Fathers wrote as well as how to live a priestly life. Saint John Chrysostom is the one of the main Church Holy Fathers who wrote about the sacred Priesthood. He wrote around six books which dealt with the Christian Priesthood.

The Mystery (Sacrament) of Priesthood

The hierarchy was established in the Church by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, that it has been with the Church from its very beginning, and that in the Apostolic period it received an organization in three degrees (bishop-priest-deacon).

But the hierarchical ministry in the Church, especially that of bishop and priest, is a special ministry, an exceptional one: it is a ministry of grace. Here we find the shepherding of the flock of God, the highest example of which was given by the Lord in His earthly ministry. "I am the good shepherd, and know My sheep, and am known of Mine. The good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep" (St. John 10:4, 11). Here we find a standing before the Lord in prayer not only for oneself but also for the people. Here we find the guidance of the souls of men on the path to their attainment of the Kingdom of Heaven. The clergy, on behalf of the whole people, offers the Bloodless Sacrifice in the Divine Liturgy. And in every good work we ask the blessing of God and the help of God, can we imagine entering upon such an exalted and responsible pastoral ministry--entering upon it for one's whole life--without the invocation of God's Grace which blesses this labor, which cooperates with it and strengthens the future pastor? This blessing does indeed take place. It is bought down upon the one who approaches with sacred trembling to the reception of the gift of sacred ministry in the Mystery of Priesthood, through the laying on of hands by a bishop who himself bears by succession the grace of the priesthood, accompanied by the prayer of the entire congregation of clergy and people who are present at the Divine Service. It is called likewise the Mystery of Cheirotonia.

The Sacred Scripture gives a direct and clear indication that the placing in the rank of Priesthood is the communication of a special Grace-giving mystical gift, without which this ministry cannot be fulfilled.

Cheirotonia in the Ancient Church

According to the expression of the Book of Acts of the Apostles, when the Apostles, who acted in everything according to the instruction of Christ and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, found it necessary to place deacons in the Church in order to serve tables--first ordinary tables, and later also the Lord's Table--in order to lighten the services of the Apostles themselves, they first of all offered to the gathering of their disciples to choose from amongst themselves seven tested men filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom. And when they had been chosen and placed before them, "when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them" (Acts 6:2-6). Here with absolute clarity and distinctiveness are set apart from each other, as two distinct acts, the election of certain men for the ministry of deacon and the laying on of hands over them with prayer. The election is something merely human, while the laying on of hands is a sacred action especially intended for this aim, and an act of Divine Grace.

In the same book of Acts of the Apostles, we find an indication of the laying on of hands as a sacred act by means of which presbyters also were ordained in the early Church. The writer of the book, the Holy Apostle Luke, informs us: "And when they had ordained (cheirotonisantes) for them elders (presbyters or priests) in every church and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord" (Acts 14:23). It is apparent from the fact that it was performed by the Holy Apostles that was a sacred act. It is clear that this ordination was not merely a rite or a sign, but was the communication of a special gift.  

"Election" and "Ordination" in the Ancient Church

What has been said brings one to the undoubted conclusion that the Holy Apostles, by the authority of Christ, established three hierarchical degrees, and that for the raising up of selected persons into these degrees there was established ordination, which communicates to them the active grace of God which is indispensable for their ministry. It goes without saying that the successors of the Holy Apostles, the bishops, had to fulfill precisely what had been decreed by the Holy Apostles: that is, ordination through laying on of hands, joining to it the same exalted meaning and the same significance that were given by the Holy Apostles.

And so it has been in actual fact in the Church in later times.

Although in the early Church ordination to the rank of Priesthood occurred after a general election, with the agreement of the Church community or the local church, this "ordination" itself was an act totally separate and distinct from the agreement or election, and it was performed by persons equal in their authority to the Apostles, and who were their successors: the bishops. So it has remained up to our days.

The Essence and Effectuating Words of the Mystery

Thus the Mystery (Sacrament) of Priesthood is a sacred action which, through the prayerful laying on of hands of a bishop upon the head of the chosen person, brings down upon this person the Divine Grace which sanctifies and ordains him to a certain rank of the Church hierarchy and later cooperates with him in his passing through the hierarchical obligations. The Prayer of Cheirotonia is the following:

"The Divine Grace which always healeth that which is infirm and completeth that which is wanting, elevates (name) the most devout subdeacon, to be a deacon (or deacon, to be a priest). Wherefore, let us pray for him, that the Grace of the All-Holy Spirit may come upon him."

Thy Mystery of Cheirotonia is always included in the rite of the Divine Liturgy. Distinct from the Mystery of Cheirotonia is ordination by prayer to the lower ranks of the clergy (reader, subdeacon); this is called Cheirothesia (from a Greek word that has a purely Christian ecclesiastical meaning and came into use relatively late). (Orthodox Dogmatic Theology by Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky)


In discussing the responsibility of the priest for the souls of his flock and his liturgical and sacramental functions, Saint John Chrysostom found in theme a reason to ascribe to him an awesome dignity, a high honor, and even a character which is different from human:

"When one is required to preside over the Church and to be entrusted with the care of so many souls, the whole female sex must retire before the magnitude of the task, and the majority of men also; and we must bring forward those who to a large extent surpass all others, and soar as much above them in excellence of spirit as Saul overtopped the whole Hebrew nation in bodily stature: or rather far more. For in this case let me not take the height of shoulders as the standard of inquiry; but let the distinction between the pastor and his charge be as great as that between rational man and irrational creatures, not to say even greater, in as much as the risk is concerned with things of far greater importance" (Book 2:2).

'For the priestly office is indeed discharged on earth, but it ranks amongst heavenly ordinances; and they naturally so: for neither man, nor angel, nor archangel, nor any other created power, but the Paraclete Himself, instituted this vocation, and persuaded men while still abiding in the flesh to represent the ministry of angels. Wherefore the consecrated priest ought to be as pure as if he were standing in the heavens themselves in the midst of those powers" (Book 3:4).

(To be continued)


"Glory Be To GOD For All Things!" -- Saint John Chrysostomos


With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia (Ministry),
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George