The Sacrament of Holy Orders, part one Print
Year of Faith
Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013 -- 12:00 AM

By Abbot Marcel Rooney, OSB

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This is the first installment in a two-part series on the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
Priesthood in the New Testament

In the writings of the New Testament, Jesus Christ is the only priest, the sole mediator between God and humanity. This privilege comes from God’s special designation of Him at His baptism, as well as His redeeming work by the Paschal Mystery — His death, resurrection, and ascension.

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Abbot Marcel Rooney's DVD series, “Reflections on Holy Mass” may be ordered through the Orate Institute of Sacred Liturgy, Music, and Art via the institute’s Web site at or by phone at 608-203-6735.

This is a radical departure from the tradition of priesthood in the Old Testament where priests were all chosen from the families of Aaron and Levi. Thus, one was simply born into the priesthood, not given a special calling for it.

The Letter to the Hebrews is careful to distinguish the priesthood of Jesus from that of the Temple priesthood, by speaking of His Holy Order that was “in the order of Melchisedek” (Cf. Hebr., chs. 5, 6, 7).

Christian priests are ordained to give visible expression to Jesus’ everlasting priesthood. We should recall that in this series of articles, when we considered Baptism and Confirmation, we saw that a real priesthood is conferred upon the laity with those sacraments of Christian Initiation (1 Peter 2:5, 9). However, this article is concerned with the Sacrament of Holy Orders, conferred on persons who have a special calling to follow Christ.

The apostles are not called priests in the New Testament. However, Jesus did send them out to preach, to drive our demons, to heal the sick (cf. Matt 10:1; Mark 6:7). Further, after His resurrection He gave them the power to forgive sins (John 20:21).

And clearly, on the night of the Last Supper, He asked them to continue to do what He was doing at the Supper, and to do it “in memory of Me.” So He wanted them to do the work that the Church will designate for priests.

In the Acts and the Letters of St. Paul, the terms presbyter (priest/elder) and episcopus (bishop) seem to be used interchangeably (e.g., Acts 20:17, 28). St. Paul does write to his disciple, Timothy, and speaks of his having a special gift or grace, thanks to the laying on of hands which he had received (1 Tim 4:14).

In the following centuries, the theology and practice of those in Holy Orders was elaborated and developed, little by little — but always in the light of the earliest New Testament teachings.

Theology of Holy Orders today

We must understand that this sacrament is spoken of in the plural (Orders) because there are in reality three sacraments of Orders: that of the bishop, that of the priest, and that of the deacon. Each has its own particular emphasis. It would be good to reflect upon the liturgical rites of each ordination, as the Church’s theology is expressed powerfully in the sacred liturgy.

Ordination of bishops

At his ordination, a bishop is welcomed into the whole college of bishops by means of the laying on of hands. The first thing he is asked to promise is that he will faithfully discharge the office which was entrusted to the Church by the apostles.

He then promises to preach the Gospel of Christ with constancy and fidelity. That fidelity is tied to the fact that it is the bishop’s special calling to guard the faith, keeping what has been handed down from the apostles entire and incorrupt.

In this way, he is called to build up the Body of Christ, the Church. That will entail guiding the people of God in the way of salvation — which he will do both by preaching/teaching, and by celebrating the sacraments with-and-for the people of God.

The bishop is also called upon to be solicitous for the poor and all in need. As a good shepherd, he must seek out the sheep who stray and gather them again into God’s flock. The aggregate of all these demands upon the bishop is part of the reason the Church insists on celibacy as a prerequisite for this Order.

The office of the bishop, then, involves receiving the grace and gift of governance in the Church, by receiving the Holy Spirit in a special way at ordination.

The ordination rite says that the bishop exercises the ministry of the High Priesthood. That means mediating God’s will for the Church, while also presenting to God the obedient surrender which the Church wants to make, thanks to the gift of the Holy Spirit which we have all received.

The calling to be bishop is a magnificent grace indeed!

Abbot Marcel Rooney, O.S.B., is president of the Orate Institute of Sacred Liturgy, Music and Art, resident in the Madison Diocese. The Institute is devoted to helping people understand more and pray better the sacred liturgy.