Among the sacraments, none is more distinctively
Catholic than the sacrament of Order. The plural, Orders, is commonly used
because there are three levels of this one sacrament, namely the diaconate,
priesthood, and episcopate.
In the Churchs own language, this sacrament is
described in the new Code of Canon Law.
By divine institution, some among
Christs faithful are, through the sacrament of Order, marked with an indelible
character, and are thus constituted sacred ministers
They are thereby consecrated and
deputed so that each according to his own grade, they fulfill, in the person of
Christ the Head, the offices of teaching, sanctifying, and ruling, and so they
nourish the people of God (Canon 1008).
All three levels of this sacrament are conferred by
the imposition of hands and the appropriate prayer of consecration. Only
bishops can confer the sacrament of Order.
Only a baptized man can validly receive the
sacrament of Order (Canon 1024). This rests on positive divine law. Christ
called only men to be His apostles. According to the testimony of Sacred
Scripture and the unchangeable practice of the Church, the hierarchical powers
were conferred only on men.
The episcopate is the highest form of the sacrament
of Orders. Thus the Council of Trent defined that bishops are superior to
This pre-eminence of the bishops refers both to
their exercise of authority and to their power of consecration. But their
authority depends on their own consecration. Thus only bishops have the power
of ordaining bishops, priests, or deacons. The common teaching is that the
difference between bishops and priests (presbyters) existed from the beginning
of the Church through a direct institution by Christ.
No bishop is permitted to consecrate anyone as
bishop unless it is first established that a pontifical mandate has been
issued (Canon 1013). This means that a priest may not be consecrated a bishop
unless it is clearly proved that the one to be consecrated has been officially
approved by the Holy See for episcopal consecration.
As understood by Christ, the divine mission which He
first entrusted to the apostles was to last until the end of time. That is why
the apostles were careful to appoint successors in this hierarchical society.
By the laying on of hands these men were ordained to
the episcopate so that by the year 100 A. D., there were over one hundred
dioceses in existence around the Mediterranean world.
In every case, the ordination to the episcopate
began with the apostles ordained by Christ at the Last Supper, so that the
episcopal succession of bishops can be literally called the apostolic
succession. Every validly ordained bishop in the world today can trace his
ordination historically to that first ordination on Holy Thursday night.
What needs to be emphasized is that the power of
episcopal orders is also the foundation of episcopal authority. The Second
Vatican Council could not be clearer:
That divine mission, which was
committed by Christ to the apostles, is destined to last until the end of the
world (Matthew 28:20), since the gospel which they are charged to hand on, is
for the Church, the principle of all its life until the end of time. For that
very reason, the apostles were careful to appoint successors in this
hierarchically constituted society
They accordingly designated such
men and made the ruling that likewise on their death other proven men should
take over their ministry
Thus according to the testimony of
St. Irenaeus, the apostolic tradition is manifested and preserved in the whole
world by those who were made bishops by the apostles and by their successors
down to our own time (Constitution on the
Church, III, 20).
The apostolic succession of the bishops is
reflected in the prayer of consecration
by which priests are ordained to the episcopate. The ordaining prelate, after
laying hands on the one to be made bishop, prays: Now pour out upon this
chosen one that power which flows from you, that perfect Spirit which He gave to
the apostles, who established the Church in every place as the sanctuary where
your name would always be praised and glorified.
In virtue of their ordination, bishops receive the
fullness of the sacrament of Order. Only they can confer this sacrament on
others. But, as we have seen, their power to teach and rule the People of God
depends on their approval by the Bishop of Rome.
In the new Testament, only bishops and priests
possess priestly powers. In the Churchs language, bishops have the fullness of
the priesthood, the highest priest of the first order. Presbyters (priests)
are simple priests of the second order.
Challenged on the priesthood, the Catholic Church
has more than once defended her teaching as revealed by God and therefore the
irreversible truth. The most explicit doctrine was taught by the Council of
- There is a visible and external priesthood in the New Testament.
It consists in the power of consecrating and offering the Body and Blood of the
Lord, and of remitting and of retaining sins. The priesthood, therefore, is not
only an office and simple ministry of preaching.
- Orders, or holy ordination, is truly and properly a sacrament
instituted by Christ our Lord.
- There is a divinely instituted hierarchy consisting of bishops,
priests, and ministers.
- Bishops are superior to priests and have power to confirm and
ordain. The power they have is not common to both them and to priests.
Moreover, the orders conferred by them do not depend on the call or consent of
the people, nor of the secular power (Council of Trent, July 15, 1563).
Building on these principles of doctrine, the Second
Vatican Council stressed the need for priests to cooperate with the bishops.
Together with their bishop, priests form a unique priestly community, although
dedicated to a variety of different duties. In each local assembly of the
faithful, priests may be said to represent the bishop with whom they are to be
associated in all trust and generosity (Constitution
of the Church, III, 28).
