Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Monday, April 23, 2018

Q. Some questions about the priesthood come to mind, since this year is now designated by Pope Benedict XVI as the "Year for Priests." First, what is the origin of the phrase, "Holy Orders"?

A. "Holy Orders," or simply, "Orders," is, in its Latin form, usually attributed to one of the earliest authorities on matters theological, the lawyer-convert, Tertullian (d. 230). Apparently he chose the Latin ordo because of the Biblical prophecy concerning the priest/king Melchizedek, who in ancient times appeared out of nowhere, offered an unusual sacrifice of bread and wine, and blessed Abraham. See Genesis 14; Psalm 110; and Hebrews 7. Psalm 110 translates the Hebrew or Greek into sacerdos secundum ordinem Melchizedek (Literally: "A priest according to the line [ordinem] of Melchizedek."

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that ordo in ancient Rome signified an "established civil body, especially a governing body."

That priests are said to belong to an "order" (e.g., "ordination, into the order of priests), is highly instructive because it reminds us that ordination entails entrance into a fraternity. The concept of a fraternity, in turn, points to the Catholicity of the Church today and always.

From Apostolic times, moreover, Holy Orders has been exercised in three grades: episcopate; priesthood or presbyterate; and diaconate. In other words, there are three degrees of Orders.

The English "presbyterate" reflects the Greek прєσβúтєрος (Latin, presbyter). In its root, the word connotes "an elder"; among early Church leaders, it specifically refers to priests (sacerdotes). The word "presbyter" for "priest" was used often in early Church references to avoid confusion with the priests of Judaism (as well as the priests in the worlds of paganism and Gnosticism).

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Q. Do priests receive a different sacrament in Holy Orders than bishops or deacons do?

A. The way in which St. Thomas Aquinas answered this question remains the way in which the Church itself explains it; namely, that the Sacrament of Holy Orders is conferred in three "grades" or "degrees." Two of these "grades" are viewed in terms of "ministerial participation" in Christ’s own priesthood: episcopacy and priesthood. The third grade, the "diaconate," is meant "to help and serve" both bishops and priests. (The citations are from the Catechism, No. 1554.)

Bishops are invested with the fullness of priesthood; thus, they are empowered to ordain priests, as well as other bishops.

Priests are co-workers of the bishops; like bishops, priests are empowered to preach; to preside at Mass; to distribute holy Communion; to absolve from sin; to baptize solemnly; to assist at marriages; to confer the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick; and, in accordance with Church law, to administer Confirmation (e.g., in danger of death; in the Rite of Christian Initiation; and also by virtue of special delegation by a bishop). Priests can also confer most Church blessings.

Deacons are empowered to preach, including delivery of the homily at Mass at the invitation of the priest-celebrant (cf. Redemptionis Sacramentum, n. 64); to baptize solemnly; to distribute Holy Communion; to assist at Marriages; and to administer certain Church blessings. They also are empowered to lead Eucharistic services in times of need, in accordance with liturgical norms and episcopal directives.

Deacons cannot, however, administer the Anointing of the Sick, or absolve from sin, or confirm, or, of course, celebrate Mass. (Although they closely assist the priest-celebrant at Mass.)

Some deacons are ordained to the Order of Deacons in terms of their last "step" to ordination as priests; these are called "transitional deacons." Others, however, are ordained as "permanent deacons," a status that is ancient in character, but reintroduced as a general practice in many parts of the Church following Vatican Council II, in accordance with local needs as determined by bishops.