The Sacrament of Holy Orders
The sacrament of Holy Orders creates a priest.
There’s a little more to it than that, of course. As the Catechism’s section on Holy Orders says: this “is the sacrament through which the mission entrusted by Christ to his apostles continues to be exercised in the Church until the end of time: thus it is the sacrament of apostolic ministry. It includes three degrees”—the orders of bishop, priest, and deacon. (Catechism, 1536)
But to keep things simple, let’s start with the priest.
The priesthood & the sacrifice
To know what a priest is we have to know what a sacrifice is.
Nowadays the word “sacrifice” is used in many different ways. But in its strict meaning, its original meaning, a sacrifice is the offering of a gift to God by a group, through the agency of someone who has the right to represent the group.
The purpose of such an offering is to give group worship to God; that is, to acknowledge God’s supreme lordship over mankind, to thank him for his blessings, to atone for human sin, and to beg for his benefits.
It is not that God needs our gifts.
Everything that exists was made by God in the first place. Even a mountain of diamonds would of itself have no value in God’s eyes. Until Jesus gave us himself as the perfect gift in the sacrifice of the Mass, nothing that man could offer to God was really worthy of God.
Holy Orders is a unique sacrament
There are two notable ways in which the sacrament of Holy Orders differs from the other sacraments.
One is the fact that Holy Orders can be administered only by a bishop. Only a bishop has the power to ordain priests. An ordinary priest cannot pass his power on to another.
The second way in which Holy Orders differs from other sacraments is that Holy Orders is not received all at once.
When we are baptized, we are completely baptized by the single pouring of water. When we are confirmed, we are completely confirmed in a single ceremony. Holy Orders, however, is given by degrees, by successive steps.
Three successive stages
Like a flower developing from bud to full bloom, so does the sacrament of Holy Orders unfold itself through three stages as it confers successively the powers of deacon, priest, and bishop.
Deaconship, priesthood, and bishopric are the three stages in the sacrament of Holy Orders as it was instituted by Christ. At each stage, as in every sacrament, there is an increase in sanctifying grace. At each stage there is the imprinting of a character upon the soul; each successive character, like a progressively brighter sun, enveloping and containing the one that has gone before.
In that character are rooted the right and the power that belong to the order which is being received.
For the deacon it is the right to baptize, to preach, and to administer Holy Communion.
For the priest it is the power to change bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ and to forgive sins.
For the bishop, who alone has the complete fullness of the priesthood, it is the power to confirm and to ordain—to pass the power of the priesthood on to others in the sacrament of Holy Orders.