The Sacramental Priesthood

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Information on the priesthood from The Catholic Faith Handbook for Youth.
The Origins of the Priesthood
The origins of the priesthood go back to the Old Testament. One of the tribes of ancient Israel, the tribe of Levi, was set apart for priestly service (see Numbers 3:5–10). The tribe's role was to stay with the ark of the Covenant and to offer the required sacrifices for the people's sins. Later, after Solomon built the first Temple, the tribe's duties included leading the prayers and sacrifices offered at the Temple and interpreting the Law of the Old Covenant. This role continued into the time of Christ.

During his earthly ministry, Jesus was never identified as a priest. But after his Resurrection, the Apostles understood that everything the priesthood of the Old Testament pointed toward found its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. He is the “one mediator between God and humankind” (1 Timothy 2:5). “Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself” (Hebrews 7:27). For these reasons the early Church recognized that “Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come” (Hebrews 9:11).

In the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of the New Testament, the Apostles took leadership roles in the early Christian community. They started new communities of Christians in major cities and were seen to represent Christ in the early communities. The successors to the Apostles became known as bishops, a word meaning “overseer.” To help with needed works of service, the Apostles began to choose men of certain qualities to assist them (see Acts of the Apostles 6:1–6). Eventually these assistants became known as deacons, taken from the Greek word meaning “service.” The First Letter to Timothy, which was written thirty to sixty years after the Resurrection of Christ, gives the qualifications needed for bishops and deacons (see 3:1–13), indicating that these had become established ministries in the Church.

The development of the order of priests is a little less clear in the Scriptures. We do know that in the early years, the first Christians gathered in people's homes to share the Eucharist. An elder in the community often led these gatherings. These elders were also called presbyters (from the Greek word for “elder”). They assisted the bishops with their work, and gradually, over time, this role became an established ministry in the Church. The presbyters were also called priests, because as celebrants of the Eucharist, they represented Christ, the high priest.

Before we look further at the role of bishops, priests, and deacons in the Church today, we need to clarify some language. The Sacrament is called Holy Orders because it is a way of consecrating (designating and making holy) people for the three orders (categories) of ministry in the Church: bishops, priests, and deacons. The Rite of the Sacrament of Holy Orders is also called ordination. Those who have received the Sacrament are called ordained ministers or clergy. Sometimes the particular role (bishop, priest, or deacon) is called their office.

Ministries of Ordained Ministers
All baptized people share in the priesthood of Christ by virtue of their Baptism. As the First Letter of Peter says, “Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood” (2:5). The Church calls this the common priesthood of the faithful. Within this common priesthood, some people are called to unique participation in the mission of Christ through the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Their role is to serve the Christian community in the name of Christ and to represent Christ in the community. Because Christ is the head of the Church, this means ordained ministers exercise a leadership role in the liturgy and in community life.

The role that bishops, priests, and deacons play in community life does not make them more important in the eyes of God than any other person. Nor does it mean that they are holier than laypeople—God calls us all to lives of perfect holiness according to our vocation. However, the priesthood of the men called to ordained ministry is different in its essence from the common priesthood of all the baptized. It isn't that they have more priesthood than the laity. They have a different priesthood, one that gives them unique responsibilities that no layperson can fulfill. These unique responsibilities fall into three areas: teaching, divine worship (the liturgy), and Church leadership or governance.

As our brief history has already pointed out, three degrees of Holy Orders have existed from the beginning of the Church: bishops, priests (presbyters), and deacons. All three ministries are necessary for the effective functioning of the Church; without any one of these ministries, the Church would be incomplete.

