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Holy Orders - A Channel of Grace

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

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 Church's own language, this sacrament is described in the new Code of Canon Law.

By divine institution, some among Christ's 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 heirarchical 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 priests.

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 Church's 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 Trent.

  1. 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.

  2. Orders, or holy ordination, is truly and properly a sacrament instituted by Christ our Lord.

  3. There is a divinely instituted hierarchy consisting of bishops, priests, and ministers.

  4. 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 secualr 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 office.

Among the duties of deacons in the first centuries of the Church, the following stand out. They were stewards of the Church's 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 Church's 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 ligurgy 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:

  1. To assist the deacon and to minister to the priest in the liturgy, especially at Mass.

  2. 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.

  3. To expose the Blessed Sacrament for the veneration of the faithful, but not to give Benediction.

  4. To instruct the faithful in their role at liturgical functions.

Correspondingly, among the duties of the ministry of lector are:

  1. To read the Scriptures at liturgical functions, but not the gospel.

  2. To announce the intentions of the Prayer of the Faithful at Mass.

  3. To direct the singing and participation of the faithful.

  4. 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 Church's canon law.

No one may lawfully exorcise the possessed without the special and express permission of the local Ordinary… This 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.

Pocket Catholic Catechism, John A. Hardon, S.J.,
An Image Book published by Doubleday, Copyright © 1989 by John A. Hardon.

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