Holy Orders is the sacrament through which one is made a priest, deacon, or bishop. The sacrament is one of two that is listed as a sacrament of vocation, the other is marriage. It is a sacrament that confers an indelible mark upon the soul, like baptism and confirmation, and therefore one is only ordained once through the sacrament of Holy Orders to the diaconate, priesthood, or episcopacy.
Jesus Christ instituted the sacrament of Holy Orders at the Last Supper on Holy Thursday when He simultaneously instituted the sacrament of Holy Eucharist. He intended that the holy sacrifice of the Mass be continued for all ages. These two sacraments are intimately connected. Without Holy Orders, there can be no Mass; without the Mass, there is no Holy Eucharist. The primary purpose of the priesthood is to offer the holy sacrifice of the Mass. By the words, “Do this in memory of me,” the apostles were ordained in the fullness of the priesthood as bishops, “fullness” indicating that a bishop is the chief shepherd, sanctifier, and teacher in his respective diocese. Bishops are able to celebrate all seven sacraments. The pope is first and foremost a bishop; as the bishop of Rome, he automatically possesses full, supreme, immediate, and universal authority as visible head of the Catholic Church. He is called the supreme Roman pontiff, Vicar of Christ, successor of Saint Peter, and the servant of the servants of God.
Priests share in the bishop’s pastoral responsibilities in the diocese. Just as bishops are considered the successors to the apostles, the priests are considered successors to the disciples, especially the seventy-two mentioned in the Gospels, who were distinct and separate from the twelve apostles. As the early Christian Church quickly expanded, the New Testament listed three levels of ordained ministry which were instituted: bishop, deacon, and presbyter (now called priest). It was increasingly important that the sacraments be dispensed not only in the mother church, the cathedral, and by the bishop, but in smaller churches attached to the cathedral known as parishes. Priests, then, were extensions or representatives of the bishop. They exercised their authority to teach, preach, and sanctify in so far as the bishop of the diocese gave them permission. In Acts of the Apostles 14:23, which was written in the first century AD, we read, “In each church they installed presbyters and, with prayer and fasting, commended them to the Lord in whom they had put their faith.”
In Saint Paul’s epistle to Titus 1:7–9 we read the qualities of a presbyter (bishop or priest): “He may not be self-willed or arrogant, a drunkard, a violent or greedy man. He should, on the contrary, be hospitable and a lover of goodness; steady, just, holy, and self-controlled. In his teaching he must hold fast to the authentic message, so that he will be able both to encourage men to follow sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict it.”
The essence of the priestly role in the New Testament comes from the epistle to the Hebrews 5:6: “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” (Melchizedek was a priest, an Old Testament character with no origins, who offered bread to Abraham.) This all prefigured Christ, who is High Priest and has no beginning or end because of His divinity.
A man who is ordained shares in the priesthood of Jesus Christ, so that Christ may continue to work through him, by way of dispensing the grace of the sacraments. Priests hear confessions, offer the holy sacrifice of the Mass, witness marriages, baptize, confirm (with special delegation from the bishop), bury the dead, conduct Eucharistic celebrations, and are extensions of the bishop in teaching the faithful in matters of the faith.
You may see a priest given special recognition from the Holy Father with the title of monsignor. A priest is not ordained a monsignor, but honored with this title for the good work he has accomplished.
Deacons are also ordained, and they are called to serve the bishop, priests, and the people of Christ. Biblically, they were called to work among the poor. Even today, many deacons chair the Saint Vincent de Paul Society of the parish. This society’s primary function is helping the destitute. Deacons may also baptize, proclaim, and preach the Gospel, witness marriages, assist at Mass, bury Christians, and conduct Eucharistic celebrations such as benediction. There are two kinds of deacons—permanent and transitional. A permanent deacon is one that will not be ordained any further as a priest or bishop. The permanent diaconate in the Latin Church was reinstituted by Pope Paul VI after the Second Vatican Council. The Byzantine and Eastern Catholic Church always retained a permanent, as well as a transitional, diaconate. A transitional deacon is one who will later be ordained a priest. Yet, both are clergy and have the exact same functions. A married man may be ordained a permanent deacon, but an unmarried deacon cannot marry after his ordination according to ancient custom. Even the Byzantine and Eastern Orthodox priests who have a married clergy maintain the same custom that matrimony must precede Holy Orders. Married men can be ordained deacons or priests in that tradition, but if one is ordained as a single man, he cannot later marry. Only unmarried deacons or priests in the Eastern Church are ordained and consecrated bishops, hence there is no married episcopacy. The Latin church will make exceptions for married permanent deacons whose wives die while there are still minor children to raise; these deacons may petition to remarry, but that request must be sent to the Pope.
Bishops, priests, and deacons can retire from active ministry but in no way do they stop being what they were ordained to be. In his epistle to the Hebrews (5:6), Saint Paul quotes Psalm 110, which states “you are a priest forever,” hence the Church considers Holy Orders to be permanent, not only unto death like marriage, but even beyond into the next life. It is an indelible mark on their souls, even if they were laicized or defrocked. The term defrocked refers to the fact that the priest can no longer wear clerical clothes or the habit of his religious community. After a canonical procedure, the Holy Father can laicize members of the clergy. Officially, they cannot officiate in their ordained capacity. They are dispensed from the obligations of praying the divine office and in some cases they can marry. In the late 1960s, there was a mass exodus among the priesthood. Many priests applied to Pope Paul VI to be laicized so that they could marry in the Church. Under the reign of Pope John Paul II, laicization was not often granted. In recent times, dismissal from the clerical state (commonly called “defrocking”) is imposed as a punishment for committing a very serious crime or sparking public scandal. These defrocked clergy are stripped of the title “Father” and “Reverend” if priests, the title “Bishop” and “Most Reverend” if bishops, and of the title “Deacon” and “Reverend Mister” if deacons. The sacrament of Holy Orders is still with them, but they are forbidden to licitly function and to celebrate any of the sacraments since they are no longer authorized ministers. They are still ordained, but their ministry is totally restricted. Only when someone is in danger of death can a laicized priest administer the sacraments of penance and anointing of the sick, and only if no authorized priest is available.