Non Solum: The laying on of hands at an ordination

A reader writes in:

Does every priest have a ‘right’ to lay hands in the rite of ordination of a priest? Or only priests who are concelebrating, or priests vested in choir? It looks unseemly when priests in the congregation, in clericals or street clothes, come up for this part of the rite. And is seems theologically problematic – why would you ‘concelebrate’ one part of the Mass, the ordination, but not the Eucharistic sacrifice itself? I am curious what the canonical state of affairs is, and what people think best liturgical practice is.

Please comment below.



  1. I have not seen this practice in Catholic ordinations, although I’ve seen it in Protestant ones. Usually, the priests who share in the laying on of hands are vested and seated in the sanctuary, in my experience. But then, I live in the Northeast US, where practices are pretty conservative. I wonder where the practice of priests coming out of the assembly to lay on hands takes place, and whether it is widespread. Perhaps readers who have been to a lot of ordinations could say.

  2. Seems rather silly to me for a priest to come up and not be vested.

    I would even be ok if a priest came in the sacristy during the laying on of hands and put on a cassock, surplice and stole, and came out to lay hands on the ordinands then returned to the pews discreetly via the sacristy.

    But to come up from the pews straight the ordinands from the pews, in street dress? No thank you. If a priest is going to exercise his priestly office liturgically, he needs to be dressed liturgically.

    1. @Ben Yanke – comment #2:
      Hi Ben,
      Yes, this is how I feel too. But the question posed is whether unvested priests have a right to lay hands, however we feel that looks.

      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #3:
        Well, yes. But is the question of “rights” really the proper question to ask here? Not saying it is or isn’t. But it’s not as if the priest is conferring a sacrament himself, so it’s not that there’s an obligation for him to do so.

      2. @Ben Yanke – comment #8:
        Ben, it’s a canonical question, so it is properly a question of rights. That’s also true when the answer is that he doesn’t have such a right.

  3. We’ve never had the experience of non-concelebrants participating in the laying on of hands. If a priest wants to exercise his priestly office at an ordination, he should be properly vested for concelebration, and participate sacerdotally in the entire ritual, not merely popping in, discreetly or not, for this or that portion of the ritual.

  4. I can’t think of a clear statement on this in the liturgical books but back in 1970 we had this from the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship: “The abuse is here repudiated of celebrating or even concelebrating Mass with stole only over the monastic cowl or over ordinary clerical garb, to say nothing of street clothes. Equally forbidden is the wearing of the stole alone over street clothes when carrying out other ritual acts, for example, the laying on of hands at ordinations, administering other sacraments, giving blessings.” (Liturgicae Instaurationes, n. 8).

    1. @Fr Kurt Barragan – comment #5:
      It would seem to me that this applies only to ritual acts in the sanctuary. At least it is not genaerally followed in the confessional, bringing communion to the sick, often at gravesides.

      1. @Alexander Larkin – comment #21:

        Yes. When anointing the sick in hospital, for instance, it is not generally possible to be vested (apart from putting on a small pocket stole) – not least because of hygiene requirements which require our arms to be bare from the elbow down. I also can’t imagine rushing off to get vested every time somebody asks me to bless a rosary…

        On the other hand, I recently presided at the blessing of a married couple on their 25th anniversary. The blessing took place in church, outside of Mass, with a small gathering of their family. It wasn’t a big affair but I think that it was right to be vested for the occasion – it helped convey the fact that this was a significant and joyful celebration.

        It is always necessary to use some common sense but my general rule would be to wear the prescribed vesture for public celebrations unless there was a very good reason not to.

      1. @Anne Smyth – comment #33:
        Thank you for the lovely photo. It is an example of the wonderful encouragement that Pope Francis, by his words and actions, has given to the fruitful celebration of Reconciliation.

        On the question of vestments, I’ve already said that, while I think that the general principle of being properly vested for liturgical celebrations is important, we have to use a bit of common sense.

