The Sacrament of Holy Orders

The sacrament of holy orders is one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. Through baptism, all Catholics are called to be “priest, prophet, and king,” and participate in Jesus’ priestly ministry. However, some men are called to serve the Church in a special way as members of the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood as ordained clergy. They do this through the sacrament of holy orders.

The sacrament, which is conferred as part of the rite of ordination, is what makes a lay person into a member of the clergy. There are three levels (or degrees) of holy orders:

  1. Diaconate (to become a deacon)
  2. Presbyterate (to become a priest)
  3. Episcopate (to become a bishop)

These degrees are received in order – a lay person would be first ordained as a deacon. Some deacons go on to be ordained as priests, and some priests are later ordained bishops.

What Happens at the Sacrament of Holy Orders

The sacrament of holy orders is conferred within the Rite of Ordination, typically within a Mass. The rite occurs during Mass after the Gospel. The ceremony can vary based on the degree of holy orders being conferred and the customs of the local Church, but these main points are usually included.

The sacrament is conferred by the bishop or local ordinary (the cleric responsible for the local Church in that particular region). As part of the rite, the candidate is “questioned” by the bishop, and the candidate declares his desire and intention to fulfill the duties of this new role. The candidate also makes various promises appropriate to their ministry. A litany of the saints is read or sung, during which the candidate lies prostrate before God and those assembled.

The bishop and any priests in attendance lay their hands briefly upon the candidate in silence – an ancient gesture of the Church that asks the Holy Spirit to come down upon the candidate and empower him for service.

The bishop extends his hands over the candidate and says the Prayer of Consecration, which asks for God’s graces to help the candidate exercise his new ministry. The candidate is then clothed with the vestments for his new ministry – for deacons, a deacon’s stole and dalmatic; for priests, a priestly stole and chasuble; for bishops, a ring, mitre, and crozier.

Candidates for the priesthood have their hands anointed with chrism, and candidates for the episcopacy (bishops) have their heads anointed with the oil of chrism. Oil of chrism is a special oil blessed by the local bishop during Holy Week. It is an ancient symbol of Christians and a powerful way to mark the candidate for service to the Church and her people.

Scriptural Basis for the Sacrament of Holy Orders

All three levels of holy orders are clearly established in scripture.

The ministerial priesthood has its initial origins in the Old Testament. Genesis 14:18 speaks of Melchizedek, a priest of God, offering bread and wine. Members of the tribe of Levi, beginning with Aaron and then his ancestors, were specifically chosen by God for priestly service (Numbers 3:5-10). Exodus 29 and Leviticus 8 detail the ordination ritual that was used at the time for this Levitical priesthood. The role of these priests was to serve in the temple and mediate between God and sinners by offering sacrifices. In their ministry we see a prefiguring of the priestly ministry of Jesus, who is the eternal high priest.

Ordained priests now participate directly in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus established the ministerial priesthood when He asked His Apostles to ensure that His ministry lived on after His death. He did this most specifically after His resurrection, when He appeared to them and formally sent them out for ministry (John 20:19-23).

Jesus made Peter the first bishop (the pope), asking him to be the leader and “rock” of the Church on Earth (Matthew 16:18). The diaconate, or ministry of deacons, also has scriptural origins. As the early Church grew, some complained that the demands of ministry were pulling the Church leaders away from certain day-to-day obligations, like ensuring that widows received enough food. In response, the 12 Apostles determined that a new order of clergy was needed to take on some of these other roles that they weren’t able to fill. Thus, seven men were ordained into what we now call the diaconate (Acts 6:1-7).

By Elizabeth Craig

Updated 06-05-2023