When did priests start saying Mass?

by Paul Bradshaw

It has traditionally been accepted that Ignatius of Antioch in the early second century was the first Christian writer to refer explicitly to a threefold order of bishops, presbyters, and deacons. But it is doubtful that Ignatius understood those terms to mean the same as they did to much later generations. A “bishop” is more likely to have been the leader of a small local congregation or individual house-church, rather than the chief minister over a whole city or larger area. How else could the bishop have been the normal presider at the Eucharist and minister of baptism if he was responsible for more than one congregation? Ignatius says in his Letter to the Smyrneans, “Let that be deemed a valid Eucharist, which is (administered) either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it…. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to hold an agape’ (8.2). Seemingly, eucharistic presidency by others was an exception rather than the rule.

            Similarly, the “presbyters” that he mentioned do not seem to have been subordinate liturgical ministers (for what would they normally have to do in the liturgy?), but rather leading members of the congregation who provided advice and counsel to the bishop. Other early sources support that interpretation. The First Epistle of Clement, for example, states that the Apostles appointed “bishops and deacons” to replace them, not presbyters (42.4); and the so-called Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus describes presbyters as receiving “the spirit of grace and counsel of the presbyterate” at their ordination, and denies that a deacon is a “participant in the counsel of the clergy” (7.2: 8.3).

            So just when, therefore, did presbyters begin to preside more regularly at the Eucharist? It is difficult to be sure because early Christian writers tend to use Greek terms for “presider” in this connection rather than the more precise name of an office, as for example Justin Martyr (proestōs, usually used of one who was head of a philosophical school), Ignatius of Antioch (prokathemenos, literally, the one seated), or Hermas (proistamenos, the one set over). But we may reasonably presume that the practice began to develop in the late second century when the term “bishop” started to refer to one who had jurisdiction over all the churches of a city or region. Some presbyters would then have assumed responsibility for individual congregations and become the presiders at their Eucharists. But that does not mean that all presbyters did so. In Rome, for example, for several centuries the Pope sent pieces of bread consecrated at the Eucharist he was celebrating (the fermentum) to the other churches within the city walls to effect the consecration of the elements there for presbyters to distribute in communion.

            And when did presbyters begin to be called priests? The Latin liturgical books continued to use the term presbyter down to the late Middle Ages, but bishops began to be spoken of as a priest (sacerdos) or high-priest (summus sacerdos) as early as the third century, with presbyters then described as sharing in the bishop’s priesthood or as exercising a lesser priesthood (see the classic Roman ordination prayer for a priest). As centuries passed and presbyters rather than bishops were seen as the normal presidents at the Eucharist, they came to be called sacerdotes unequivocally. Although the titles may have remained constant, their meaning and the functions of the ministries changed in response to the changing situations in which the Church found itself.

Paul Bradshaw, priest of the Church of England, is a specialist in the early history of Christian liturgy who has taught at the University of Notre Dame since 1985. He has written or edited over twenty books and has contributed more than one hundred articles or essays. For eighteen years he was chief editor of the international journal, Studia Liturgicaand he is also a former President both of Societas Liturgica and of the North American Academy of Liturgy. His book, The Search for the Origins of Christian Liturgy, has become a standard textbook. It has gone through two editions (New York: Oxford University Press 1992, 2002), and has been translated into French, Italian, Japanese, Polish and Russian.

Featured Image: from Clip Art Library.

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