        Also, the liturgical books sometimes modify the general principle laid down in that quotation (e.g. the ‘Book of Blessings’ has a rubric to the effect that vestments should be worn for solemn or public blessings, implying that they may be omitted in other circumstances).

        I believe that, even in the “old-days”, it was permitted to wear the stole over ordinary clothing when administering the sacrament of Penance outside of a church. In the post-conciliar rite of Penance, there are no detailed rules on vesture and it is left to the local Ordinaries to determine what vestments should be worn.

  5. In the Caeremoniale Episcoporum of 1984 near the end of section 50 we read: “A minister who is not wearing a vestment, a cassock and surplice or other lawfully approved garb may not enter the sanctuary (chancel) during a celebration.” The footnote to section 50 directs the reader to sections 65-67 Vesture of priests and other ministers. The directions there are quite clear.

  6. Years ago there were a few priests who now and again would show up at ordinations unvested who came up for the laying on of hands. It doesn’t happen here anymore because the word got out that the archbishop didn’t like that. I doubt very much that this is a practice worth giving much consideration to. The right to lay on hands belongs to priests who are concelebrating the ordination Mass.

      1. @Paul Inwood – comment #13:

        I know that Ben Yanke’s traditionalist preferences make him a target around here, but “correcting” him by saying “surplice” is an Anglican word is moving on toward idiotic. What are you trying to prove, anyway?

        From ‘Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship’
        “Cassock and surplice, being clerical attire, are not recommended as choir vesture.”

        Interesting it calls them “clerical attire” and not “Anglican attire.”

      2. @Paul Inwood – comment #13:

        Paul, I think you are being naughty. So I’ll be naughty too.

        The Cotta is an ugly, undignified and skimpy garment delighted in only by those who have little taste. The Surplice, on the other hand, is at its best graceful, flowing and full.

        Anglicans, who at least in the past generally had more taste than Catholics, tended to prefer the Surplice unless they were out and out papalists, in which case the Cotta became a party badge.

        Of course, if your exalted rank in the Church causes you to sport a cassock with red or purple flashings on it, you will want those to be clearly visible to the rank-and-file. So you wear the Cotta.

        Surplices can therefore make the additional claim to be the garment of monsignorial humility.

        And as for lace …


    1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #16:

      Yes, and in GIRM 336. In both cases it translates the Latin superpelliceum. The word cotta is not to be found.

      However, my point was really that all good Catholics (especially altar servers) refer to cassock-and-cotta, and all good Anglicans refer to cassock-and-surplice, regardless of the actual vestments being employed. (Cottas are not just bum-freezers but can come down to below the knee. The real difference is in the sleeves.) In the past I have noticed that surplice is used much more than cotta in the US, and always assumed that it was because Americans were less familiar with European Catholic tradition, or that it was a language thing, similar to the difference between Catholics who receive Communion whereas Anglicans take Communion.

  7. Ben Yanke :

    Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh : If a priest wants to exercise his priestly office at an ordination, he should be properly vested for concelebration.

    ### Or in choir, at the very least, with cassock, surplice, and stole.

    One priest at my ordination did just that. He wore habit and surplice throughout and put on a stole for the laying on of hands. He was serving as emcee for the bishop and I know that when he does that he prefers not to concelebrate.

  8. The two words basically refer to the same thing.
    Like pants and trousers.

    And, like pants and trousers – there are mild connotative differences, which are NOT universally recognized. (Trousers are looser, BTW.)

    There is a trend in Anglicanism, going back a hundred years at least, to refer to the daffy-duck length short thing as a “cotta” and the floor-length is-that-an-alb-I’m-so-confused thing as a surplice. In that context, often children (altar boys) wear the “cotta.”

    Anglicans also tend to wear round-yoked surplice/cotta (over their Roman-style cassocks, but whatever), as opposed to Roman square-yoke ones. (And I haven’t seen anyone, yet, wearing an Anglican-style cassock, even though it is supposedly a thing.)

