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The Sacrament of Holy Orders is the continuation of Christ’s priesthood, which He bestowed upon His Apostles. “Ordination” comes from the Latin word ordinatio, which means to incorporate someone into an order. In the Sacrament of Holy Orders, a man is incorporated into the priesthood of Christ, at one of three levels: the episcopate, the priesthood, or the diaconate.
“The Sacrament of Apostolic Ministry by which the mission entrusted by Christ to his Apostles continues to be exercised in the Church through the laying on of hands. This sacrament has three distinct degrees or ‘orders’: deacon, priest, and bishop. All three confer a permanent, sacramental character” (Catechism of the Catholic Church,536).
“The whole Church is a priestly people. Through Baptism all the faithful share in the priesthood of Christ. This participation is called the ‘common priesthood of the faithful.’ Based on this common priesthood and ordered to its service, there exists another participation in the mission of Christ: the ministry conferred by the sacrament of Holy Orders, where the task is to serve in the name and in the person of Christ the Head in the midst of the community” (Catechism, 1591).
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, through baptism called into the priesthood of Christ, some are called individually 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 or Bishop. 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 (bishop) 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 Holy Eucharist at Mass.
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. Additionally, Deacons may preside at weddings or funerals with no Mass and may baptize. Married men are allowed to become permanent deacons.
Who can receive 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 Effects of the Sacrament:
The Sacrament of Holy Orders, like the Sacraments of Baptism and 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. Hebrews 5:6
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.
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 of Holy Orders. The grace of sanctifying others that he receives at his own ordination allows him to ordain others.