Bishops’ and Priests’ Gestures at an Ordination

Date: September 30, 2023
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum University.


Question: At the ordination of priests, when other bishops are present aside from the ordaining prelate, should they lay hands on the candidates or refrain from doing so? I have seen both practices. Also, is it appropriate during the prayer of ordination for priests to extend their hands toward the ordinandi? -- J.Z., Weston, Massachusetts


Answer: Concerning the first question, I would say that other bishops present should not participate in the laying on of hands although, in the case of numerous candidates, they may assist in the complementary rites of anointing of hands and handing over the paten and chalice.


In 1980 Notitiae, the official organ of the Congregation for Divine Worship, issued a response to a doubt.


The question was: “If, during a priestly ordination, could an assisting bishop participate in the imposition of hands after the principal celebrant and with him recite the essential part of the consecratory prayer?” To this the Congregation for Divine Worship consulted with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which replied that it should not be done or that it is not expedient or advantageous (non expedire).


Now it is clear that the above official reply disapproves two actions, that is, a second bishop laying hands on the ordinands and saying the consecratory prayer along with the ordaining bishop. It does not determine, however, whether either of these actions taken separately would also be disapproved.


It also used the rather unusual formula of saying that it was not expedient, perhaps because while the ritual actions performed by the second bishop would not affect the validity of the ordination in any way, they could cause ritual confusion with the rite of episcopal ordination.


Hence, I would hold that it is a ritual error for a bishop to participate in the complementary laying on of hands at an ordination. The ritual speaks only of priests. A bishop may say that he is doing so as a priest, but, as a bishop, his relationship with the priest is different due to his hierarchical position. Therefore, the meaning of this laying on of hands, that of being a sign of communion in the same order, would also be different.


For example, there are usually about eight bishops concelebrating when the Holy Father ordains priests for the Diocese of Rome, but they do not participate in this laying on of hands, which is done exclusively by priests.


The symbol of laying of hands by the priests at ordination recognizes the admission of the newly ordained priest to the presbyterium; similarly, laying on hands by all the bishops in the episcopal ordination symbolizes the acceptance of the newly ordained bishop into the college of bishops. At a diaconal ordination, only the ordaining bishop imposes hands on the candidate.


Concerning the second question, the Ceremonial of Bishops offers the following indications:


“531. One by one, the candidates go to the bishop and kneel before him. The bishop, wearing the miter, lays his hands on the head of each, in silence.


“532. 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. After the laying on of hands, the presbyters remain on either side of the bishop until the prayer of consecration is completed.


“533. The candidates kneel before the bishop. Putting aside the miter and with hands outstretched, he sings or says the prayer of consecration.”


As we can see, the above instructions simply say that the priests stand beside the bishop. The next rubric indicates that the bishop holds his hands outstretched as he sings or says the consecratory prayer.


If the legislator desired that the assisting priests also extended their hands during the ordination prayer, then it would have been clearly indicated in the above norms. Given that nothing is indicated, no gesture is foreseen. Priests would generally keep their hands joined.


Apart from the above, I believe it would also be ritually inappropriate. While the ancient practice of the laying on of hands by all the priests present is a sign of communion within the same order, the gesture of extending the hands during the ordination prayer could be incorrectly interpreted as the priests in some way sharing in the sacramental effect of the rite of ordination to the priesthood.


This interpretation would be theologically incorrect as only the bishop can validly consecrate a man for service to God’s people as an ordained minister.


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Readers may send questions to Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, city, state, province, or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the many questions that arrive.


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