Holy Orders: A Special Priesthood

Holy Orders, in the Catholic Church, is the sacrament through which men are ordained as deacons, priests and bishops. It maintains the continuity of the apostles whereby each ordained person is ordained by a successor of an original apostle of Jesus Christ.

Why is the sacrament called “orders?”

The reason it is called “orders” comes from an old Roman meaning of an established civil body, especially a governing body. Common knowledge to most Catholics the governing body of the Church is made up of the bishops, priests and deacons. As for the original Latin terms there is ordinatio which means incorporation in to an ordo. Ordos are groups within the Church that are inducted into that specific group. This is done by a means of ordination which comes from the word ordinatio.

Today ordination is reserved for the sacramental act of integrating a man into the order of bishops, presbyters (priests) or deacons. This integration is above a simple election or delegation from the community because it confers a gift of the Holy Spirit (grace) that permits the exercise of the sacred power which can only come from Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:18-20).

Who can be ordained? Why aren’t there female priests?

At this time, only baptized men can receive this sacrament. The Vatican has determined that the Church has no right to ordain women because Jesus did not
appoint females to the position of apostles. This is considered part of the deposit of faith that has been handed on and that no one can change. Another
argument against female ordination is that since Jesus was male, he is best represented by males. Both of these arguments against women priests are highly

The Church maintains the position that:

“Only a baptized man validly receives sacred ordination. The Lord Jesus chose men to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry. The college of bishops, with whom the priests are united in the priesthood, makes the college of the twelve an ever-present and ever-active reality until Christ’s return. The Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself. For this reason the ordination of women is not possible.” – Catechism of the Catholic Church #1577

Generally, the men that are ordained have received a calling from God to be a servant of the people through the Church. No one has a right to this sacrament since the ones that receive it are called and chosen by God to serve.

What are the effects of this sacrament?

Holy Orders confers a special grace upon the recipient that enables him to act as a representative of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20), Head of the Church, in his triple office of priest, prophet and king. Holy Orders, also, like Baptism and Confirmation, confers and indelible spiritual character and can never be repeated and is not a temporary grace or temporary effect of grace.

The Catechism says, “It is true that someone validly ordained can, for grave reasons, be discharged from the obligations and functions linked to ordination, or can be forbidden to exercise them; but he cannot become a layman again in the strict sense, because the character imprinted by ordination is for ever. The vocation and mission received on the day of his ordination mark him permanently.”

Who can confer Holy Orders?

Christ chose the apostles and gave them a share in his mission and authority (Cf. Matthew 28:18-20). Christ also had other followers, but they were not specifically picked out by Christ to be the main leaders of the Church. They did play a “lesser” but important role of assisting the apostles and functioned as our modern day priests. The apostles were the first bishops of the Catholic Church. Therefore, it is Christ’s gift that some be apostles and others priests and he continues to act through the bishops today.

The first apostolic succession happens in the first chapter of Acts (Cf. Acts 1:15-26) and through the years, tradition is that the ones who were appointed to the rank of an apostle were the ones who chose who shared in the ministry. “Since the sacrament of Holy Orders is the sacrament of the apostolic ministry, it is for the bishops as the successors of the apostles to hand on the ‘gift of the Spirit,’ the ‘apostolic line.’ Validly ordained bishops, i.e., those who are in the line of apostolic succession, validly confer the three degrees of the sacrament of Holy Orders.”

What are the form and matter of this sacrament?

The form is the prayer of consecration asking for and conferring the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The matter is the laying on of hands by the bishop and the anointing of the hands.

What are the “degrees” of Holy Orders?

There are three degrees to this sacrament. The fullness of Holy Orders is expressed in Episcopal ordination (being ordained a bishop) which is equivalent to being an apostle almost (i.e. apostolic succession). Then there is the ordination of priests who are the co-workers of the bishops and the lowest order is of deacons. They are called simply to serve, but are still given that indelible special character.

Who are the two participants in the one priesthood of Christ?

We all have a calling to the common priesthood to share in Christ’s mission as priest, prophet and king, but ordained people have another dynamic in that priesthood and it is that they are a means by which Christ unceasingly builds up and leads his Church. For this reason it is transmitted in a special way, through Holy Orders because as Christ picked certain, specific people to carry out the mission and lead the flock, those same people have continued that tradition with apostolic succession and Holy Orders.

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