All About Holy Orders
Holy Orders is one of the two sacraments of vocation, matrimony being the other. By the biblical gestures of laying on of hands (Acts 6:6) and anointing (Leviticus 8:30, 1 Samuel 16:7), the Church ordains deacons and priests, and consecrates bishops.
Three Degrees of the Sacrament
There are two types of deacons: transitional and permanent. Transitional deacons are seminarians studying to be priests. Usually, they are ordained a deacon the year before their priestly ordination. Permanent deacons are the married men that serve in parishes. Deacons (of either variety) can baptize, witness marriages, proclaim the gospel at Mass, and preach at Mass. Their purpose, from the very beginning of the Church (see Acts 6:1-6), is to serve the bishops, priests, and the whole Body of Christ.
Priests can administer all sacraments except holy orders: the baptism, confession, Eucharist, confirmation (at the Easter Vigil), matrimony, and anointing of the sick. Some priests have been given the honorary designation of ‘monsignor,’ but the title is an honorific. Pope Francis changed the rules regarding monsignors in 2014, further simplifying what had been simplified previously by Pope Paul VI.
Bishops are the successors of the apostles and have the special office of teaching and ruling. They oversee a diocese, that is, a geographic area. Some bishops are appointed cardinals, which gives them additional responsibilities. Throughout the history of the Church, those responsibilities have varied, but the most well-known function is to elect a new pope from among their members.
Who Can Be a Priest?
The qualifications of becoming a priest start with being a baptized male called by God. In the Latin Rite, priests remain celibate with exceptions for some Anglican and Lutheran converts. Celibacy is optional in the Eastern Rites, which goes for churches in union with Rome (the Maronite Rite is one example of many) and those not in union with Rome (Greek Orthodox, for example). In those Eastern Rites, however, the bishops are celibate.
Although men may feel called to the priesthood, it is the Church as the bride that calls forward men for ordination. “No one has a right to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders. Indeed no one claims this office for himself; he is called to it by God [emphasis in original].” One who believes he is called then “must humbly submit his desire to the authority of the Church” and undergo several years of formation and schooling (CCC 1578). At the ordination Mass, the bishop asks the vocation director or another diocesan representative about the worthiness of the candidate. This can seem like a formality at the actual Mass, but that same question has been asked every year (often more than that) in the years leading up to ordination.
The all-male priesthood has been an area of contention in North America and Europe; especially in an age where other Protestant denominations have women ministers, ‘priests’, and ‘bishops.’ The discussion since Vatican II rose to such a temperature that Pope John Paul II published an apostolic letter in 1994 order to settle the question.
“Although the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the Magisterium in its more recent documents, at the present time in some places it is nonetheless considered still open to debate, or the Church's judgment that women are not to be admitted to ordination is considered to have a merely disciplinary force… in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) 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.” Ordinatio Sacerdotalis #4
In the paragraphs leading up to this selection, the Holy Father emphasized the role of great female disciples and saints in the history of the Church. He also cited the indispensable role they play in the Church today. He expressed those thoughts in far greater length and breadth in his encyclical on the dignity of women, Mulieris Dignitatem. Discomfort or not, no amount of dialogue can change the tradition of the Church. Equality in Christ does not mean everyone has the exact same role (see also 1 Corinthians 12:12-31).
The Purpose of Holy Orders
If we only look at holy orders as an occasion of division, we miss the entire point of the sacrament. The Catechism points us in the right direction, calling holy orders and matrimony “Sacraments at the Service of Communion” and the Catechism notes their fundamental direction “toward the salvation of others” (#1534). True, both sacraments tie the towel around the waist of the recipient. Further, holy orders brings with it “a gift of the Holy Spirit that permits the exercise of a ‘sacred power’ which can come only from Christ himself through his Church” (CCC #1538). ‘Power’ in this sense is the power of God, and decidedly not anything political.
John Paul II elucidates more on the purpose of holy orders in an apostolic exhortation on priestly formation, Pastores Dabo Vobis. It came after a synod on the topic in 1992. “The priest, by virtue of the consecration which he receives in the sacrament of orders, is sent forth by the Father through the mediatorship of Jesus Christ... in order to live and work by the power of the Holy Spirit in service of the Church and for the salvation of the world” (#12).
The Mission of Holy Orders
We need to pause at this point and let the words from the Catechism and Pastores Dabo Vobis sink in. Deacons, priests, and bishops are charged with furthering the Catholic Church’s most basic mission: the salvation of the world. Jesus’ mission is the mission of every disciple, and the clergy share in His mission in a very special way. Our Lord gave some specific direction to the apostles in participating in His mission.
“Feed my lambs,” Jesus said to Peter (John 21:15). “Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus said at the Last Supper (Luke 20:19). For 2,000 years, our priests have given us the Eucharist, giving us divine life (see John 6:48-51, 53-54).
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you,” Jesus commissioned the apostles just before ascending into heaven (Matthew 28:19). Since then apostles, saints, doctors of the church, and humble clergy that history will never remember have taught and baptized us and our children.
“Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:22-23). Jesus gave His own authority to forgive sins to the apostles, who passed that authority down to the bishops and priests in our parishes right now, all over the world.
All of these actions have the salvation of humanity in mind. It is the reason behind the covenants, the Incarnation, and all seven sacraments. Thank God for our clergy who act in the person of Christ in these ways for us!
The clergy will never be perfect or without some kind of defect. To a certain extent, that should not be surprising given our fallen natures. No matter what, we as the Body of Christ owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to our deacons, priests, and bishops.