Holy Orders

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.

Then, besides the increase in sanctifying grace and the priestly character with its accompanying power, there is the special sacramental grace which gives to the one ordained a claim upon God for whatever actual graces he may need in the faithful discharge of his office.

The priest & the Sacrifice of the Mass

For priests (and of course bishops), Holy Orders “configures them to Christ” in a special way so that they can act in the person of Christ the Head.

Through the sacrament of Holy Orders, the Holy Spirit imparts that tremendous and almost unbelievable power to call Jesus Christ himself down upon the altar. It is in the Sacrifice of the Mass that the priest exercises the supreme degree of his sacred office.

This is the supreme Sacrifice, offered in divine worship in the person of Christ (in persona Christi), by which the priest acts as a true priest of the New Covenant.

We must also remember that it is only by this sacred, ordained power to act in persona Christi that the priest has the power to forgive, in Christ’s name, the sins of men.

Sustained by grace

No priest would or could wish for more than this extraordinary privilege of acting in persona Christi.

As he bends each morning over the bread and the wine, lending his lips to Christ as he speaks Christ’s words, “This is My Body… . This is My Blood,” the priest time and again feels all but crushed by the sense of his own unworthiness, by the consciousness of his human weakness. He would be crushed, too, if it were not for the grace of the sacrament of Holy Orders, which God infallibly gives to those who humbly ask it.

It is, of course, this power to offer sacrifice, this power to offer the Perfect Gift to God in the name of God’s people, that distinguishes a priest from a Protestant minister. The minister does not have the power to offer sacrifice, which is precisely what makes a priest a priest.