The name deacon means servant or minister and it is used in this
sense in the Scriptures. Yet the constant tradition of the Catholic Church
recognizes the office of deacon as a divine institution. The narrative of the
martyrdom of St. Stephen (Acts 6:1-6) describes the first beginnings of this
Among the duties of deacons in the first centuries
of the Church, the following stand out. They were stewards of the Churchs
funds, and of the alms collected for widows and orphans; they were to help with
the care of the poor and the aged; their special duty was to read the gospel;
they would also preach to the people; they were especially to bring the Holy
Eucharist to the sick in their homes; confer the sacrament of Baptism, and
assist the bishop or priest in the celebration of the Eucharistic Liturgy.
The exercise of the diaconate enabled those who were
to become priests to prepare themselves for their priestly life. But as time
went on, there was a gradual decrease in the number of those who wished to
remain deacons all their lives, without going on to the priesthood. As a
result, the permanent diaconate almost entirely disappeared in the Latin Rite
of the Catholic Church.
The Council of Trent proposed the idea of restoring
the permanent diaconate. Gradually this idea matured, and the Second Vatican
Council officially supported the desire of those bishops who wanted permanent
deacons to be ordained where such would lead to the good of souls.
One provision of the Code of Canon Law recognizes
that married men may become permanent deacons: A candidate for the permanent
diaconate who is not married may be admitted to the diaconate only when he has
completed at least his twenty-fifth year. If he is married, not until he has completed
at least his thirty-fifth year, and then with the consent of his wife (Canon
1031, 2). According to the Churchs tradition, a married deacon who has lost
his wife cannot enter a new marriage (Pope Paul VI, Norms
for the Order of Diaconate, 6).
However, A candidate for the permanent diaconate
who is not married, and likewise a candidate for the priesthood, is not to be
admitted to the order of diaconate unless he has, in the prescribed rite,
publicly before God and the Church undertaken the obligation of celibacy, or
unless he has taken perpetual vows in a religious institute (Canon 1037).
Second Vatican Council
In its Constitution on
the Liturgy, the Second Vatican Council pointed out that, the
liturgy is made up of unchangeable elements divinely instituted and of elements
subject to changes (21). One result was that the centuries-old distinction was
dropped between major and minor orders. The major orders were the episcopate,
priesthood, diaconate, and sub-diaconate. The minor orders were acolyte,
porter, lector, and exorcist. Since the subdiaconate was not a sacrament, Paul
VI suppressed the subdiaconate in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church.
Two of the minor orders, acolyte and lector, became
simple ministries. Only men can assume these ministries. According to Canon
Law, Lay men whose age and talents meet the requirements prescribed by decree
of the Episcopal Conference, can be given the stable ministry of lector and of
acolyte through the prescribed liturgical rite (Canon 230).
Among the duties of the acolyte are:
- To assist the deacon and to minister to the priest in the
liturgy, especially at Mass.
- To distribute Holy Communion as an extraordinary minister,
whenever priests or deacons are unable to do so or the number of communicants
is so large that the Holy Sacrifice would be unduly prolonged.
- To expose the Blessed Sacrament for the veneration of the
faithful, but not to give Benediction.
- To instruct the faithful in their role at liturgical functions.
Correspondingly, among the duties of the ministry of lector are:
- To read the Scriptures at liturgical functions, but not the gospel.
- To announce the intentions of the Prayer of the Faithful at Mass.
- To direct the singing and participation of the faithful.
- To instruct the faithful in the worthy reception of the sacraments (Pope Paul VI, Certain Ministries,
August 15, 1972).
The minor order of porter had
long become symbolic. Originally the porter not only took care of the church doors,
but carried out the functions of the sexton or sacristan of a church. The
modern custodian has replaced both porter and sexton.
So, too, the former minor order
of exorcist has been absorbed in the
priesthood. Exorcism is now classified among the sacramentals and covered by
the Churchs canon law.
No one may
lawfully exorcise the possessed without the special and express permission of
the local Ordinary
permission is to be granted by the local Ordinary only to a priest endowed with
piety, prudence, and integrity of life (Canon 1172).
One closing observation on the
sacrament of Orders should be made. Not everyone has received the grace to be
ordained. As St. Paul told the early Christians, One does not take the honor
upon himself, but he is called by God, just as Aaron was (Hebrews 5:4). This
is especially true of the priesthood, including its highest form in the
episcopate. Christ Himself called only certain men to be apostles; so He
continues to call those whom He wills. When they are ordained, it is from Him
that they receive the principal powers of the priesthood: to consecrate and
offer the Body and Blood of our Lord, and to forgive sins.
Copyright © 2002 Inter Mirifica
Pocket Catholic Catechism