Holy Orders: The Priesthood

"I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands." - Second letter of St. Paul to Timothy 1:6

The Sacrament of Holy Orders is the continuation of Christ's priesthood, which He bestowed upon His Apostles; thus, the Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to the Sacrament of Holy Orders as "the sacrament of apostolic ministry."

"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 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.

What is a priest?

The Catholic Priest is a man associated with Jesus the High Priest in his work of providing for the Church. More than just a minister, leader, social worker or counselor, the priest stands "in the person of Christ" to offer the sacrifice of the Mass and bring to the Church the fruits of Christ's death and resurrection. By the Sacrament of Holy Orders he is set apart for the work of Jesus, Head and Shepherd.

What do priests do?

In addition to celebrating the Mass, priests absolve sins, baptize, prepare couples for marriage and celebrate weddings, bury the dead, teach pastor parishes, and commit themselves to a life of service within the Church.

What is the Sacrament of Holy Orders?

This sacrament bestows the graces necessary to be a member of the clergy in the Church. There are three "orders" of the clergy; Bishop, Priest & Deacon

What are the two kinds of priests?

A Diocesan priest is one who serves a bishop within a particular diocese. Besides parish work, a priest can be assigned to minster as chaplains in hospitals, schools or convents. A Religious priest is a member of a community that is committed to a special charism, such as monastic life, missionary work or teaching. They serve a superior.

What is a "monsignor"?

A "Monsignor" is a priest who has received an honorary title from the Holy Father by nomination of his bishop for outstanding dedication and ministry . Usually monsignors are entrusted to certain offices or major parishes within the structure of the leadership of the church. It is merited, not worked toward.

What are the qualifications of a priest?

A baptized and fully initiated Catholic, heterosexual male of good moral character. 25 is the minimum age for ordination according to Church law. One can enter the seminary right after high school. Besides good health and academic ability, a candidate for the priesthood also needs a strong prayer life, involvement in his parish, a spirit of service and sacrifice, and a deep love for the Church. He must have talents to put at the service of the Church and a healthy physical & psychological life.

Why do priests not marry?

The Church practices the discipline of celibacy not as punishment or deprivation of the priest, but as signifying a greater calling to serve the Church unconditionally, without any other committments, to give oneself completely to the service of God and His Church. In celibacy, the priest points to heaven, "where we are neither married nor given in marriage". Celibacy is a gift to the priest, not a burden.

Where does a man study to become a priest?

Priestly formation and education takes place at a seminary, often attached to a major Catholic university. A young man enters the seminary for his undergraduate and graduate education, as well as spending that time living in community with other "seminarians" who are in formation for the priesthood. Seminaries are chosen by the bishop.

Who must one speak to if they think they may be called to be a priest?

After a period of prayer and discernment, a man should approach his local parish priest, preferably his own pastor of his parish, who will guide him to find a good spiritual director (if not himself) to help that young man further discern. If it is determined that this man should pursue his vocation, he is then referred to the Diocesan (or Religious Order) Vocation Director. A man may begin consideration as early as high school years.

Vocations Office




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