And Michas said: Stay with me, and be unto me a father and a priest,
and I will give thee every year ten pieces of silver, and a double suit of apparel,
and thy victuals.
Judges 17, 10
Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ,
you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus
I became your father through the gospel.
1 Corinthians 4, 15
The Sacrament of Holy Orders is the continuation of Jesus Christ’s priesthood, which He bestowed upon His Apostles. This is why the Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to the Sacrament of Holy Orders as “the sacrament of apostolic ministry” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1536).
The priesthood of the New Covenant has its roots in the priesthood of the Old Covenant. God’s chosen people were constituted “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:6; Isa 61:6). But from among the twelve tribes of Israel, God chose the tribe of Levi and set it apart to minister liturgical service (Num 1:48-53; Josh 13:33). The Levite priests were “appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins” (Heb 5:1; cf. Ex 29:1-30; Lev 8). This priesthood was instituted to proclaim the Word of God and restore communion with God by sacrifice and prayer (Mal 2:7-9). However, this priesthood was powerless in bringing about salvation in the Christian meaning. The sacrifices for sin had to be repeated ceaselessly and were unable to achieve definitive sanctification and justification, which only Christ’s single sacrifice of himself could and would accomplish at the appointed time in salvation history (Heb 5:3; 7:27) (CCC 1539, 1540).
In the New Covenant, there are two participations in the one priesthood of Christ. Our High Priest and unique mediator between God and humanity has made his Church “to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father” (Rev 1:6). We who are baptized “like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 2:5). God’s chosen people in the New Dispensation are “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special protection” (1 Pet 2:9). The entire community of believers is as such priestly in their baptismal vocation according to their particular spiritual gifts. Christians are anointed first and foremost in the Sacrament of Baptism and then again when their baptismal grace is perfected in the Sacrament of Confirmation.
As anointed priests in the Church, Christians are united to Christ and his sacrifice in the offerings they make of themselves in their daily lives. Paul exhorted the Christians in Rome to “offer [their] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, [their] spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). The Second Vatican Council affirms, “[The laity] exercise the apostolate in fact by their activity directed to the evangelization and sanctification of men and to the penetrating and perfecting of the temporal order through the spirit of the Gospel. In this way, their temporal activity openly bears witness to Christ and promotes the salvation of men. Since the laity, in accordance with their state of life, live in the midst of the world and its concerns, they are called by God to exercise their apostolate in the world like leaven, with the ardor of the spirit of Christ.” (Apostolicam actuositatem, 2).
Catholics profess Jesus Christ to be “the one (heis / εἷς) Mediator between God and man” (1 Tim. 2:5), by which St. Paul means He is the one who has ‘universally’ redeemed the world and has reconciled all humanity (Jew and Gentile) to God by serving as a ransom for sin which was paid through the outpouring of his most precious blood (2:6). Our Lord’s principal mediation in his humanity does not preclude the mediation or intercession of the faithful in and through His merits by prayer and sacrifice “so that everyone might be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:1-4). The apostle has no intention of emphasizing that Jesus is the “one and only” (monos / μόνος) mediator in the economy of salvation. The Christian faithful are indeed called to participate in our Lord’s mediation as active and living members of His Mystical Body who partake of the divine life (1 Pet. 2:5; 2 Pet. 1:3-4). This prerogative is conferred on these members by right of adoption as sons and daughters of God, who participate in Christ’s divine nature; since it is in his humanity – not divinity – that Christ as Head of His Mystical Body intercedes for us all before the Father as both eternal High Priest and sacrificial victim.
The ministerial priesthood of bishops and priests and the common priesthood of believers participate each in their own way in the one priesthood of Christ (CCC 1546, 1547). While the common priesthood of the faithful “is exercised by the unfolding of baptismal grace –a life of faith, hope, and charity, a life according to the Spirit, the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood. It is directed at the unfolding of the baptismal grace of all Christians. The ministerial priesthood is a means by which Christ unceasingly builds up and leads his Church. For this reason, it is transmitted by its own sacrament, the sacrament of Holy Orders” (CCC 1547). The ordained minister acts in the person of Christ. Our Lord is present in the ecclesial service of his anointed minister as Head of his body. The priest, by virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders, acts in persona Christi Capitis, representing the person of Christ. “It is the same priest, Christ Jesus, whose sacred person his minister truly represents. Now the minister, by reason of the sacerdotal consecration which he has received, is truly made like to the high priest and possesses the authority to act in the power and place of the person of Christ himself. Christ is the source of all priesthood: the priest of the old law was a figure of Christ, and the priest of the new law acts in the person of Christ” (CCC 1548).
