Holy Orders is a sacrament in which men are approved or “ordained” by the Church to perform the other six sacraments. The men may be deacons, priests or bishops.
However, the sacrament of Holy Orders is performed only by bishops, and that follows directly from the Bible.
There is an established way in Scripture in which God’s call to the ministry is given and received. It flows from God to Jesus, from Jesus to the Apostles, and from the Apostles to their successors (see Gospel of Luke 10:16 and the Gospel of John 13:20; 20:21). So, the sacrament of Holy Orders can be performed only by an Apostle or only by one on whom apostolic authority has been conferred. For example, Paul writes in his First Letter to Timothy (4:14), “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the council of elders laid their hands upon you” (see 5:22, his Second Letter to Timothy, 1:6, and his Letter to Titus 1:5). So, the sacrament follows an unbroken chain from Jesus to today’s newest Catholic priest. (More on this below.)
In the early Church, a hierarchy developed that consisted of bishops, presbyters (or elders), and deacons, which corresponded to Israel’s three-tiered structure of high priest, priests, and Levites (see Paul’s Letter to the Phillipians, 1:1; Saint James’ Epistle, 5:14; The Book of Numbers, 32; The Second Book of Chronicles 31:9-10).1 In Israel, the priest was seen as God’s unique emissary (see Malachi 2:7), being set apart from the assembly by an anointing and the imposition of hands (see Exodus 30:30 or Deuteronomy 34:9).
Given that the Apostles were Jews, the Church adopted these Jewish customs for her rite of ordination.
Aren’t We all Priests?
No, but sometimes people are confused by the Bible’s message that all believers are called to share in Christ’s priesthood. For example, Saint Peter’s First Letter (2:9) states, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” These words are a reference back to Exodus 19:6, “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Reserving the authority to perform sacraments to a special group of individuals (priests) is known as sacerdotalism.
In the Old Covenant, a smaller, sacerdotal priesthood existed within the larger priestly nation of Israel. As we explain, it is the same in the New Covenant.
The Bible reveals the sacerdotal priesthood to be a kind of spiritual fatherhood, which is why the Catholic Church teaches that priestly ordination is reserved for men alone. For example, in the Old Testament, the Book of Judges (18:19) states: “Come with us, and be to us a father and a priest.”
Likewise, in the New Testament, Paul writes in his First Letter to the Corinthians (4:15) that “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.” Paul elaborates more on this spiritual fatherhood or sacerdotal priesthood at the start of that same chapter, when he says, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (4:1).2
At the start of His ministry, Jesus remarked that the crowds resembled “sheep without a shepherd,” saying, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (see Matthew 9:36, 37-38). These remarks preface His selection of the Twelve Apostles, whom He empowered and sent out as His vicarious shepherds over the faithful (see the Gospel of John 21:15-17; the Acts of the Apostles 20:28; and Peter’s First Letter 5:2). “You did not choose me,” He later reminded them, “but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit” (John 15:16). “How can men preach unless they are sent?” writes Paul in his Letter to the Romans, 10:15.
Nowhere in Scripture does a man assume the ministry for himself. “One does not take the honor upon himself, but is called by God, just as Aaron was,” write Paul in his Letter to the Hebrews 5:4 (see his Letter to the Colossians 1:25, also). When certain Jewish exorcists attempt to rebuke evil spirits “by the Jesus whom Paul preaches,” the spirits reply, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?” (Acts of the Apostles, 19:13, 15).
So, a valid call to the ministry ordinarily involves the confirmation of the apostolic hierarchy. For example, in the Act of the Apostles (1:15), Matthias does not stand up and take his ministerial office by his own volition. He is elected according to the authority of Peter and the Apostles, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Neither does Paul, in spite of his dramatic conversion, set off on his own to preach the Gospel, claiming God’s anointing for himself. As mentioned in his Letter to the Galatians (1:18), he goes first to Jerusalem to receive the approval of the Apostles, and later he returns to verify the gospel he is preaching is correct (2:2).
While all Christians are called to evangelize, the Apostles and their successors have the unique call of safeguarding the Deposit of Faith and teaching the faithful. In the Gospel of Matthew (28:19-20) Jesus says to the Apostles, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
Likewise, in his Second Letter to Timothy, Paul instructs: “Guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us,… What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” (see verses 1:14; 2:2; 1:13; and the Acts of the Apostles 2:42).
Actually, when His ministers teach it is Christ Himself who teaches through them as He said: “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you, rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16). Elsewhere He declares, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who receives any one whom I send receives me; and he who receives me receives him who sent me” (John 13:20; emphasis added).
The Apostles are given the authority of presiding over the Eucharistic celebration. For example, while instituting the Eucharist at the Last Supper, He bids them, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19 and Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, 11:23-24). The Apostles receive a unique share in His priesthood and with it the chief duty of offering the Eucharistic Sacrifice on behalf of the faithful (cf. Heb. 5:1).3
The Apostles also receive from Jesus the power to forgive sins through the gift of the keys given to Peter and the authority to” bind and loose” conferred on them as a group (cf. Matt. 16:19; 18:18). “As the Father has sent me,” the Savior tells them, “even so I send you. … Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:21-23; emphasis added).
- Though the fullness of the apostolic office with all its prerogatives was not passed down, the bishops, as direct successors to the Apostles, remained at the head of the hierarchy. ↩
- The word “mystery,” in Greek, mysterion, is translated in Latin as sacramentum or “sacrament.” The Greek Orthodox continue to this day to refer to the Sacraments as the sacred “Mysteries.” ↩
- The Biblical view of the Eucharist as a Sacrifice (cf. Mal. 1:11; 1 Cor. 10:1-5, 15-22; 11:23-30; Heb. 10:25-26), in fact, further points to the existence of a sacerdotal priesthood–for the presence of a sacrifice necessitates a priesthood to offer it. Pope Saint Clement, writing from Rome in about the year 96, clearly distinguished between the Eucharistic Sacrifice offered by the ministerial priesthood and the spiritual sacrifices offered by the priesthood of the laity (cf. Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians 40-41). Misunderstanding the Eucharistic Sacrifice, non-Catholics sometimes accuse Catholics of “re-sacrificing” Jesus at Mass. The Eucharistic Sacrifice is not a re-sacrificing, however, but a re-presentation of the one Sacrifice of Calvary. Christ does not die again; His saving Flesh and Blood are made present on the altar under the appearances of Bread and Wine so that the faithful may “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” as Paul wrote in his First Letter to the Corinthians (11:26). ↩