“If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
With those words, Jesus conformed His apostles to Himself as servants, and this before He instituted the Eucharist. Going ahead to the dilemma of the Apostles in Acts, we see them exercising their ministry of service until the growth of the Church placed too many demands on them. When they laid hands on the seven they were transmitting what had been given to them at the Last Supper, namely, the ministry of service.One might more precisely say that Christ gave the Apostles the "ministry of service" in several pieces, not only at the Last Supper, and that the Apostles gave the Seven only a specific portion of the ministry of service they had already received - namely, that ministry for serving the Church through preaching, evangelizing, and baptizing, but not including the Eucharist or Confirmation (see the ministry of Stephen and Philip, recorded in Acts 7 and 8).
The very first commenter on Dcn. Greg's post brings up the question of the "transitional" diaconate, which we've talked about before. It's not as much a tangent as it seems; if Acts 6 really is the hierarchy of Holy Orders in nascent form, replicating the experience of the Apostles receiving sequential and cumulative gifts of authority for ministry (wherever one might locate those gifts in the Gospels), then the "transitional" diaconate is implied therein. Thus, the commenter asks, "But I’m wondering if there is evidence that the practice goes back to earlier patristic or even apostolic times. I ask because Deacon Bill Ditewig has written that it is not necessary–and, with the permanent diaconate restored, perhaps not desirable either."
I disagree with Dcn. Ditewig rather substantially on this point. I argue that the prior ordination to the diaconate of candidates to the priesthood (what we now call the "transitional" diaconate) is not only theologically sound, but that it is theologically necessary, and that it is the majority position attested in the Tradition.
So here, in a very schematic form, is the historical argument from the Tradition in favor of the "transitional" diaconate. The theological arguments will take other posts to engage.
In the earliest years of the Church, the Apostles are alive and using fully the various pastoral and sacramental powers given by Christ. It's not debated that whatever authority the Apostles had in the earliest Church was given by Christ, nor that they used that authority in accordance with what Christ willed for them. As the Church was growing in Jerusalem and elsewhere, the Apostles saw the need for pastoral help, and foresaw the need for continuity in Christ's pastoral powers, so they "ordained" (some quibble over the semantics of that word) the Seven as deacons, and individually, they recruited others also (Paul ordains Timothy, e.g.) as "elders" ("prebyteroi", i.e. priests/bishops). There's no stable vocabulary yet, and the roles are to some extent still being worked out in practice, but some elements (laying on of hands, basic relationship to Eucharist ("presbyteroi" confect, deacons assist and distribute), authority to teach, community with the original Twelve, etc.) are consistently recognizable even in the earliest period.
After the deaths of the Apostles (many in the 60's) and destruction of the Temple in 70, the authority of the Apostles is clearly handed on in full to their successors (Paul to Timothy, John to Polycarp to Irenaeus, Peter to Linus to Cletus to Clement, etc.). The two distinct subordinate degrees of sharing in that apostolic authority are recognizably stabilizing into priesthood and diaconate; the three highest grades are already in place. The letter of St. Clement of Rome to the Corinthians, ca. 90, clearly shows this hierarchical relationship well-formed (see ch 40-42), as do the Didache (ca. 90-100), the letters of St. Ignatius from ca. 115 (e.g, To the Trallians), the First Apology of Justin Martyr (ca. 150; see ch. 65-67), and several other sources. By the end of the first century, the Church has firmly established as its governance one bishop per urban church (what will become a "diocese"), with several priests and deacons to assist; along with the basic rules about the bishop's legitimacy through apostolic succession, etc. The details of that structure have changed over the centuries, as the world has changed, but the primary elements of that plan developed very quickly and have remained remarkably stable ever since.
In these first- and second-century sources, there's little evidence that this clear hierarchy means the same hierarchical sequence in receiving Orders; but also little evidence that it doesn't mean this. In this stage of development, the existence of the hierarchy is clear, and the main duties of each of the three grades is clear, but the manner(s) of ordaining, not clear.
