Holy Orders

What is Holy Orders?

In the Roman Catholic Church, the Sacrament of Order is the sacrament by which grace and spiritual power for the discharge of ecclesiastical offices are conferred.

Christ founded the Church as a supernatural society, the Kingdom of God. In this society there must be the power of ruling; and also the principles by which the members are to attain their supernatural end, viz., supernatural truth, which is held by faith, and supernatural grace by which man is formally elevated to the supernatural order.

Thus, besides the power of jurisdiction, the Church has the power of teaching (magisterium) and the power of conferring grace (power of order). This power of order was committed by our Lord to His Apostles, who were to continue His work and to be His earthly representatives. The Apostles received their power from Christ: "as the Father hath sent me, I also send you" (John, xx, 21).

A sacrament

Christ possessed fullness of power in virtue of His priesthood—of His office as Redeemer and Mediator. He merited the grace which freed man from the bondage of sin, which grace is applied to man mediately by the Sacrifice of the Eucharist and immediately by the sacraments. He gave His Apostles the power to offer the Sacrifice (Luke, xxii, 19), and dispense the sacraments (Matt., xxviii, 18; John, xx, 22, 23); thus making them priests.

It is true that every Christian receives sanctifying grace which confers on him a priesthood. Even as Israel under the Old dispensation was to God "a priestly kingdom" (Exod., xix, 4-6), thus under the New, all Christians are "a kingly priesthood" (I Pet., ii, 9); but now as then the special and sacramental priesthood strengthens and perfects the universal priesthood (cf. II Cor., iii, 3, 6; Rom., xv, 16).

From Scripture we learn that the Apostles appointed others by an external rite (imposition of hands), conferring inward grace. The fact that grace is ascribed immediately to the external rite, shows that Christ must have thus ordained. The fact that cheirontonein, cheirotonia, which meant electing by show of hands, had acquired the technical meaning of ordination by imposition of hands before the middle of the third century, shows that appointment to the various orders was made by that external rite.

We read of the deacons, how the Apostles "praying, imposed hands upon them" (Acts, vi, 6). In II Tim., i, 6 St. Paul reminds Timothy that he was made a bishop by the imposition of St. Paul's hands (cf. I Tim., iv, 4), and Timothy is exhorted to appoint presbyters by the same rite (I Tim., v, 22; cf. Acts, xiii, 3; xiv, 22). In Clem., "Hom.", III, lxxii, we read of the appointment of Zachæus as bishop by the imposition of Peter's hands. The word is used in its technical meaning by Clement of Alexandria ("Strom.", VI, xiii, cvi; cf. "Const. Apost.", II, viii, 36). "A priest lays on hands, but does not ordain" (cheirothetei ou cheirotonei) "Didasc. Syr.", IV; III, 10, 11, 20; Cornelius, "Ad Fabianum" in Euseb., "Hist. Eccl.", VI, xliii.

Grace was attached to this external sign and conferred by it. "I admonish thee, that thou stir up the grace of God which is in thee, through (dia) the imposition of my hands" (II Tim., i, 6). The context clearly shows that there is question here of a grace which enables Timothy to rightly discharge the office imposed upon him, for St. Paul continues "God hath not given us the spirit of fear: but of power, and of love, and of sobriety."

This grace is something permanent, as appears from the words "that thou stir up the grace which is in thee"; we reach the same conclusion from I Tim., iv, 14, where St. Paul says, "Neglect not the grace that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with (meta) imposition of hands of the priesthood." This text shows that when St. Paul ordained Timothy, the presbyters also laid their hands upon him, even as now the presbyters who assist at ordination lay their hands on the candidate.

St. Paul here exhorts Timothy to teach and command, to be an example to all. To neglect this would be to neglect the grace which is in him. This grace therefore enables him to teach and command, to discharge his office rightly. The grace then is not a charismatic gift, but a gift of the Holy Spirit for the rightful discharge of official duties. The Sacrament of Order has ever been recognized in the Church as such.

This is attested by the belief in a special priesthood (cf. St. John Chrys., "De sacerdotio"; St. Greg. of Nyss., "Oratio in baptism. Christi"), which requires a special ordination. St. Augustine, speaking about baptism and order, says, "Each is a sacrament, and each is given by a certain consecration, . . .If both are sacraments, which no one doubts, how is the one not lost (by defection from the Church) and the other lost?" (Contra. Epist. Parmen., ii, 28-30). The Council of Trent says, "Whereas, by the testimony of Scripture, by Apostolic tradition, and by the unanimous consent of the Fathers, it is clear that grace is conferred by sacred ordination, which is performed by words and outward signs, no one ought to doubt that Order is truly and properly one of the Seven Sacraments of Holy Church" (Sess. XXIII, c. iii, can. 3).

