Holy Orders

Jesus Christ continues His care and offers His grace for His Church through the ministry of priests.  In most of the Sacraments, the priest acts in the person of Christ through His words and actions, to make present the graces Christ is offering through them.  At the last Supper, Christ instituted this sacrament of Holy Orders, which makes men into instruments of Christ’s ministry. 

Then he took the bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me.’ 

Luke 22:19

In order that the Church may ‘do this,’ i.e., celebrate the Eucharist, He ordained the Apostles to act in His name.

Likewise, He made them the instruments of the forgiveness for sins He offers through the Sacrament of Confession. 

And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.’

John 20:21-22

As it has been handed on by the Apostles, a man receives ordination by a successor of the Apostles, i.e., a bishop, laying hands on him.

While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then, completing their fasting and prayer, they laid hands on them and sent them off.

Acts 13:3; see also Acts 6:6

Priests are appointed to their ministry by the Church, and receive the power and authority to perform their ministry from God who acts through the bishop.  

They appointed presbyters for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, commended them to the Lord in whom they had put their faith. 

Act 14:23

Priests and bishops have this authority in order to share in the care Christ shows for His Church. 

Keep watch over yourselves and over the whole flock of which the holy Spirit has appointed you overseers, in which you tend the church of God that he acquired with his own blood.

Acts 20:28

The ordination which a man receives to be a priest is itself a Sacrament, as symbolic action by which God gives His grace.  This Sacrament makes a real difference for the priest and for the Church. 

For this reason, I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control.

2 Timothy 1:6-7; see also 1 Timothy 4:14

The sacrament configures the recipient to Christ by a special grace of the Holy Spirit, so that he may serve as Christ’s instrument for the Church.  By ordination one is enabled to act as a representative of Christ, Head of the Church, in his triple office of priest, prophet and king .

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1581


In the Roman Catholic Church, normally only unmarried men may be ordained.  (In the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches this is not the rule, and there are a few exceptions made for Protestant ministers who have converted.)  In requiring celibacy of its priests, the Catholic Church takes seriously the high value Jesus places on this sacrifice and gift:

[His] disciples said to him, “If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” He answered, “Not all can accept [this] word, but only those to whom that is granted. Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.”

Matthew 19:10-12

St. Paul, too, tells us that some are called to give up the chance to marry in order to serve the Lord.

Indeed, I wish everyone to be as I am, but each has a particular gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.  Now to the unmarried and to widows, I say: it is a good thing for them to remain as they are, as I do, but if they cannot exercise self-control they should marry, for it is better to marry than to be on fire.

1 Corinthians 7:7-9

An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord. But a married man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided. An unmarried woman or a virgin is anxious about the things of the Lord, so that she may be holy in both body and spirit. A married woman, on the other hand, is anxious about the things of the world, how she may please her husband. I am telling you this for your own benefit, not to impose a restraint upon you, but for the sake of propriety and adherence to the Lord without distraction.

1 Corinthians 7:32-35

The Church requires celibacy not because sex and marriage is considered dirty or unworthy of God.  As we saw with the Sacrament of Matrimony, just the opposite is true.  Sex and marriage are so holy that they are a means of God’s grace and love, and so have to be treated with great care and respect.  But a priest sacrifices the good of a wife in order to imitate Christ by making himself available to all of God’s people.

And Jesus promises to reward those who make this sacrifice. 

And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life.

Matthew 19:29

Addressing Priests as ‘Father.’

Some Christians claim that Catholics are disobeying a direct command of Jesus by calling priests ‘Father.’ “Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven” (Matthew 23:9).  From the context of this verse, though, it is clear that Jesus is warning His disciples against the pride and hypocrisy of the Pharisees.  He tells His disciples to obey the Pharisees’ authority, but not to imitate their example.  Clearly, when Catholics call a priest ‘Father’ we are not doing so to satisfy the priest’s pride or to put him in the place of God.  The term has come to be used to refer to the fatherly care which priests are to show toward their flock.

Priests are spiritual fathers to Catholics, since we receive the life of grace through them.  If Jesus’ words were to be taken as so hollowly literal, St. Paul would not call himself a spiritual father to his flocks.  But he does precisely this in several places in Scripture.  “I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Corinthians 4:15).  “As you know, we treated each one of you as a father treats his children, exhorting and encouraging you and insisting that you conduct yourselves as worthy of the God who calls you into his kingdom and glory.” (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12; see also Philemon 10) There is certainly nothing objectionable about Catholics addressing priests as ‘Father.’  Indeed, it is a rather trifling objection to raise against the Church since how we address our priests is nothing like a core belief

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