We have more information by the third century. The subdiaconate and various minor orders are attested from the third century (e.g. Pope Cornelius's letter to Bp Fabian of Antioch, 251 or 252; this state of affairs in Rome is clearly not new). These too are arranged in the same hierarchy, under the grades of bishop, priest, and deacon. By the middle of the third century, we have a glimpse of what is considered normal practice in the Life of Cyprian: Cyprian was a young convert from paganism, and the strength and maturity of his faith was deemed great enough to call him to Orders very quickly after his baptism: "In short, in respect of God's grace, there was no delay, no postponement—I have said but little—he immediately received the presbyterate and the priesthood. For who is there that would not entrust every grade of honour to one who believed with such a disposition?" We're not told specifically how he was advanced to the priesthood (and not long after, to become Bishop of Carthage), but the author, Pontius the Deacon, does say he's skipping most of the details. Note also the implication (not definitive, I admit) that Cyprian was in fact "entrusted with every grade of honor," that is, with each of the grades of minor and major orders.
This implication is significantly stronger when we see the ordination of the priest Novatian in Rome, at the same time as Cyprian in Carthage. He had been baptized in danger of death, and never confirmed. He was ordained a priest, apparently without going through the preceding grades, and this was unusual enough to cause much comment by the clergy of Rome and elsewhere. He still functioned as a priest, so his ordination wasn't deemed invalid, but it was clearly not the norm in Rome about 250 to ordain without confirmation, or to skip the lower grades (at least the diaconate) before the priesthood.
Most probably, what these implications mean is that Cyprian would have (and Novatian should have) received the grades of lector and deacon: in the fourth century, the Council of Sardica (343), canon 13 (or 10 in some lists), mandates receiving the lectorate before diaconate, and diaconate before priesthood, and priesthood before episcopate. Again, this is pretty clearly not a new arrangement, but reflects normative practice and expectation.
Lastly, the ordination of Ambrose in 374 is most notable. Multiple sources attest to the circumstances of his selection as Bishop of Milan by popular acclaim, after the death of the Arian bishop Auxentius. Ambrose was a catecumen (pretty normal in the fourth century to postpone baptism), so over the course of 8 days he was baptized, confirmed, and received all the grades of minor and major orders in sequence. To my knowledge, this is the earliest example of which we are completely certain of this pattern.
In practice, we have examples from most of the first thousand years of the Church, in which someone "skips a grade" - deacon directly to bishop, subdeacon or acolyte directly to priest, etc. But even in these cases, it seems that "cumulative and sequential" is being observed in some way. This pattern of cumulative and sequential ordination, as we noted, reflects the pattern of Christ's preparation of the Apostles. It stands as the normative pattern, even if its implementation (which grades in which order) does not become standardized until rather late.
One of the best examples of promoting the full (all grades, in order) understanding of the cumulative-and-sequential pattern is Caesarius of Arles (bishop, 502-547). He was one of the great bishops of the early Church, whose leadership in the chaos of early Merovingian Gaul proved to be an anchor for the next thousand years. Not the least of his works was the promotion of good preaching and good order among the clergy. He wrote a summary of canons and ideals about the clergy, sometimes called "Statuta Ecclesiae Antiqua (Ancient Statutes of the Church)," which codified both the what and the how of the eight grades of minor and major orders, in the manner which became universal in the Latin Church, until the recent changes of Pope Paul VI.
Bishops like Caesarius, Ambrose, and Gregory the Great promoted a good use of the sequence of grades, using it to prepare men for the next grade and to hold back, without losing all the gifts of, those who weren't suitable to advance. Going through all the steps in order has never, in and of itself, been a problem for the clergy. It is a mistake to conflate the hierarchy and sequence of the clerical grades with the so-called "cursus honorum" (clerical careerism, and other abuses of the hierarchical system). Unfortunately, Dcn. Ditewig makes this mistake in promoting doing away with the transitional diaconate. Keeping the transitional diaconate does not imply keeping the abuses labelled as "cursus honorum," but does imply maintaining the apostolic and evangelical model of cumulative spiritual gifts and authority for the ministry. Detailing exactly what gifts and authority would be lost to priests without the transitional diaconate will take us into the theological arguments, in another post.