UNDERSTANDING YOUR FAITH: HOLY ORDERS
By Vic Scaravilli
Jesus was the ultimate authority when he ministered among his followers. He performed miracles, taught, forgave sins, and gave revelations from God. In order to preserve all of His teachings after the Ascension, Jesus established a way in which his authority could be passed on throughout time.
Holy orders is the sacrament through which the mission entrusted by Christ to his apostles continues to be exercised in the Church until the end of time. This is the way in which a man is ordained to the priesthood of the New Testament (NT). The three different degrees of priesthood in the New Testament Church are bishop, priest, and deacon.
Jesus selected certain men from his followers to share in his ministry in a particular way. He chose twelve men, his apostles, and set them apart to lead his people after His death, Resurrection, and Ascension. The Gospels tell us what special promises Christ gave to these men.
The apostles were empowered by Christ to lead and teach his followers: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Mat. 28:19-20); to celebrate the Eucharist: “…Do this in memory of me.” (Lk. 22:19); and to forgive sins in Christ’s behalf: “…As the Father has sent me, so I send you. …Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (Jn. 20:21-23)
As the early Church began to function, we read in Acts how it operated. The first action that Jesus’ chosen group did was to replace Judas and appoint a successor for the office of an apostle that became known as the position of a bishop (Acts 1:20-26). This shows us that the office of bishop is to be continued after the death of the last apostle. Deacons were appointed in Acts 6:1-6 by the apostles to help the Church in certain activities. In Acts 14:23, the apostles appointed presbyters or priests to several churches.
The way in which authority is passed on from the apostles to the present time is by the process of ordination. Men are brought into the ministry of God by ordination that consists of the laying of hands on a person by a bishop. The laying of hands is the way in which authority has been passed on from the time of the Old Testament (OT) to the present.
Moses gave his authority to Joshua by this process (Num. 27:12-23) in the OT. There are also many examples of laying of hands in the NT. The deacon, Stephen, was ordained in Acts 6:6; Paul and Barnabas in Acts 13:3; and the bishop, Timothy in 1Tim. 4:14 and 2Tim. 1:6. Also, these men were instructed to also pass on authority to others by this process (1Tim. 5:22).
Since only an ordained bishop could pass on Christ’s authority, an unbroken line of succession was established in Jesus’ Church. This was the way in which Jesus’ truth was entrusted to his apostles and was preserved, taught, and administered from the beginning to the present Church.
As Catholics, we know that our Church has this unbroken line of authority that Christ gave to his apostles. All bishops, priests, and deacons can trace their authority back to the apostles and ultimately Jesus.
This structure of leadership in the Church was in existence from the beginning. St. Ignatius in 110 A.D. wrote “You must follow the bishops as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the priest as you would the apostles. Reverence the deacons as you would the command of God. Let no one do anything of concern to the Church without the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishops of by one he appoints. Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”