Validity of new rite of episcopal consecrations: 6

Solution of the Difficulties: Defect of matter

The new rite clearly states that the matter of the sacrament is the imposition of hands.

Finally, in the ordination of a bishop, the matter is the laying of hands on the head of the bishop-elect by the consecrating bishops, or at least by the principal consecrator, that is done in silence before the consecratory prayer.[91]

The cause of the difficulty is that the imposition of the Gospels book on the bishop-elect’s head occurs between the imposition of hands and the consecratory prayer.

In the second edition of the Pontifical (1990) several lengthy praenotanda were added. An explanation is given of the ceremony of the imposition of the Gospels in paragraph 26:

By the imposition of the Gospels book on the head of the ordinand during the ordination prayer, and by its placement in the hands of the newly ordained bishop, one of the bishop’s principal duties, the faithful preaching of the Gospel, is highlighted.

Let us begin our reply by seeing how the reformers explained the change which they introduced. In 1969 La Maison Dieu published an issue on the new rites of infant baptism and of ordinations, in which it is said:

The first addition was the imposition of the Gospels book during the consecratory prayer. This was an ancient usage in the patriarchate of Antioch. It is difficult to say when it was introduced at Rome, but it was done for papal ordinations, according to the testimony of the Liber Diurnus[92]: two deacons held the Gospels book open over the candidate’s head. The same rite was introduced in Gaul under the influence of the Statuta Ecclesiae Antiqua,[93] but with a variation: the Gospels book was no longer held by two deacons, but by two bishops."[94]

Here is the text of the Liber Diurnus given in Migne’s Patrology:[95]

Post litaniam ascendunt ad sedem, simul episcopi et presbyteri. Tunc episcopus Albanensis dat orationem primam: deinde episcopus Portuensis dat orationem secundam: postmodum adducuntur Evangelia, et aperiuntur, et tenentur super caput electi a diaconibus. Tunc episcopus Ostiensis consecrat eum pontificem.

Translation: After the litany, the bishops and the priests go up to the faldstool. Then the Bishop of Albano says the first prayer;[96] the Bishop of Porto, the second;[97] then the Gospels book is brought forward,[98] it is opened, and held upon the head of the elect by the deacons. Then the Bishop of Ostia consecrates him pontiff."[99]

Since the second prayer is said after the imposition of hands, it can be seen that the imposition of the Gospels book took place between the imposition of hands and the consecratory prayer.[100] As for the text of the Statua Ecclesiae Antiqua, here it is:

Episcopus cum ordinatur, duo episcopi ponant et teneant evangeliorum codicem super cervicem eius et uno super eum fundente benedictionem, reliqui omnes episcopi qui adsunt, manibus suis caput eius tangant.

Translation: When a bishop is ordained, let two bishops place and hold the Gospels book on his neck, and while the blessing is pronounced over him, let the other bishops present touch his head with their hands."[101]

In the article already cited, Dom Botte had this to say about the imposition of the Gospels book:

The imposition of hands is followed by the opening of the Gospels book on the head or shoulders of the bishop-elect.[102] As I said above, this ceremony is to be found in very ancient liturgical books in Syria. It was introduced at Rome for papal ordination, then was generalized throughout Gaul by the Statuta Ecclesiae Antiqua, though according to the latter, the Gospels book was supposed to be held by two bishops. They reverted to the ancient tradition: the Gospels book is held by two deacons. No formula expresses the meaning of the ceremony. Only the Byzantine Rite furnishes an explanation: the bishop must be subject to the yoke of the Gospel. This is the only authorized commentary that we have, and it is coherent."[103]

In a study that came out in 1957, Dom Botte said:

No formula expresses the signification of the ceremony. The Pontifical directs that the book be imposed super cervicem et scapulas [on the neck and shoulders], but the ancient documents have it imposed on the head.... [This rite] certainly represents a real usage of the Church of Antioch, for St. John Chrysostom alludes to it, and as does the Pseudo-Denis later on. It is found in all the rites of the Syrian type."[104]

Indeed, this ceremony is common in the Syrian rites currently in use. We found it in the ordination rites of Syrian bishops (according to Morin[105] and Renaudot[106]), the Maronite patriarch,[107] and Maronite bishops and metropolitans.[108]

To summarize: the imposition of hands on the head of the ordinand during the episcopal consecration is still practiced today in the Eastern Rites, and it was practiced at Rome formerly. Evidence of the occurrence of the imposition of the Gospels book between the imposition of hands and the consecratory prayer at Rome is contained in the Liber Diurnus.[109]

How can it be explained that this placement of the imposition of the Gospels book does not break the unity between the matter and form? Here are two justifications of the fact (each of which is sufficient).

