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In a recent sermon on Ephesians 6.5-9, the possibility was raised of a slave being a priest/pastor/bishop with authority over his earthly master. I couldn't think of an example from Church history.

What examples are there in Church History (ancient or modern) of a priest or equivalent who was a slave at the time of their serving?

Also, are there relevant canons (Roman or Orthodox) about this situation?

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Has a slave served as a priest?

Geremia does a great job in demonstrating that a being a slave is a serious impediment to being ordained.

Nevertheless the Church does have examples of ex-slaves being ordained priests and even consecrated bishops and eventually canonized a saint. The following are a few examples:

There is saint who vowed to become a slave of slaves:

There are Religious Orders for the redemption and freedom of slaves:

However according to the Orthodox, St. Paulinus volunteered to become a slave by taking the place of another:

When the Vandal barbarians invaded Italy and carried off many people to Africa in captivity, Saint Paulinus used church funds to ransom the captives. However, he did not have enough money to ransom the son of a certain poor widow from slavery in the household of the Prince of the Vandals. So, he volunteered to take his place. Dressed as a slave, Saint Paulinus began to serve the Vandal prince as a gardener. - St. Paulinus the Merciful the Bishop of Nola

St. Paulinus of Nola is also a saint in the Catholic Church. However Wikipedia makes this story a legend:

Gregory the Great recounts a popular story that alleges that when the Vandals raided Campania, a poor widow came to Paulinus for help when her only son had been carried off by the son-in-law of the Vandal king. Having exhausted his resources in ransoming other captives, Paulinus said, "Such as I have I give thee", and went to Africa to exchange places with the widow's son. There Paulinus was accepted in place of the widow's son, and employed as gardener. After a time the king found out that his son-in-law's slave was the great Bishop of Nola. He at once set him free, granting him also the freedom of all the captive townsmen of Nola. According to Pope Benedict XVI, "...the historical truth of this episode is disputed, but the figure of a Bishop with a great heart who knew how to make himself close to his people in the sorrowful trials of the barbarian invasions lives on."

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Slavery is an impediment to receiving the sacrament of Holy Orders.

1917 Code* canon 987 §4 (cf. 1983 Code canon 1042):

The [following] are simply impeded [from receiving Holy Orders]:
[…]
4.° Those who are strictly speaking slaves before receiving liberty;
[Latin original: "Servi servitute proprie dicta ante acceptam libertatem"]

Canonist Dom Charles Augustine commentates on this canon (A Commentary on the New Code of Canon Law bk. 2, vol. 4, p. 499):

4.° Slaves, properly so-called, before they are given their liberty. This belongs to the same defectus libertatis ["lack of freedom"]. Regarding slaves in the proper sense, i.e., men who belong bodily to a master, the Church ordained that they should not enter the clerical state, partly because their admission would lower its dignity, and partly because they were not their own masters.

This defectus libertatis is also the reason why a married man cannot become a priest without the consent of his wife. Cf. Dom Augustine's commentary p. 498 on 1917 Code canon 987 §2 ("Men having wives [are impeded from receiving Holy Orders];").

Cf. also 2 Tim. 2:4:

No man, being a soldier to God, entangleth himself with secular businesses; that he may please him to whom he hath engaged himself.

St. Thomas Aquinas addressed the question of "Whether the state of slavery is an impediment to receiving Orders?" (c. 1256 A.D.) in his Summa Theologica suppl. q. 39 a. 3 (= Super Sent. lib. 4 d. 25 q. 2 a. 2), a commentary on Lombard's Sentences. St. Thomas answers:

By receiving Orders a man pledges himself to the Divine offices. And since no man can give what is not his, a slave who has not the disposal of himself, cannot be raised to Orders. If, however, he be raised, he receives the Order, because freedom is not required for the validity of the sacrament, although it is requisite for its lawfulness, since it hinders not the power, but the act only. The same reason applies to all who are under an obligation to others, such as those who are in debt and like persons.


*The 1917 Code was a codification/organization of laws most of which existed before, either as unwritten law (ius) or written law (lex) such as from Gratian's Decretals.

  • 1917 there weren't many slaves anymore. Do you have information on the time before? – K-HB Mar 24 at 18:18
  • @K-HB I added St. Thomas Aquinas's explanation of the impediment from circa 1256 A.D. – Geremia Mar 24 at 21:26
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St. Paulinus the Merciful, Bishop of Nola has sold himself to slavery in exchange of another person and was working as a gardener. I doubt that he completely gave up serving Liturgy and took the gifts with him though it is possible. link to life of St. Paulinus

  • The legend you shared does not give any hints that Palinus acted as a bishop during his servitude. – K-HB Mar 25 at 9:54

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