  9. Ceremonial of Bishops 66 also mandates “cassock and surplice” for non-concelebrant presbyters (unless they are canons or prelates, in which case they wear their proper choir dress), so there should be no priests present but barred from the sanctuary because they are under-dressed.

    More importantly, though, CB 532 resolves the questions of which presbyters are entitled to lay hands on the ordinands:
    “Next all the concelebrating presbyters and all other presbyters present, provided they are vested with a stole worn over an alb or over a cassock and surplice, lay their hands on each of the candidates, in silence. . . . ”

    So one could say that all legitimately present priests who put on a stole (at least at the time of the hand-laying) acquire a “right” to lay hands in virtue of the ritual “duty” – *all* presbyters wearing a stole over alb/surplice are directed to lay hands. The flipside is that there clearly exists no right simpliciter for priests to lay hands at ordination because they must first meet the requirements of being vested properly.

  10. There is a picture of Pope Francis, attending an episcopal ordination, and was wearing the “house cassock” he always wears, i.e. not choir dress, and he put on a stole over the cassock and so dressed joined in the laying on of hands of the bishop-elect.

    I am an Episcopal priest. I am almost always dressed in surplice & stole or even an alb at ordinations of priests, and I join in the laying on of hands. Once I was not so vested, so to sit with a guest in the pews, but I did put on a stole, over a black suit and collar, and join in the laying on of hands.
    In our non-Roman context, I think if it not so much as a individual priest’s right to join in, but rather – the appropriateness of the presbyters as a college, present the service, to so participate.

  11. Moving from incognita terra cotta back to Nathan’s question, whence the language of “rights” when speaking of imposition of hands? At ordination liturgies for members of religious orders, where clerics may be in the majority, some priests choose to vest, concelebrate, and impose hands. (At a recent liturgy, this part went on for almost twenty minutes, through an extended version of the Taize “Veni, Sancte” and an organ improvisation on Down Ampney.) But other priests, in clerical attire or (gasp) mufti, choose to attend in modo laicorum. So…SHOULD all of the clerics present have concelebrated? (Cf. Macbeth, “What, will the line stretch out to the crack of doom?”) Could the organizers of the liturgy LIMIT the number of concelebrants (thereby denying some their “right” to impose hands)? Is there a possibility that having an overwhelming (yet to be specified) number of priests imposing hands makes this part of the ritual appear as an initiation into an “old boys’ club?”

  12. Paul Nienaber SJ : At a recent liturgy, this part went on for almost twenty minutes, through an extended version of the Taize “Veni, Sancte” and an organ improvisation on Down Ampney.

    If memory serves, this part of the rite is meant to be conducted in silence, isn’t it? I think that’s what’s laid down in the Ceremonial of Bishops.

    1. @Martin Barry – comment #29:
      At least in the liturgies I’ve seen, the bishop’s imposition is in silence, but the procession of / imposition by the other presbyters has some sort of musical accompaniment (choral, congregational, or instrumental). Again, this may vary in the practical order if there are a dozen concelebrants or more than 100.

  13. I think that it is nice that every priest participates in this because it represents a union with those who are being ordained. I don’t really get hung up as to if a priest is a concelebrant. We only need one celebrant but in ordinations we are showing unity in the grace bestowed through ordination. Is that wrong?

  14. In Ordination we are celebrating a Sacrament of the Church. Rights? Seems to me if we choose to celebrate/participate in a sacramental ritual the “only right” we have is to celebrate The Rite in the manner the Church prescribes for a sacrament. Since we celebrate Orders within the Eucharistic rite, during Mass, then we have the “right” to dress as prescrbied. We do not pick or concoct some sort of prayer assembly ad libitum during which we ordain priests: we do IT in the context of the Mass, so we dress as is proper for this Sacrament. That, Domni, is our “right”.

    cordailly, ~~Gerald

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