Sacrament of Holy Orders


What is the Sacrament of Holy Orders?

Holy OrdersThe sacrament by which, through the authority of
the Church, the imposition
of a bishop’s hands confers
on a man the grace and
spiritual power to
celebrate the Church’s sacraments.

Through ordination
bishops, priests, and
deacons receive the
power and grace to perform their sacred duties.

To receive Holy Orders worthily it is be in the state of grace, to have the necessary knowledge and a divine call to this sacred office.

Only Men Can be Ordained

Only men can be ordained in the Sacrament of Holy Orders.  The reasons are set forth in Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.  It concludes, “I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”

Three Levels of Holy Orders

One sacrament, celebrated three times with successively higher sacramental effects.

First Orders:  Diaconate (Deacon)

Deacons are ordained to serve the community.

Second Orders:  Presbyterate (Priest)

Priests are ordained to lead the Church in worship.

A monsignor is a priest who has special recognition as a member of the papal household.

Third Orders:  Episcopate (Bishop)

Bishops are ordained as the chief teachers of the Church.

An archbishop is a bishop in charge of a large or important diocese called an archdiocese. 

A cardinal is a special member of the papal household.  Nearly all cardinals are bishops, but there are one or two cardinals who are priests, such as Avery Cardinal Dulles, are priests. 

The pope is the Bishop of Rome.

Apostolic Succession

The Sacrament of Holy Orders is the continuation of Christ's priesthood, which He bestowed upon His Apostles; thus, the Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to the Sacrament of Holy Orders as "the sacrament of apostolic ministry."

"Ordination" comes from the Latin word ordinatio, which means to incorporate someone into an order.  In the Sacrament of Holy Orders, a man is incorporated into the priesthood of Christ, at one of three levels: the episcopate, the priesthood, or the diaconate.

The Priesthood of Christ

The priesthood was established by God among the Israelites during their exodus from Egypt.  God chose the tribe of Levi as priests for the nation.  Their primary duties were the offering of sacrifice and prayer for the people.

Christ, in offering Himself up for the sins of all mankind, fulfilled the duties of the Old Testament priesthood once and for all.  But just as the Eucharist makes that sacrifice present to us today, so the New Testament priesthood is a sharing in the eternal priesthood of Christ.  While all believers are, in some sense, priests, some are set aside to serve the Church as Christ Himself did.

The Ordination of Bishops

There is only one Sacrament of Holy Orders, but there are three levels.  The first is that which Christ Himself bestowed upon His Apostles: the episcopate.  A bishop is a man who is ordained to the episcopate by another bishop (in practice, by several bishops).  He stands in a direct, unbroken line from the Apostles, a condition known as "apostolic succession."

Ordination as a bishop confers the grace to sanctify others, as well as the authority to teach the faithful and to bind their consciences.  Because of the grave nature of this responsibility, all episcopal ordinations must be approved by the Pope.

The Ordination of Priests

The second level of the Sacrament of Holy Orders is the priesthood.  No bishop can minister to all of the faithful in his diocese, so priests act, in the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as "co-workers of the bishops." They exercise their powers lawfully only in communion with their bishop, and so they promise obedience to their bishop at the time of their ordination.

The chief duties of the priesthood are the preaching of the Gospel and the offering of the Eucharist.

The Ordination of Deacons

The third level of the Sacrament of Holy Orders is the diaconate.  Deacons assist priests and bishops, but beyond the preaching of the Gospel, they are granted no special charism or spiritual gift.

In the Eastern Churches, both Catholic and Orthodox, the permanent diaconate has been a constant feature.  In the West, the office of deacon was reserved to men who intended to be ordained to the priesthood.  The permanent diaconate was restored in the West by the Second Vatican Council.  Married men are allowed to become permanent deacons.

Eligibility for the Sacrament

The Sacrament of Holy Orders can be validly conferred only on baptized men, following the example set by Christ and His Apostles, who chose only men as their successors and collaborators.  A man cannot demand ordination; the Church has the authority to determine eligibility for the sacrament.