The Number of Holy Orders

The Council of Trent (Sess. XXIII, can. 3) defined that, besides the priesthood, there are in the Church other orders, both major and minor (q.v.). Though nothing has been defined with regard to the number of orders it is usually given as seven: priests, deacons, subdeacons, acolytes, exorcists, readers, and doorkeepers. The priesthood is thus counted as including bishops; if the latter be numbered separately we have eight; and if we add first tonsure, which was at one time regarded as an order, we have nine. We meet with different numberings in different Churches, and it would seem that mystical reasons influenced them to some extent (Martène, "De antiq. eccl. rit.", I, viii, l, 1; Denzinger, "Rit. orient.", II, 155).

The "Statuta ecclesiæ antiqua" enumerate nine orders, adding psalmists and counting bishops and priests separately. Others enumerate eight orders, thus, e.g. the author of "De divin. offic.", 33, and St. Dunstan's and the Jumièges pontificals (Martène I, viii, 11), the latter not counting bishops, and adding cantor. Innocent III, "De sacro alt. minister.", I, i, counts six orders, as do also the Irish canons, where acolytes were unknown. Besides the psalmista or cantor, several other functionaries seem to have been recognized as holding orders, e.g., fossarii (fossores) grave diggers, hermeneutoe (interpreters), custodes martyrum etc. Some consider them to have been real orders (Morin, "Comm. de sacris eccl. ordin.", III, Ex. 11, 7); but it is more probable that they were merely offices, generally committed to clerics (Benedict XIV, "De syn, dioc.", VIII, ix, 7, 8).

In the East there is considerable variety of tradition regarding the number of orders. The Greek Orthodox Church acknowledges five, bishops, priests, deacons, subdeacons, and readers. The same number is found in St. John Damascene (Dial. contra manichæos, iii); in the ancient Greek Church acolytes, exorcists, and doorkeepers were probably considered only as offices (cf. Denzinger, "Rit. orient.", I, 116).

In the Latin Church a distinction is made between major and minor orders (q.v.). In the East the subdiaconate is regarded as a minor order, and it includes three of the other minor orders (porter, exorcist, acolyte). In the Latin Church the priesthood, diaconate, and subdiaconate (q.v.) are the major, or sacred, orders, so-called because they have immediate reference to what is consecrated (St. Thom., "Suppl.", Q. xxxvii, a. 3). The hierarchical orders strictly so-called are of divine origin (Conc. Trid., Sess. XXIII, can. 6).

We have seen that our Lord instituted a ministry in the persons of His Apostles, who received fullness of authority and power. One of the first exercises of this Apostolic power was the appointment of others to help and succeed them. The Apostles did not confine their labors to any particular Church, but, following the Divine command to make disciples of all men, they were the missionaries of the first generation.

Others also are mentioned in Holy Scripture as exercising an itinerant ministry, such as those who are in a wider sense called Apostles (Rom., xvi, 7), or prophets, teachers, and evangelists (Eph., iv, 11). Side by side with this itinerant ministry provision is made for the ordinary ministrations by the appointment of local ministers, to whom the duties of the ministry passed entirely when the itinerant ministers disappeared.

Besides deacons others were appointed to the ministry, who are called presbyteroi and episkopoi. There is no record of their institution, but the names occur casually. Though some have explained the appointment of the seventy-two disciples in Luke X, as the institution of the presbyterate, it is generally agreed that they had only a temporary appointment. We find presbyters in the Mother Church at Jerusalem, receiving the gifts of the brethren of Antioch. They appear in close connection with the Apostles, and the Apostles and presbyters sent forth the decree which freed the gentile converts from the burden of the Mosaic law (Acts, xv, 23).

In St. James (v, 14, 15) they appear as performing ritual actions, and from St. Peter we learn that they are shepherds of the flock (I Pet. v, 2). The bishops hold a position of authority (Phil., i; I Tim., iii, 2; Tit., i, 7) and have been appointed shepherds by the Holy Ghost (Acts, xx, 28). That the ministry of both was local appears from Acts, xiv, 23, where we read that Paul and Barnabas appointed presbyters in the various Churches which they founded during their first missionary journey. It is shown also by the fact that they had to shepherd the flock, wherein they have been appointed, the presbyters have to shepherd the flock, that is amongst them (I Pet., v, 2). Titus is left in Crete that he might appoint presbyters in every city (kata eolin, Tit., i, 5; cf. Chrys., "Ad Tit., homil.", II, i).

We cannot argue from the difference of names to the difference of official position, because the names are to some extent interchangeable (Acts, xx, 17, 28; Tit., i, 6, 7). The New Testament does not clearly show the distinction between presbyters and bishops, and we must examine its evidence in the light of later times. Toward the end of the second century there is a universal and unquestioned tradition, that bishops and their superior authority date from Apostolic times.

It throws much light on the New-Testament evidence and we find that what appears distinctly at the time of Ignatius can be traced through the pastoral epistles of St. Paul, to the very beginning of the history of the Mother Church at Jerusalem, where St. James, the brother of the Lord, appears to occupy the position of bishop (Acts, xii, 17; xv, 13; xxi, 18; Gal., ii, 9); Timothy and Titus possess full episcopal authority, and were ever thus recognized in tradition (cf. Tit., i, 5; I Tim., v, 19 and 22).

