The last two sacraments we will consider — holy orders and matrimony — are called sacraments at the service of communion. They are oriented primarily toward the salvation of others and building up the people of God, as the Catechism reminds us. In this article, we will look at holy orders.
The sacraments of initiation — baptism, confirmation, and the Eucharist — are the wellspring for the common vocation of all the disciples of Christ, both as individuals and as a Church. This common vocation consists of a call to holiness and a share in the mission of evangelizing the world. Because this vocation makes of us a bridge between God and humanity, it is what we mean when we speak of the priesthood of all the faithful.
In service to this common priesthood, there is a second priesthood in the Church, the ministerial priesthood. It is the sacrament of apostolic ministry, directed toward the unfolding of baptismal grace for all Christians. In this ministry, Christ Himself is present to His Church as head of His body.
We should not be surprised at the need for two priesthoods in the Church. Consider our human bodies. Every cell takes in its own nourishment. Yet, at the same time, some organs are dedicated as a digestive system that brings nourishment to the whole body. In a similar way, every disciple of Christ shares in the common priesthood of the faithful, while some Christians are consecrated to the ministerial priesthood so that they might serve the spiritual needs of all.
The ministry stemming from holy orders is exercised in various degrees in the Church. The Church recognizes three such degrees: the episcopacy, the presbyterate, and the diaconate. The episcopacy and the presbyterate are the two degrees of ministerial participation in the priesthood of Christ the Head. The diaconate is intended to help and serve them.
The episcopacy (bishops) receives the fullness of the sacrament of holy orders. The apostles were endowed by Christ with an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The apostles, in turn, passed on this gift of the Spirit by the imposition of hands to their successors. This same gift of the Spirit is transmitted to bishops in our own day through episcopal consecration. Each bishop has pastoral care of the portion of Christ’s flock that is entrusted to him. At the same time, each bishop exercises his ministry in union with the entire college of bishops and its head, the Holy Father.
The presbyterate (priests) shares in the ministerial priesthood of the bishops in a subordinate manner. Priests are ordained to be co-workers of the bishops for the fulfillment of the apostolic ministry entrusted to them by Christ. Priests exercise their ministry in dependence on the bishops and in communion with them. Priests represent the bishop to the people they serve. Priests also form one body in the diocese to which they are attached under their bishop.
The diaconate (deacons) is ordained to assist bishops and priests in their ministry. They have their role in the celebration of the Eucharist and assist in various ways, such as baptisms, witnessing marriages, presiding at funerals outside of Mass, preaching, and dedicating themselves to various charitable ministries.
It has been the practice in the Latin Rite for bishops and priests to be celibate. Men who are preparing for ordination to the priesthood make the promise of celibacy when they are ordained deacons. Permanent deacons — in other words, men who are called specifically to the diaconate — may be celibate or married.
The sacrament of holy orders — in any of its degrees — configures the recipient to Christ by a special grace of the Holy Spirit. This grace is granted once for all. It is also called an indelible spiritual character. As such, it cannot be repeated or conferred temporarily. Even if an ordained man should leave the ministry or be removed from active ministry due to some offense, he remains ordained.
It is the faith of the Church that only men (adult males) can receive the sacrament of holy orders. This is, of course, a controversial topic. All that can be said in the context of a short essay like this one is that, in pondering the example of Christ and the apostles and the constant teaching and practice of the Church, the Church believes that it is not authorized to call women to holy orders.
Because it is Christ who acts through the ordained, the unworthiness of the ordained does not prevent the work of grace through him, nor does it tarnish any sacraments that the unworthy ordained man may administer. Nonetheless, because the ordained are configured to Christ, they are continually called to conversion so that their ministry may be all the more fruitful.
For further reading: Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 1536-160
By: Father Marc Nolette