The Sacrament of Holy Orders
What is Holy Orders?
“Holy Orders is the sacrament through which the mission entrusted by Christ to his apostles continues to be exercised in the Church until the end of time: thus it is the sacrament of apostolic ministry. It includes three degrees: episcopate, presbyterate, and diaconate.”
The Episcopate consists of Bishops, the presbyterate consists of priests, and the diaconate consists of deacons. In a nutshell, the Sacrament of Holy Orders is the sacrament in which those who have a calling to the priesthood or the diaconate are able to be ordained. With this ordination come several duties, all of which serve the Church and what she stands for. It is through this sacrament that the Church survives and thrives through the ages, with the authority and God-given power of the Apostles being passed on to each generation.
Institution of the Sacrament
The history of the priesthood goes back to the Jewish priests of the Old Testament. Out of the twelve tribes of Israel, it was the Levites who were chosen by God to be priests. Their responsibility was to pray and offer sacrifices to God. These sacrifices and prayers were done in order to restore the people’s relationship with God, after their many sins and betrayals of his covenant.
In the New Testament, the sacrifice needed for this communion with God is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. In fact, the Catachism of the Catholic Church states, “Everything that the priesthood of the Old Covenant prefigured finds its fulfilment in Christ Jesus, the ‘one mediator between God and men.'” The actual moment of institution of Holy Orders is traditionally understood to be at the Last Supper. St. Pius X’s catechism included this detail: “Jesus Christ instituted the Sacerdotal Order [the priesthood] at the Last Supper when he conferred on the Apostles and their successors the power of consecrating the Blessed Eucharist. Then on the day of His resurrection He conferred on them the power of remitting and retaining sin, thus constituting them the first Priests of the New Law in all the fullness of their power.”
Who can Receive the Sacrament
Only baptised Catholic men can receive this sacrament. They must also be called to this vocation by God. These men are to dedicate their lives to the service of the church through liturgical and pastoral life, and charitable works. They are bound to the service of the Church.
Because of the importance of having worthy shepherds for the people, the Church imposes many other restrictions on who she ordains, such as educational requirements, psychological examination, and requirements of celibacy. These can vary in different areas of the world and different rites within the Church.
Form and Matter
“For which cause I admonish thee, that thou stir up the grace of God which is in thee, by the imposition of my hands.” Timothy 1:6
During this sacrament, the Bishop will lay his hands on the head of the candidate, and pray over him. He will ask God for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit and his gifts according to the ministry the candidate is entering (see CCC1573). The matter that is required for this sacrament is the imposition of hands. This is when the bishop lays his hands on the head of the candidate. The form in which the sacrament occurs is in the prayers that are said during the sacrament that accompany the laying of hands.
Effects of the Sacrament
The effects of this sacrament are an increase in grace, as well as a change in character.
Special grace is required in order to live out this vocation fully. Priests are put in charge of caring for souls and must help lead people to a fuller relationship with Christ. They must devote their lives to the Church and her ministry. Priests must endure pressures and temptations like any other person, but often to a greater extent. More is expected of them; they are called to achieve a higher standard of holiness than the average person. As representatives for Christ, they must strive for this holiness in order to perform their vocation to its fullest and in a way pleasing to God.
The nature of the person is objectively changed by this sacrament. The office of priest is more than a title; when the bishop lays hands on the man to be ordained, he truly becomes a priest. This ontological change affects him deeply, and is irreversible. He becomes a ‘father’ to the people, and must act as a representative for Christ.
What are the Duties involved?
Bishops are those that receive the fullest of the Sacrament, known as the First Degree of Priesthood. They are able to ordain people into the Priesthood and Diaconate, Observe the Sacrament of Marriage, Baptism, confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, Confession, and The Eucharist. They are also able to dedicate churches and altars, to consecrate chalices and patens and bells, and to preside at the benediction of abbots. Bishops typically oversee a diocese, which consists of many parishes.
Priests are in the second Degree of the Priesthood. They are able to perform all the sacraments except Confirmation and Ordination, and are normally directly responsible for a parish.
The duty of a deacon is to assist the priesthood. They may assist the priest in the celebration of the Eucharist, distribute Holy Communion, assist and bless marriages, proclaim the gospel and preach, preside over funerals, and offer their service to acts of charity.
Why do we need priests?
Without priests, we would have no shepherds guiding the and feeding the flock as Christ asked Peter (John 21:15-19). He administers the Sacraments given to us by Christ. He leads the people closer to Christ with a mission to save souls and lead them to the Sacred Heart of our Lord. In the words of St. Alphonsus Liguori, “The entire Church cannot give to God as much honor, nor obtain so many graces, as a single priest by celebrating a single Mass; for the greatest honor that the whole Church without priests could give to God would consist in offering to Him in sacrifice the lives of all men.”
Pray for the priests all around the world. Pray for them in times where priests are persecuted, for those that have gone astray, and for those that are discerning their vocations.
O God, Who hast appointed Thine only-begotten Son to be the eternal High Priest for the glory of Thy Majesty and the salvation of mankind; grant that they whom He hath chosen to be His ministers and the stewards of His Mysteries, may be found faithful in the fulfillment of the ministry which they have received. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
Check out these Resources!
St. John Chrysostom: Treatise on the Priesthood (excerpt)
St. John Vianney, Patron of Priests: Catechism on the Priesthood
St. Alphonsus Liguori: The Dignity & Duties of the Priest (excerpt)