While the episcopate is reserved to unmarried men, the discipline regarding the priesthood varies in East and West.  The Eastern Churches allow married men to be ordained priests, while the Western Church insists on celibacy.  Once a man has received the Sacrament of Holy Orders, however, he cannot marry.

The Form of the Sacrament

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes:

The essential rite of the sacrament of Holy Orders for all three degrees consists in the bishop's imposition of hands on the head of the ordinand and in the bishop's specific consecratory prayer asking God for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and his gifts proper to the ministry to which the candidate is being ordained.

Other elements of the sacrament, such as holding it in the cathedral (the bishop's own church); holding it during Mass; and celebrating it on a Sunday are traditional but not essential.

The Minister of the Sacrament

Because of his role as a successor to the Apostles, who were themselves successors to Christ, the bishop is the proper minister of the sacrament.  The grace of sanctifying others that he receives at his own ordination allows him to ordain others.

The Effects of the Sacrament

The Sacrament of Holy Orders, like the Sacrament of Baptism and the Sacrament of Confirmation, can only be received once for each level of ordination.  Once a man has been ordained, he is spiritually changed, which is the origin of the saying, "Once a priest, always a priest." He can be dispensed of his obligations as a priest (or even forbidden to act as a priest); but he remains a priest forever.

Each level of ordination confers special graces, from the ability to preach, granted to deacons; to the ability to act in the person of Christ to offer the Mass, granted to priests; to a special grace of strength, granted to bishops, which allows him to teach and lead his flock, even to the point of dying as Christ did.

Catholic Doctrine

The sacrament of Holy Orders consecrates one in Christ for service to the Church.  As the Second Vatican Council teaches, “Those among the faithful who have received Holy Orders are appointed to nourish the Church with the word and grace of God in the name of Christ.” (LG 11) Based on the example of Jesus who chose men as apostles to follow him and gave them authority to preach and heal in his name, the sacrament of Holy Orders is only conferred upon men.  Three degrees constitutes Holy Orders in the Church:  the episcopate, the presbyterate, and the diaconate (bishops, priests and deacons. 

By Baptism and Confirmation, all the faithful share in the common priesthood of all believers.  The priesthood of all believers is not the same as the special consecration received in the sacrament of Holy Orders.  All the faithful share in the mission and worship of the Church.  But the Second Vatican Council, relying on the ancient tradition of the Church, teaches that there is an essential difference between the priesthood of all believers and the ordained priesthood.  Historically, even our forebears in faith, the people of Israel, who were set apart from all the nations by God, had from among their members, a particular group, the tribe of Levi, which exercised a priesthood.  The function of the Levites prefigured the ordained priesthood of the New Covenant (CCC 1541).

The fullness of Holy Orders received at episcopal consecration confers the threefold ministry of preaching and teaching, sanctifying and governing.  Thus, the Catholic Church believes that bishops are constituted as true and authentic teachers of the faith.  They are stewards of the mysteries of God.  And they are to govern or lead by serving.  The gospel images of Jesus which correspond to these ministries are teacher, priest and shepherd. 

Bishops are entrusted with the care of a local Church (diocese) but they exercise their threefold ministry collegially, with all the other bishops and in union with the head of the college of bishops, the Pope (CCC 1560).  Priests are co-workers associated with the bishop, who hands on to them in a subordinate way his own ministry, so that Christ’s apostolic mission may be fulfilled (CCC 1562).  Deacons assist bishops and priests in the celebration of the divine mysteries, in the distribution of Holy Communion, in blessing marriages, in the proclamation of the Gospel, in presiding over funerals and in the various ministries of charity (CCC 1570).

Holy Orders configures one to Christ as teacher, priest and pastor.  In the Latin Rite, all ordained ministers remain celibate for life, with the exception of permanent deacons.  Celibacy is the sign that the ordained give themselves to God and the service of others (CCC 1579).

The Saints on the Priesthood

St.  Patrick's Church at Moody Air Force Base