No doubt there is much obscurity in the New Testament, but this is accounted for by many reasons. The monuments of tradition never give us the life of the Church in all its fullness, and we cannot expect this fullness, with regard to the internal organization of the Church existing in Apostolic times, from the cursory references in the occasional writings of the New Testament. The position of bishops would necessarily be much less prominent than in later times.

The supreme authority of the Apostles, the great number of charismatically gifted persons, the fact that various Churches were ruled by Apostolic delegates who exercised episcopal authority under Apostolic direction, would prevent that special prominence. The union between bishops and presbyters was close, and the names remained interchangeable long after the distinction between presbyters and bishops was commonly recognized, e.g., in Iren., "Adv. hæres.", IV, xxvi, 2. Hence it would seem that already, in the New Testament, we find, obscurely no doubt, the same ministry which appeared so distinctly afterwards.

Which of the Holy Orders are Sacramental?

All agree that there is but one Sacrament of Order, i.e., the totality of the power conferred by the sacrament is contained in the supreme order, whilst the others contain only part thereof (St. Thomas, "Supplem.", Q. xxxvii, a. i, ad 2um). The sacramental character of the priesthood has never been denied by anyone who admitted the Sacrament of Order, and, though not explicitly defined, it follows immediately from the statements of the Council of Trent.

Thus (Sess. XXIII, can. 2), "If any one saith that besides the priesthood there are not in the Catholic Church other orders, both major and minor, by which as by certain steps, advance is made to the priesthood, let him be anathema." In the fourth chapter of the same session, after declaring that the Sacrament of Order imprints a character "which can neither be effaced nor taken away; the holy synod with reason condemns the opinion of those who assert that priests of the New Testament have only a temporary power". The priesthood is therefore a sacrament.

With regard to the episcopate the Council of Trent defines that bishops belong to the divinely instituted hierarchy, that they are superior to priests, and that they have the power of confirming and ordaining which is proper to them (Sess. XXIII, c. iv, can. 6, 7). The superiority of bishops is abundantly attested in Tradition, and we have seen above that the distinction between priests and bishops is of Apostolic origin. Most of the older scholastics were of opinion that the episcopate is not a sacrament; this opinion finds able defenders even now (e.g., Billot, "De sacramentis", II), though the majority of theologians hold it is certain that a bishop's ordination is a sacrament.

The Matter and Form of Holy Orders

In the question of the matter and form of this sacrament we must distinguish between the three higher orders and the subdiaconate and minor orders. The Church having instituted the latter, also determines their matter and form. With regard to the former, the received opinion maintains that the imposition of hands is the sole matter. This has been undoubtedly used from the beginning; to it, exclusively and directly, the conferring of grace is ascribed by St. Paul and many Fathers and councils.

The Latin Church used it exclusively for nine or ten centuries, and the Greek Church to this day knows no other matter. Many scholastic theologians have held that the tradition of the instruments was the sole matter even for the strictly hierarchical orders, but this position has long been universally abandoned.

Other scholastics held that both imposition of hands and the tradition of the instruments constitute the matter of the sacrament; this opinion still finds defenders. Appeal is made to the Decree of Eugene IV to the Armenians, but the pope spoke "of the integrating and accessory matter and form, which he wished Armenians to add to the imposition of hands, long since in use amongst them, that they might thus conform to the usage of the Latin Church, and more firmly adhere to it, by uniformity of rites" (Bened., XIV, "De syn. dioc.", VIII, x, 8).

The real foundation of the latter opinion is the power of the Church with regard to the sacrament. Christ, it is argued, instituted the Sacrament of Order by instituting that in the Church there should be an external rite, which would of its own nature signify and confer the priestly power and corresponding grace. As Christ did not ordain His Apostles by imposition of hands, it would seem that He left to the Church the power of determining by which particular rite the power and grace should be conferred.

The Church's determination of the particular rite would be the fulfilling of a condition required in order that the Divine institution should take effect. The Church determined the simple imposition of hands for the East and added, in the course of time, the tradition of the instruments for the West—changing its symbolical language according as circumstances of place or time required.

The question of the form of the sacrament naturally depends on that of the matter. If the tradition of the instruments be taken as the total or partial matter, the words which accompany it will be taken as the form. If the simple imposition of hands be considered the sole matter, the words which belong to it are the form. The form which accompanies the imposition of hands contains the words "Accipe spiritum sanctum", which in the ordination of priests, however, are found with the second imposition of hands, towards the end of the Mass, but these words are not found in the old rituals nor in the Greek Euchology.

Thus the form is not contained in these words, but in the longer prayers accompanying the former imposition of hands, substantially the same from the beginning. All that we have said about the matter and form is speculative; in practice, whatever has been prescribed by the Church must be followed, and the Church in this, as in other sacraments, insists that anything omitted should be supplied.


The Catholic Encyclopedia (1914 ed. in the public domain), "Holy Orders" with minor edits.