Holy Orders: In the Apostolic Tradition

Holy Orders is a sacrament conferred on men and by which they carry on the apostolic tradition as ministers of the Gospel and the sacraments. The term order comes from the Latin ordinatio, which means incorporation into an ordo, an established civil or governing body. The Church is made up of three orders: episcopate (bishops), presbyterate (priests), and deaconate (deacons). To join one of these orders, the initiates participate in a sacramental liturgy of induction, which varies depending upon the order.

A Priesthood of Mankind

The Church teaches that two kinds of priesthood share in the high priesthood of Christ. One is the priesthood of the faithful, made up of ordinary people who participate in the priestly character of the Church through Baptism and their own vocations. The Church teaches that everyone shares in the priestly character of Christ, as they share in his life, suffering, and death.

The Levite tribe of Israel was the priestly order of the Old Covenant. God charged the Levites to look after sacred items and liturgical services, which included sacrifices made to God in the Temple as well as other religious rites. Under the New Covenant, Jesus became the Chief Priest and the one mediator between God and men; he made the sacrifice of himself, the last sacrifice that would have to be performed for God.

The second priesthood is the ministerial, or hierarchical, priesthood of bishops and priests. Christ develops and leads his Church through the ministerial priesthood. Through the sacrament of Holy Orders, members of the ministerial priesthood may act in place of Christ and in the name of the Church.

The Hierarchy of the Orders

Of the three orders — bishops, priests, and deacons — the episcopal order, composed of bishops, holds the highest place in the Church. Bishops are each a link in the apostolic line, an unbroken succession going back to the earliest days of the Church. At the apex of the sacred ministry, they receive the full powers of the sacrament of Holy Orders: to sanctify, teach, and rule. Bishops are also the ones who become pontiffs and pastors. The episcopal order is collegial. Bishops work together in the consecration of a new bishop, and each bishop is responsible for the apostolic mission of the whole Church.

Priests are consecrated to help bishops in the work of the Church. They preach the Gospel, take care of the faithful, and celebrate the holy liturgies. They carry out their ministries in communication with and in service to their bishops, whom they promise to love and obey. All priests are members of a priestly college, or presbyterium.

Deacons are at the lowest end of the clerical hierarchy. They assume Holy Orders through a special imprint or seal that marks them as ministers, deacons, or servants. Deacons are generally attached to the bishop who ordained them. They assist him in celebrating the Eucharist, distributing Holy Communion, assisting at and blessing marriages, proclaiming the Gospel and preaching, conducting funerals, and working in charitable ministries.

Ordination Practices

The sacrament of Holy Orders is performed by the bishop, who lays hands on candidate and recites a specific consecratory prayer. In the Catholic Church there are accompanying rituals, such as the presentation, instruction, and examination of the candidate.

Only validly ordained bishops can administer Holy Orders, and only a baptized man can receive it. Celibacy is one of the conditions for receiving Holy Orders for all but permanent deacons.

If initiates are to be ordained as bishops or priests, they are anointed with holy chrism, a sign of the special anointing of the Holy Spirit. New bishops also receive the books of the Gospels along with the ring, miter, and crosier as symbols of apostolic mission. The priests receive the paten and chalice, through which they make offerings for the Church to God. The deacons receive the books of the Gospels, to proclaim the Gospel of Christ.

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