(GGWB) - In the early days of the Church it was not unusual for people to be simply chosen out of the community for whatever ministry it was felt they should exercise. St. Ambrose of Milan (Fourth Century) was not even baptized when chosen by acclamation to be Bishop of the city. The lives of the saints are full of stories of how men tried to avoid ordination, St. John Chrysostom being a very good example, fleeing to the hilly wilderness around Antioch in order to avoid being made a priest. We still have a relic of those days in our service of ordination, a deacon who is to be ordained priest is brought to the altar by a deacon and handed over to two priests who conduct him around the altar. Originally this was to stop him running away!Complete article here.
In such a world there was no need for anything like a seminary. However, that does not mean that there was no education. St. John Chrysostom had the very best education of his day. Above all he was extremely well trained in Rhetoric, the highest of the ancient educational disciplines. This training was seen as fitting some for the law courts, but others for preaching. St. John also studied theology with Diodore of Tarsus. Ordained deacon in 381 and priest in 386, St. John became an important preacher in Antioch in the days when it was usually bishops who were expected to preach. St. John was not made a bishop until he became Patriarch of Constantinople in 398. His abilities as a preacher earned him the nickname of Chrysostom, the “Golden-Mouthed”.
If a man or woman had a sense of personal vocation in the first centuries of the church, then it was to the monastic life, which did not necessarily entail ordination for any but the very few priests needed in the great monasteries of the ancient world. The monasteries were primarily places of prayer, but from an early stage they often included men of learning who taught others. It became normal to choose bishops from among the monks, not only because of their spiritual lives, but also because they were classically educated men who had continued into a deep and prayerful study of the scriptures and the writings of the Fathers before them. However, even as late as the middle of the ninth century, it was possible for an Imperial Secretary, a scholar and statesman to be elected Patriarch of Constantinople while still a layman, that was St. Photius the Great (c. 810- c.895).
While the civil service of imperial Byzantium could still call on highly educated laymen to serve the church and the state, in much of Western Europe of the so-called dark ages, learning and scholarship were largely only found in monasteries. An ordinary parish priest needed at least sufficient literacy to read the services. Such a priest would be assisted by other clerics and might invite a boy who showed promise to become one and start picking up how to do the services. Such a boy was very often the priest’s son, but in the west this became increasingly difficult as celibacy was made compulsory by the end of the 12th Century. Even in the east however, there was no guarantee that there would be a job for a boy who had learned the art of priesthood from his father. The bishop might appoint somebody else to succeed the father, or the father might die before the son was old enough for ordination.
So what was our promising young man who felt that being a priest was preferable to being a peasant going to do in order to find a job? Here I will be speaking mostly of the medieval west, because we have more knowledge of specific cases. The most important thing that our young clerk had to do was to find a patron. Landowners, who might be lay noblemen or monasteries, often had the right to present a candidate for a benefice (i.e., a position for an ordained person that carried an income), to the bishop for ordination (if not already ordained), or appointment. The bishop, or his deputy, would examine the candidate, and if they were of the right age and had sufficient education, ordain him. Eventually it was necessary to be able to prove to a bishop that one had an appointment to go to, a ‘title’ as it was called. Nobody could be ordained ‘absolutely’ (that is, on the off-chance that they might find a job). This was a reminder that ordination is to the service of a particular community and not just the fulfillment of a personal ambition.