The bishop receives the fullness of the responsibilities of Holy Orders. Through the bishop's Ordination Rite, he becomes a successor to the original Apostles and takes on all the responsibilities Christ entrusted to them. He becomes a member of the college of bishops, so that with his brother bishops, he must lead the entire Church in union with the Pope. But a bishop is uniquely responsible for the diocese that he has been designated to lead as chief shepherd. Only the bishop can ordain priests. The bishop is the ordinary minister for Confirmation. He blesses the sacred oils that are used in the Sacraments by all the parishes in the diocese. The bishop is the chief catechist (teacher) of the diocese, and is responsible for ensuring that the Catholic faith is correctly taught. Through the diocesan offices, the bishop provides support and direction for parish and diocesan ministries.

When the bishop ordains a priest, he is extending a portion of his apostolic authority to the priest. This makes the priest a coworker with the bishop of the diocese. All the priests of a diocese, united with the bishop, are called the presbyterium of the diocese. The presbyterium is responsible for the spiritual life of the diocese. The bishop assigns each priest to a particular parish or diocesan ministry, and the priest is responsible for leading it in the name of the bishop. Priests can celebrate all the Sacraments except Confirmation (unless given special permission) and Holy Orders.

The ministry of deacons is different from that of priests. A deacon is ordained for works of service and liturgical ministry, as directed by the bishop. They may or may not be assigned to a parish. A deacon assists the bishop and priests with the celebration of the Eucharist, including the proclamation of the Gospel, giving homilies, and distributing Holy Communion. Deacons can also baptize, bless marriages, and preside over funerals. But they also dedicate themselves to works of charity and compassion in the community. The Church has both transitional deacons and permanent deacons (see the article “Transitional and Permanent Deacons,” on page 197). Permanent deacons may be single or married; however, if they are single when they are ordained, they promise to remain single, and if they are married when ordained, they promise not to remarry if their spouse should pass away.

The Rite of Ordination
There are three different Ordination Rites (rituals) corresponding to the three ordained ministries. The bishop is the ordinary minister for all three rites. The essential symbol for all three rites is the bishop's laying his hands on the man to be ordained and praying that he receives the graces of the Holy Spirit necessary for his ministry.

In addition, when a bishop is ordained, he receives the book of the Gospels as a sign of his authority to teach the truth, a ring to signify marriage to the Church, a miter (the unique pointed hat) to represent authority, and a shepherd's staff to symbolize that he is to model his leadership after Jesus, the good shepherd. When a priest is ordained, he is clothed in the special vestments of his office (see the article “Liturgical Clothing and Colors,” on page 179), his hands are anointed with oil, and he is presented with a paten (plate) and chalice (cup) as a sign of his role in the Eucharist. The ordination of a deacon also includes his being clothed in special vestments and receiving the book of the Gospels to symbolize his ministry of preaching.

Like Baptism and Confirmation, the Sacrament of Holy Orders imprints a permanent character upon a person's soul. Thus an ordination can never be repeated. More important, though, an ordained person never loses the powers he receives. So, for example, a priest who has been released from his responsibilities and is free to marry can give the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick to a dying person in an emergency when no other priest is available.

The Catholic Church ordains only baptized men because Jesus chose men, not women, to be his Apostles, and the Apostles did the same when they chose the ones to share in their ministry. For this reason the Church is bound by Jesus' choice to ordain only men. The Magisterium of the Church has consistently upheld that this practice is part of the Tradition that has been revealed by God and cannot be changed by human beings.

The Roman Catholic Church also has a discipline of priestly celibacy. This means the priests and bishops promise never to marry so they can be free to focus their attention and energy on their ministry in the Church. It means a total commitment to God and the Body of Christ. Priestly celibacy is a human law and is not required by God. For example, many Eastern Catholic Churches permit their priests to marry (but not their bishops).


(Quoted from from The Catholic Faith Handbook for Youth, by Brian Singer-Towns [Winona, MN: Saint Mary's Press, 2008]. Copyright © 2008 by Saint Mary's Press. Permission is granted for this activity to be used for classroom or campus ministry purposes. This quote may not be republished in any form without written permission from Saint Mary's Press.)

Published July 10, 2009.