The ministerial priesthood is a divine office that extends from the common priesthood of the faithful through the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. This is an office that our Lord has committed to his pastors to serve as shepherds of his flock in his name and in him. It depends entirely on Christ and on his unique priesthood for the good of all people and the communion of the Church. The sacred power of Christ is communicated to the ordained minister through the sacrament of Holy Orders. The exercise of this authority in the divine office “must therefore be measured against the model of Christ, who by love made himself the least and the servant of all” (CCC 1551). The ministerial priesthood acts in the name of the whole Church when offering to God the prayer of the Church, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice (CCC 1552). “The prayer and offering of the Church are inseparable from the prayer and offering of Christ, her head; it is always the case that Christ worships in and through his Church. The whole Church, the Body of Christ, prays and offers herself ‘through him, with him, in him,’ in the unity of the Holy Spirit, to God the Father. The whole Body, caput et membra, prays and offers itself, and therefore those who in the Body are especially his ministers are called ministers not only of Christ, but also of the Church. It is because the ministerial priesthood represents Christ that it can represent the Church” (CCC 1553).
Through the Sacrament of Holy Orders priests “share in the universal dimensions of the mission that Christ entrusted to the apostles.” The spiritual gift they have received in ordination prepares them for the fullest universal mission of salvation, that is to the ends of the earth, to preach the Gospel and minister the sacraments (Mt 28:19-20; Acts 1:8). (CCC 1565) It is in the Eucharistic assembly of the faithful (synaxis) that ordained priests exercise their divine office in the “supreme degree”… “acting in the person of Christ and proclaiming his mystery, they unite the votive offerings of the faithful to the sacrifice of Christ their head, and in the sacrifice of the Mass, they make present again and apply, until the coming of the Lord, the unique sacrifice of the New Testament, that namely of Christ offering himself once for all a spotless victim to the Father” (CCC 1566).
Priests are called “to the service of the People of God.” Together with their bishop, they constitute a unique “sacerdotal college” (presbyterium) in which they fulfill all their duties. Priests can exercise their ministry only on “dependence on the bishop and in communion with them.” The vow of obedience priests make to the bishop at the time of ordination and the “kiss of peace” at the end of the ordination liturgy signifies they are in communion with him as his fellow workers in Christ (CCC 1567). “The unity of the presbyterium finds liturgical expression in the custom of the presbyters’ imposing hands, after the bishop, during the Ate of ordination” (CCC 1568).
Finally, the Sacrament of Holy Orders also includes the ordination of deacons. They are situated at a lower level of the Church hierarchy. These candidates also receive the imposition of the bishop’s hands “not unto the priesthood, but unto the ministry” to serve the Church. Not unlike the priest, the deacon is a co-worker with the bishop together with the priest (CCC 1569). Moreover, deacons also serve in Christ’s mission in a special way apart from the common priesthood of the faithful. “Among other tasks, it is the task of deacons to assist the bishop and priests in the celebration of the divine mysteries, above all the Eucharist, in the distribution of Holy Communion, in assisting at and blessing marriages, in the proclamation of the Gospel and preaching, in presiding over funerals, and in dedicating themselves to the various ministries of charity” (CCC 1570).
The ordinations of bishops, (selected by the pope), priests, and deacons preferably take place in a cathedral on Sunday. All three ordinations take a proper place in the Eucharistic liturgy (CCC 1571). “The essential rite of the sacrament of Holy Orders for all three degrees consists in the bishop’s imposition of hands on the head of the ordinand and in the bishop’s specific consecratory prayer asking God for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and his gifts proper to the ministry to which the candidate is being ordained” (CCC 1573).
The effects of the Sacrament of Holy Orders are the indelible character and the grace of the Holy Spirit. This sacrament “configures the recipient to Christ by a special grace of the Holy Spirit, so that he may serve as Christ’s instrument for his 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. As with the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation, the Sacrament of Holy Orders “confers an indelible spiritual character and cannot be repeated or conferred temporarily” (CCC 1582). Although an ordained person could be discharged from his office for grave reasons, “the character imprinted by ordination is forever. The vocation and mission received on the day of his ordination mark him permanently” (CCC 1583). It is by the grace of the Holy Spirit proper to this sacrament that the ordinand is configured to Christ as “Priest, Teacher, and Pastor, of whom the ordained is made a minister” (CCC 1585).
