Article reprinted with permission from "What is the Sacrament of Holy Orders?" El Momento Católico, written by Fr. José Luis Hernando. U.S. Catholic, 205 W. Monroe Street, Chicago, IL 60606, Telephone: (312) 236-7782, www.uscatholic.org.
All Catholics know — or at least have heard about — bishops, priests, and deacons. Catholics know they perform ministerial roles in the community, such as presiding over the Eucharist and administering the sacraments. We say that bishops, priests, and deacons are ordained. But, what does that mean? How did it all start? Why do these people receive a special sacrament?
Here are eight questions and responses about the sacrament of Holy Orders:
1. Why does the church need bishops, priests and deacons?
In the Jewish tradition — the beginning of the history of our faith — as in other religions around the world, the religious leaders of the people offered sacrifices to God to ask for the intercession for the people, to give thanks, or to worship the divinity.
Jesus speaks about himself as the Good Shepherd who gives his life for his people. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is the supreme act of love for the community. For Christians, then, Jesus is the only priest capable of interceding for the people before the Creator.
Jesus chose disciples to continue his mission; he chose them “to be with him and to be sent to preach.” Jesus chose them freely, and they responded to his call. These friends of Jesus walked with him, witnessed his miracles, and received his teachings. The New Testament calls them apostles, which means “one who is sent.” “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” Jesus sent the apostles to continue his mission, to make followers of all peoples, to administer the sacraments, and to lead. The apostles became aware of their mission on Pentecost, when — gathered together in prayer after the death and Resurrection of Jesus — they received the Holy Spirit and started to preach without fear the Good News of Jesus. They realized that their mission had to be continued for all times and all people.
2. How could the disciples ensure the continuation of their mission?
The apostles looked for collaborators who would continue their mission. By the laying on of hands, the apostles communicated to others the gift of the Spirit as well as the mission entrusted to them by Jesus. Soon a bishop consecrated by one of the apostles presided over each of the new Christian communities created. The first bishops, in turn, consecrated others to succeed them. This is called apostolic succession and it has been an uninterrupted process in the church from its origins to our days.
3. What is the role of the bishop?
As a successor of the apostles, a bishop must:
- Proclaim faith in Jesus dead and risen; teach all peoples.
- Sanctify: unite all the faithful to Christ and communicate to them the strength of the Spirit through the sacraments, especially Baptism and Confirmation.
- Lead: govern and guide the faithful in the way of Christ. A bishop presides over a section of the church called diocese.
The bishop of Rome, the pope, who is the successor of Peter, presides over the college of bishops and the worldwide church.
4. The dioceses are very big. How can a bishop attend to everything?
From the early days of the church, bishops looked for collaborators who would work with them to carry out the mission. These collaborators, who receive their mission from the bishops, are called priests.
Priests are at the service of parish communities and other Christian groups in order to nourish them with the Word of God and the sacraments. Their essential sacred role is exercised in worship, especially in the celebration of the Eucharist. In it, acting on behalf of Jesus and proclaiming his mystery, priests unite the offering of the faithful to the sacrifice of Christ, through the remembrance of the death and Resurrection of Christ.
Priests exercise their ministry in connection with the bishop and in communion with him. Priests make a promise of obedience to the bishop at the time of their ordination as priests. The bishop, in turn, considers them to be his collaborators, brothers, and friends.
5. What is a deacon?
From the beginning of the church the community also had deacons and deaconesses, people who were dedicated to service through the proclamation of the Word, works of charity, and the celebration of some sacraments, such as Baptism. In later times it became the custom of the church to ordain as deacons only those who eventually were to be ordained as priests. But after the great meeting of the whole church called the Second Vatican Council, the permanent diaconate was reestablished as a form of service within the community.
The role of deacons is, among other things, to assist the bishop and priests in the celebration of worship, attend the celebration of the sacrament of Matrimony and bless it, proclaim the gospel and preach, preside over funerals and perform various acts of charity.
6. Are bishops, priests, and deacons automatically holy?
No. They are human beings, and therefore are subject to the same temptations and problems as the rest of us. There are well-known cases of ordained people who have not been faithful to their ministry and who have not been a good example to the community. They do, however, have a call to live a radical commitment to Christ and to the service of the community in order to help people transform their lives according to the plan of God. The ordained are at the service of the people of God so that the people of God may be at the service of the world, building together the reign of God.
The ordained person counts on the grace of God, but his life, like the life of all people, is subject to tensions and difficulties and limitations. It is the role of the Christian community to support, encourage, and pray for its ordained ministers.
7. How is the sacrament of Holy Orders celebrated?
The essential rite is the laying of hands by the bishop on the heads of those who are to be ordained, as the Holy Spirit is invoked to come upon them and give them the gifts needed for their ministry.
8. Why do we sometimes hear that we are a priestly people?
The whole church of Christ is priestly because with Christ the whole community offers a sacrifice of praise to God in the Mass. Ordained ministers and the laypeople have two different ways of participating in a single reality, which is the priesthood of Jesus. The priesthood of the faithful is carried out in the world and in daily life in the development in each baptized person’s life of faith and the virtues of love and hope; the priesthood of the ordained ministers is at the service of the community, to help Christians reach the fullness of their Christian commitment.
Ordained ministers and the laypeople participate in a single reality, the priesthood of Jesus.