" Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men."
— Matthew 4:19
In the Sacrament of Holy Orders, or Ordination, the priest being ordained vows to lead other Catholics by bringing them the sacraments (especially the Eucharist), by proclaiming the Gospel, and by providing other means to holiness.
By virtue of our Baptism, all Christians are part of a common priesthood of believers. We are all called to participate in Christ’s mission. Through the sacrament of Holy Orders, bishops and priests are given a special role in carrying out this mission. They exercise a ministerial priesthood. Deacons also receive a special grace through ordination and are called to assist the ministry of bishops and priests (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1547, 1554).
The Sacrament of Holy Orders is the continuation of Christ's priesthood, which He bestowed upon His Apostles. There are three levels to this sacrament: the episcopate, the priesthood, and 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.
Deacon = 2 Sacraments Priests = 5 Sacraments Bishop = 7 Sacraments
Pope Benedict XVI writes, “The priest is above all a servant of others” (Sacramentum Caritatis 23). In gathering the community, modeling Christ’s love for the poor, presiding at Eucharist, and evangelizing social realities, ordained ministers help Christians to imitate Christ’s mission of love and justice.
Representatives of Christ
Through ordination, priests become representatives of Christ to the Church—as witnesses of holiness and love, preachers of the Gospel, shepherds of the faithful, conveners of divine worship, and builders of the Church. Through their ministry, priests are called, in imitation of Christ, to “preach good news to the poor . . . proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Lk. 4:18) (John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis 11). Deacons, too, are ordained to imitate Christ in his ministry of service and charity to the poor and needy in the community.
Proclaimers of the Word
As co-workers with their bishops in teaching and carrying out Christ’s mission, priests and deacons proclaim the Word of God to His people. This includes education about the social teaching of the Church, which is based in both Scripture and Tradition, and helping community members become Holy Orders Ordained to Serve, Gather, Transform, and Send aware of their “right and duty to be active subjects of this doctrine” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church 539).
Each bishop is entrusted with the care of a particular church and priests and deacons assist in pastoring the people of God locally. Pastoral ministry requires that ordained ministers develop competency in “social analysis and community organization” and cross-cultural ministry (NCCB, The Basic Plan for the Ongoing Formation of Priests). Priests should “animate pastoral action in the social field,” especially assisting lay Christians who are involved in political and social life (Compendium 539). Pastoral concern extends beyond the local Church; bishops and priests must also attend to problems facing the people of the world, “sharing their experiences” and “growing, above all, in solidarity towards the poor” (John Paul II, Ecclesia in America 39).
Presiders of Eucharist
Bishops and priests preside over the Eucharist, offering the sacrifice in the name of the whole Church, the Body of Christ (Catechism 1553). In celebrating the Eucharist, the Holy Spirit transforms the people of God for mission. In the words of Bishop William S. Skylstad:
Especially at the celebration of Eucharist, we help our people find Jesus in their lives through word, sacrament and community. We also help them to appreciate that as they leave the church building they move into the world as eucharistic people. They too are to become “foot washers of humanity” (Priests for a New Millennium, p. 158).
In other words, through presiding over the Eucharist, priests help Christians to “live their social commitment” as a fruit of their worship (Compendium 539).
Builders of Community
Ordained ministry is a reminder of our “communitarian” nature because it can only be carried out in communion with others. For example, priests minister in communion with their bishop, with other priests, and with the lay faithful. An important role of the priest is to bring together the entire community both in worship and in building the Church in the world. Being “a man of communion” means that a priest must be “a man of mission and dialogue,” working for unity, justice and peace with other faiths, people of good will, and with those who are poor and vulnerable (Pastores Dabo Vobis 17-18).
John Paul II notes, “All priests must have the mind and heart of missionaries,” whether they serve near their home or across the world. Priests can have missionary hearts through their attentiveness to the struggles of their brothers and sisters across the world and by remembering “the whole Church for all of humanity” in their prayers and in the eucharistic sacrifice (John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio 67). This global perspective must be contagious; priests must work to “form the community entrusted to them as a truly missionary community” (Pastores Dabo Vobis 32). Deacons, too, have been sent by Christ and play an important role in bringing Him to the heart of the parish community and beyond.
St. John Vianney wrote: “The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus.” Likewise, St. Augustine noted that the priesthood is the office of the good shepherd who offers his life for his sheep. In sum, “The priest is above all a servant of others” (Pope Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis 23). As Christ “emptied himself” (Phil. 2:7) to become the suffering servant, so too, priests give themselves in service for the Church and the world. The celibate lifestyle, which encourages an undivided heart in those committed to it, fosters such self-emptying service. Deacons also exemplify service as they assist the bishop and priests in their ministries and dedicate themselves to ministries of charity (Catechism 1571).
Advocates for the Poor
Ordained ministers are guided by the Holy Spirit to have “a preferential love for the poor, the sick and the needy” and to identify with Christ the priest and victim (Catechism 1586). This “special obligation to the poor and weak” is in imitation of Jesus’ own love for the poor and ministry to the sick and dying (Presbyterorum Ordinis 6).
The ordained are to live in the world while also being witnesses representing virtues that lead the sheep to the one true sheepfold. These virtues include love, goodness, and “zealous pursuit of justice” (Presbyterorum Ordinis 3).
Sharers of Catholic Social Teaching
Because the Church’s social doctrine is an “essential component” of the “new evangelization” (Pastores Dabo Vobis 54), those preparing for the ordained ministry should develop a “thorough knowledge” of Catholic social teaching and “a keen interest in the social issues of their day” (Compendium 533).
Evangelizers of Social Realities
Bishops, assisted by priests, deacons and religious, must “evangelize social realities” (Compendium 539) by being “articulate spokesmen for and interpreters of Catholic social teaching in today’s circumstances” (NCCB, Program of Priestly Formation).
Information courtesy of About.com Catholicism – The Sacrament of Holy Orders by Scot P. Richert
United States Conference of Bishops -
Holy Orders: Ordained to Serve, Gather, Transform, and Send
The Norbertine Order (Premonstratensians)
was founded by St. Norbert of Xanten (1080-1134)
(St. Michael's Abbey, El Toro, CA)
Sources: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: www.usccb.org
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Edition
St. Michaels' Abbey of the Norbertine Fathers:
Busted Halo Ministries: www.BustedHalo.com