Questions and Responses
Doctrinal Commission – International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services
The laying on of hands is a very significant gesture in biblical tradition, with a wide variety of purposes.
In the Old Testament, the laying on of hands is first used as a way of blessing children. Jacob, for instance, blesses his two grandsons by laying his hands on their heads (Gen 48:14). To this day, the blessing of children by their parents is an important Jewish custom, especially at the beginning of the Sabbath.
The laying on of hands is also used to ordain or consecrate someone for ministry. In Numbers, the people of Israel lay hands on the Levites to dedicate them to the Lord’s service (Num 8:9-10). Moses lays hands on Joshua to authorize and empower him as his successor in leadership (Num 27:18-23; Deut 34:9). Later in Israel’s history, the prophet Elisha lays hands on a dead child to raise him from the dead (2 Kg 4:34).
In the Gospels Jesus lays hands on children as a gesture of blessing (Mark 10:16). But he most often uses the laying on of hands as a means of healing. For instance, it is the way he healed the blind man (Mark 8:23-25), the woman who was bent over (Luke 13:11-13), and the sick people in Nazareth (Mark 6:5). He also lays hands for deliverance from demonic affliction (Luke 4:40-41) and for raising the dead (Matt 9:18, 25). At the end of the Gospel of Mark the risen Lord promises that those who believe in him will heal the sick in the same way: “These signs will accompany those who believe: … they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover” (Mark 16:18).
In Acts, the laying on of hands becomes a means of imparting the fullness of the Holy Spirit, especially to new believers. This is done by the apostles in Acts 8:17-19 (cf. 19:6), which Catholic tradition regards as the biblical basis for the sacrament of Confirmation. We also see Ananias, an ordinary believer, being led by the Spirit to lay hands on Saul that he may recover from blindness and be filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:17).
The laying on of hands is a way of commissioning people for a new task or mission. In Acts 13:3, a group of prophets and teachers (or perhaps the whole Christian community at Antioch) lays hands on Barnabas and Saul for divine empowerment for the mission to which the Holy Spirit has called them.
Finally, the laying on of hands is the way the apostles ordain those called to an office of leadership in the church, including that of deacon (cf. Acts 6:6) and presbyter (cf. 1 Tim 4:14; 5:22; 2 Tim 1:6-7).
Based on this biblical foundation, the laying on of hands has an important place in two sacraments of the Church: confirmation and ordination. In these sacraments, which are celebrated only by a bishop (or in the case of confirmation, sometimes a priest delegated by the bishop), the laying on of hands confers the Holy Spirit in a unique way. In confirmation, the laying on of hands imparts the gift of the Spirit that completes the grace of baptism. In ordination, through the laying on of hands the gift of the
Spirit first received by the apostles is passed down by apostolic succession to the bishops and priests of our own day.
In recent times the Catholic Charismatic Renewal has brought a revival of the ancient practice of ordinary believers laying on hands, especially for healing, for an infilling with the Holy Spirit, or for divine empowerment for a new mission or service a person is called to. To lay hands is a way of recognizing that we are bodily persons, and that Christ makes his graces flow through all the members of his Body.
It is important that this practice be pastored well, so there is no confusion between sacramental and simple (informal) laying on of hands. The laying on of hands for baptism in the Spirit is not a sacrament, but a prayer for the Holy Spirit to bring alive the gift already received through the sacraments of baptism and confirmation.
This gesture should be done with respect and sensitivity for the person receiving prayer. In some cases one should gently ask the person’s permission before laying hands: “Is it okay if I put my hand on your shoulder as I pray?” There should not be any sense of imparting one’s own authority or power, but simply of being a conduit for the grace of the Holy Spirit.