  • The imposition of the Gospels book does not break the moral unity between the imposition of hands and the consecratory prayer. It must be remembered that the union between the matter and form of a sacrament is a moral union (they concur to signify the same thing), and not a physical union (as exists between a man’s soul and body). There can be an interval between the two as long as the form clearly applies to the matter. Thus in the sacrament of penance, a certain time can elapse between the confession and the absolution. Similarly in the traditional Roman rite for sacerdotal ordination, the matter is the first imposition of hands which is done in silence, while the form is the consecratory prayer that is made a little later.[110] Between the two, a prayer to the Holy Spirit is made with hands joined.

Whatever may be the meaning attributed to the ceremony of the imposition of the Gospels book in the new rite (prolongation of the imposition of hands,[111] the sending of the Holy Spirit,[112] submission to the yoke of the Gospel,[113] the munus praedicandi confided to the bishop[114]), it is clear that it fits into the ceremony of episcopal ordination and that it manifests no intention of interrupting the conferral of the sacrament: that is even more evident in the ancient rite in which the Gospels book is kept on the neck of the bishop-elect during the entire consecratory preface.

  • The principal consecrator lifts his hands at the beginning of the consecratory prayer: this gesture is equivalent to the imposition of hands, since moral contact suffices for the sacrament to be validly conferred.[115]

As for the fact that in the new rite the ordaining bishop must join his hands while saying the essential words of the rite (no explanation is given), one might regret it, but that certainly does not prevent the validity of the rite: in the traditional rite, only the principal consecrator had his hands extended at that moment,[116] yet it is certain that the co-consecrators validly consecrated.

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91 Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution Pontificalis Romani, June 18, 1968. This is also stated in the rubrics. For example, in the 1990 edition, it reads: “By the imposition of the bishops’ hands and by the consecratory prayer, the gift of the Holy Ghost is given to the elect for his episcopal function.”

92 The Liber Diurnus is a collection of formulas used by the Roman chancellery. The rite for papal ordination that it contains was included in the collection of Ordines Romani edited by M. Andrieu under two forms, XL A and XL B. The most ancient probably goes back to the sixth century. [Note by Dom Botte.]

93 The Statuta are an apocryphal collection composed in Gaul towards the end of the fifth century, probably by Gennadius of Marseille; see C. Munier, Les Statuta Ecclesiae Antiqua (Paris, 1960). [Note by Dom Botte.]

94 La Maison Dieu, 98 (2nd trimester, 1969), 113.

95 Liber Diurnus Romanorum Pontificum, Title VIII (Ritus Ordinandi Pontificis), PL 105, 38D-39A.

96 “Adesto supplicationibus nostris omnipotens Deus,” etc . In the 1962 Pontifical, this prayer is said before the litany. This was already the case in the Roman Pontifical in the 13th century before Durand of Mende (Le Pontifical de la Curie romaine au XIIIe siecle, “Sources liturgiques,” 4 (Paris: Cerf, 2004), p.80.—Ed.

97 “Propitiare, Domine, supplicationibus nostris,” etc. In the 1962 Roman Pontifical, this prayer is said after the imposition of hands just before the consecratory prayer. This was already the case in Roman Pontifical of the 13th century (ibid., p.82).—Ed.

98 Migne points out in a note: “In the episcopal ordination, the Ordo Romanus says that the Gospels book is held on the head of the elect not by deacons, but by bishops.”

99 The prayer begins with the words: “Deus honorum omnium.” The current consecratory prayer says “Deus honor omnium.” It is said that a formula proper to the pope must be added to the sentence: “Et idcirco famulo tuo N. quem ad summi sacerdotii ministerium elegisti, hanc, quaesumus, Domine, gratiam largiaris” and this sentence is found word for word in the 1962 ritual. This confirms that the consecratory prayer of the Roman ritual is very ancient, since the Liber Diurnus dates to the seventh or eighth century, and repeats the formularies of St. Gelasius (492-496) and of St. Gregory the Great (590-604).

