Catechism of the Catholic Church: Holy Orders

Holy Orders
How does the Church understand the sacrament of Holy Orders?
The priests of the Old Covenant saw their duty as mediating between heavenly and earthly things, between God and his people. Since Christ is the “one mediator between God and men,” (1 Tim 2:5) he perfected and ended that priesthood. After Christ there can be an ordained priesthood only in Christ, in Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, and through a calling and apostolic mission from Christ.

A Catholic priest who administers the sacraments acts not on the basis of his own power or moral perfection (which unfortunately he often lacks), but rather “in persona Christi.” Through his ordination, the transforming, healing, saving power of Christ is grafted onto him. Because a priest has nothing of his own, he is above all a servant. The distinguishing characteristic of every authentic priest, therefore, is humble astonishment at his own vocation.

What happens in episcopal ordination?
In episcopal ordination the fullness of the sacrament of Holy Orders is conferred upon a priest. He is ordained a successor of the apostles and enters the college of bishops. Together with the other bishops and the Pope, he is from now on responsible for the entire Church. In particular the Church appoints him to the offices of teaching, sanctifying, and governing.

The episcopal ministry is the real pastoral ministry in the Church, for it goes back to the original witnesses to Jesus, the apostles, and continues the pastoral ministry of the apostles that was instituted by Christ. The Pope, too, is a bishop, but the first among them and the head of the college.

How important for a Catholic Christian is his bishop?
A Catholic Christian feels that he is under an obligation to his bishop; the bishop is appointed for him, too, as Christ’s representative. Moreover, the bishop, who exercises his pastoral ministry together with priests and deacons as his ordained assistants, is the visible principle and the foundation of the local Church (diocese).

Who can receive the sacrament of Holy Orders?
A baptized, Catholic man who is called by the Church to be a deacon, priest, or bishop can be validly ordained to that ministry.

Is it demeaning to women that only men may receive the sacrament of Holy Orders?
The rule that only men may receive Holy Orders in no way demeans women. In God’s sight, man and woman have the same dignity, but they have different duties and charisms. The Church sees herself as bound by the fact that Jesus chose men exclusively to be present at the Last Supper for the institution of the priesthood.

Pope John Paul II declared in 1994 “that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” Like no one else in antiquity, Jesus provocatively affirmed the value of women, bestowed his friendship on them, and protected them. Women were among his followers, and Jesus highly valued their faith. Moreover, the first witness to the Resurrection was a woman. That is why Mary Magdalene is called “the apostle of the apostles.” Nevertheless, the ordained priesthood (and consequently pastoral ministry) has always been conferred on men. In male priests the Christian community was supposed to see a representation of Jesus Christ. Being a priest is a special service that also makes demands on a man in his gender-specific role as male and father.

It is, however, not some form of masculine superiority over women. As we see in Mary, women play a role in the Church that is no less central than the masculine role, but it is feminine. Eve became the mother of all the living. (Gen 3:20) As “mothers of all the living,” women have special gifts and abilities. Without their sort of teaching, preaching, charity, spirituality, and guidance, the Church would be “paralyzed on one side.” Whenever men in the Church use their priestly ministry as an instrument of power or do not allow opportunities to women, they offend against charity and the Holy Spirit of Jesus.

Why does the Church require priests and bishops to live a celibate life?
Jesus lived as a celibate and in this way intended to show his undivided love for God the Father. To follow Jesus’ way of life and to live in unmarried chastity “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19:12) has been since Jesus’ time a sign of love, of undivided devotion to the Lord, and of a complete willingness to serve. The Roman Catholic Church requires this way of life of its bishops and priests, while the Eastern Catholic Churches demand it only of their bishops.

Celibacy, says Pope Benedict, cannot mean “remaining empty in love, but rather must mean allowing oneself to be overcome by a passion for God.” A priest who lives as a celibate should be fruitful inasmuch as he represents the fatherly character of God and Jesus. The Pope goes on to say, “Christ needs priests who are mature and manly, capable of exercising a true spiritual fatherhood.”

How is the universal priesthood of all the faithful different from the ordained priesthood?
Through Baptism Christ has made us into a kingdom of “priests to his God and Father.” (Rev 1:6) Through the universal priesthood, every Christian is called to work in the world in God’s name and to bring blessings and grace to it. In the Upper Room during the Last Supper and when he commissioned the apostles, however, Christ equipped some with a sacred authority to serve the faithful; these ordained priests represent Christ as pastors (shepherds) of his people and as head of his Body, the Church.

Using the same word, “priest,” for two related things that nevertheless “differ essentially and not only in degree” (Second Vatican Council, LG 10, 2) often leads to misunderstandings. On the one hand, we should observe with joy that all the baptized are “priests” because we live in Christ and share in everything he is and does. Why, then, do we not call down a permanent blessing on this world? On the other hand, we must rediscover God’s gift to his Church, the ordained priests, who represent the Lord himself among us.