Imposition of Hands, is a symbolical ceremony by which one intends to communicate to another some favor, quality or excellence (principally of a spiritual kind), or to depute another to some office. The rite has had a profane or secular as well as a sacred usage. It is extremely ancient, having come down from patriarchal times. Jacob bequeathed a blessing and inheritance to his two sons Ephraim and Manasses by placing his hands upon them (Gen., xlviii, 14) and Moses conferred on Josue the hegemony of the Hebrew people in the same manner (Num., xxvii, 18, 23). In the New Testament Our Lord employed this rite to restore life to the daughter of Jairus (Matt., ix, 18) and to give health to the sick (Luke, vi, 19). The religious aspect of this ceremony first appeared in the consecration of Aaron and his sons to the office of priesthood. Before immolating animals in sacrifice the priests, according to the Mosaic ritual, laid hands upon the heads of the victims (Ex., xxix: Lev., viii, ix); and in the expressive dismissal of the scapegoat the officiant laid his hands on the animal’s head and prayed that the sins of the people might descend thereon and be expiated in the wilderness (Lev., xvi, 21). The Apostles imposed hands on the newly baptized, that they might receive the gifts of the Holy Ghost in confirmation (Acts, viii, 17, 19; xix, 6); on those to be promoted to Holy orders (Acts, vi, 6: xiii, 3; I Tim., iv, 14: II Tim., i, 6; Matt., xiii); and on others to bestow some supernatural gift or corporal benefit (Acts, passim). In fact this rite was so constantly employed that the “imposition of hands” came to designate an essential Catholic doctrine (Heb., vi, 2).
To understand clearly the extent to which the imposition of hands is employed in the Church at present it will be necessary to view it in its sacramental or theological as well as in its ceremonial or liturgical aspect. In confirmation, the imposition of hands constitutes the essential matter of the sacrament, not however that which precedes the anointing, but that which takes place at the actual application of the chrism (S. C. de Prop. Fide, August 6, 1840). In the sacrament of Holy orders it enters either wholly or in part, into the substance of the rite by which most of the higher grades are conferred. Thus in the ordination of deacons according to the Latin rite it is at least partial matter of the sacrament; in conferring the priesthood there is a threefold imposition, viz.: (a) when the ordaining prelate followed by the priests, lays hands on the head of the candidate nil dicens; (b) when he and the priests extend hands during the prayer, “Oremus, fratres carissimi”, and (c) when he imposes hands at giving power to forgive sins, saying “Accipe Spiritum Sanctum”. The first and second of these impositions combined constitute in the Latin Church partial matter of the sacrament, the traditio instrumentorum being required for the adequate or complete matter. The Greeks, however, rely on the imposition alone as the substance of the sacramental rite. In the consecration of bishops the imposition of hands alone pertains to the essence (see Confirmation; Orders).
The ceremonial usage is much more extensive. (I) In baptism the priest signs the forehead and breast with the sign of the cross, lays hands on the head during the prayer, “Preces nostras”, and again after the exorcism, beseeching God to send down the light of truth into the purified soul (cf. Rom. Rit.). Tertullian mentions imposition as being used in conferring baptism in his own day (de Bap., VI, VII, etc.). (2) In penance the minister merely raises his hand at the giving of absolution. The ancient ordines (cf. Martene, “De antiqua ecclesiae disciplina”, passim), record this custom. (3) In extreme unction there is no imposition of hands enjoined by the rubrics, although in the prayer immediately before the anointing the words “per impositionem manuum nostrarum” occur. Possibly the imposition is contained in the unctions as it is in the administration of confirmation. (4) Apart from the sacraments the rite is also employed in almost all the various blessings of persons and things. Abbots and virgins are thus blessed (cf. Roman Pontifical and Ritual). (5) In the reconciliation of public penitents and the reception of schismatics, heretics, and apostates into the Church, hands were formerly, and still are, imposed (cf. Duchesne, “Christian Worship”, pp. 328, 435, St. Cyprian, “De Lapsis”, 16). (6) Those obsessed by evil spirits are similarly exorcized (cf. Roman Ritual, Titus, x, el). (7) The rubrics of the missal direct the celebrant to hold his hands extended during most of the prayers. At the pre-consecration prayer, “Hanc igitur oblationem”, he also holds his hands over the oblata. This action seems borrowed from the old Levitical practice, already noticed, of laying hands on the victims to be sacrificed, but curiously it has not been proved to be very old. Le Brun (Explication de la Messe, iv, 6) says he did not find the rubric in any missal older than the fifteenth century. Pius V made it de praecepto (cf. Gihr, “La Messe”, II, 345). The significance of the act is expressive, symbolizing as it does the laying of sin upon the elements of bread and wine which, being changed into the Body and Blood of Christ, become thus our emissary or scapegoat, and finally the “victim of our peace” with God. Nothing can better show the relationship that has always existed between prayer and the ceremony that is being considered, than this expressive sentence from St. Augustine, “Quid aliud est manuum impositio, quam oratio super hominem?” (De Bap., III, xvi, 21).