100 See the preceding notes (especially n.33).

101 Charles Munier, Les Statuta Ecclesiae Antiqua, (PUF, 1958), p.95.

102 The Coomaraswamists thought that their objections were beginning to be taken into account [by ecclesiastical authorities] by the fact that, in a recent episcopal consecration, the imposition of the Gospels book was made on the ordinand’s shoulders and not his head. Yet from this passage it is clear that this variant was recognized by Dom Botte even in 1969.

103 La Maison Dieu, 98 (2nd trimester, 1969), 119.

104 Bernard Botte, O.S.B., “L’Ordre d’apres les prieres d’ordination,” in Etudes sur le sacrament de l’ordre, Lex Orandi Series Vol. 22 (Paris: Cerf, 1957), pp.20, 22.

105 Denzinger, Ritus Orientalium, II, 75.

106 Ibid., II, 97.

107 Ibid., II, 219-20.

108 Ibid., II, 199.

109 In all the preparatory schemas of the new ritual until Schema 270 of Feb. 1, 1968, the imposition of the Gospels book was placed before the imposition of hands, as in the ancient rite. In the text promulgated by Rome on June 18, the imposition of the Gospels book was placed after the imposition of hands. No explanation for this change was given. Dom Botte did not propose it, but he accepted it, since he speaks of it as a natural thing in his Maison Dieu article which came out the following year. In our opinion, it is purely a practical matter: it is difficult to impose hands on the candidate while the Gospels book is placed upon his head... To remedy the difficulty, the Eastern rituals prescribe an elaborate sequence of raising and lowering the Gospels book. The redactors probably found it simpler to place the imposition of the Gospels book after the imposition of hands, as was already the case in the Liber Diurnus.

110 Pius XII, Apostolic Constitution Sacramentum Ordinis, DS 3860.

111 This is the explanation given by M. Metzger in Les Constitutions Apostoliques II (Bks. III-VI), SC 329, introduction, critical analysis, translation, and notes by Marcel Metzger, pp.78-9 [in the Introduction]. This is the way he explains that in the Apostolic Constitutions no mention is made “of the imposition of hands, but of a gesture of the same significance which can be likened to an extension [of the hands]: the deacons hold the Gospels book open on the head of the ordinand (VIII, 4, 6) at the moment of the consecratory prayer.”

112 According to a text of Severian of Gabala (4th-5th century):

The presence of tongues of fire on the [Apostles’] heads is the sign of an ordination. Indeed, as custom demands up to the present day, since the descent of the Holy Spirit is invisible, that one impose upon the head of whoever is to be ordained high-priest the Gospels book; and when this imposition is made, one must see nothing but a tongue of fire posing on his head; a tongue because of the preaching of the Gospel; a tongue of fire because of the words ‘I am come to cast fire on the earth.’” Translated by J.  Lecuyer, 'Note sur la liturgie du sacre des eveques,' Ephemerides Liturgicae, 66 (1952), 370.

Let us point out that in the traditional rite, the imposition of hands is accompanied by the prayer "Accipe Spiritum Sanctumreceive the Holy Ghost” (Pontificale Romanum [1962], p.69.

113 This is the meaning given in the traditional Roman rite, a meaning known even by St. John Chrysostom:

It is for this reason, that, during the ordination of priests, the Church also places the Gospels book on the head of the ordinand, so that he, too, may learn that, while he is the head of all, yet is he subject to these laws; commanding all, yet himself commanded by the Law; making laws on everything, yet himself receiving laws from the word (of God).... Consequently, the imposition of the Gospels book on the high-priest signifies that he is subject to an authority." (Greek Fathers, LIV, 404.)

114 The duty to preach, as Rubric 26 of the praenotanda of the second edition of the Pontifical implies (see above).


That no occasion for doubt may be offered, we command that in any conferring of orders the imposition of hands be made by physically touching the head of the one to be ordained, although even the moral touch suffices for performing a sacrament validly." (Pius XII, Apostolic Constitution Sacramentum Ordinis, DS 3861 [Dz. 2301]).

As for the pretension that the imposition of the Gospels book on the head of the bishop-elect would prevent moral contact between the consecrator’s hand and the ordinand’s head, it should suffice to point out that a priest who forgets to uncover the ciborium validly consecrates the hosts, or that absolution can be conferred through an opaque screen, etc.

116 Consecration des Eveques (Angers: Richer, 1920), p.52: “Alone extending his hands over the elect, the consecrator continues [and says the consecratory prayer].”