The Sacrament of Holy Orders and the ministerial priesthood have a biblical basis. We find the verb form for the noun hiereus or ἱερεύς in the New Testament. The word means “priest” or one who “sacrifices to a god.” Paul writes to the church in Rome: ‘Nevertheless, brethren, I have written the more boldly unto you in some sort, as putting you in mind, because of the grace that is given to me of God, That I should be the minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, ministering (hierourgounta / ἱερουργοῦντα) the gospel of God, that the offering up of the Gentiles might be acceptable, being sanctified by the Holy Ghost’ (Rom 15:15-15, KJV). What we literally have is “to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, ministering as a priest the gospel of God” (NASB), “the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God” (NIV), or “in the priestly service of the gospel of God” (ESV). The Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (RSVCE) has this: ‘But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.’ Thus, the ministers of the New Covenant were essentially priests and had priestly tasks. The supreme act of theirs was to offer up the Eucharistic sacrifice to God in worship (1 Cor 10:16, 18, 20; 11:26; Heb 13:10, 15). There is no ministerial priestly function ascribed to deacons, but there is to apostles, bishops, and elders.
Our Lord Jesus definitively chose and sent his apostles to act as priests, or “mediators between God and men.” For instance, after the Resurrection, our Lord appeared to the apostles and said to them: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained”(Jn 20:21-23). On this occasion, Jesus communicates or transfers the sacred power to forgive and retain sins. The apostles are to do what the Lord has done in his priestly ministry with divine authority. The power or authority Jesus invests in them is the one he has been invested in by God the Father in his humanity (Mt 5:17-26). Ministering the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a ministerial priestly task that is rooted in the Old Covenant. For example, ‘ but he shall bring a guilt offering for himself to the Lord, to the door of the tent of meeting, a ram for a guilt offering. And the priest shall make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering before the Lord for his sin which he has committed; and the sin which he has committed shall be forgiven him’ (Lev 19:21-22, RSVCE). The ordination of the New Covenant priests, therefore, began with Jesus and the apostles. The Sacrament of Holy Orders was instituted by Christ himself.
The Scriptures reveal that the ordained ministers of the nascent New Covenant Church had a share in Christ’s priestly ministry and authority that originated from the Father. Jesus says he does nothing on his own authority. Likewise, the apostles will do nothing on their own authority but on the same authority that comes from God (Jn 8:28). The father’s authority is transferred to the Son. The Son does not speak on his own. This is a transfer of divine authority (Jn 12:49). Jesus gives to his apostles what the Son has been given from the Father (Jn 16:14-15). The authority isn’t lessened or mitigated. Jesus declares to His apostles, “He who receives you, receives Me, and he who rejects you, rejects Me and the One who sent Me” (Mt 10:1, 40). Jesus gives the apostles the authority to make visible decisions on earth that will be ratified in heaven (Mt 16:19; 18:18). The power to “bind and loose” was given to the priests of the Old Covenant. Jesus tells his apostles that “he who hears you, hears me” (Lk 10:16). When we listen to our bishop on matters of faith and morals, we listen to Christ whom he represents.
The Christian faith is built upon the foundation of the apostles. The word “foundation” shows that the apostolic teaching authority does not die with the apostles but carries on through a physical line of succession (Eph 2:20). As soon as Jesus ascends into heaven Peter implements apostolic succession. Matthias is ordained with full apostolic authority (Acts 1:15-26). Only the Catholic Church can demonstrate an unbroken apostolic lineage to the apostles in union with Peter through the Sacrament of Holy Orders and thereby claim to teach with Christ’s own authority.
At the outset, one had to be ordained by an apostle to witness with the apostles and teach with the authority of Christ which our Lord had invested in them (Acts 1:21-23). This apostolic authority is transferred through the imposition of hands and has been extended beyond the original Twelve as the Church has grown (Acts 6:6). Paul himself becomes an ordained minister by the laying on of hands (Acts 9:17-19). The sacrament of ordination is necessary to invest Christ’s authority in the ordinand. The apostles and newly-ordained men appointed elders (Acts 14:23). Preachers of the Gospel must be sent by the bishops in union with the Church with the authority that can be traced back to the apostles (Acts 15:22-27). Paul is referring to the Sacrament of Holy Orders when he writes that “God has commissioned certain men and sealed them with the Holy Spirit as a guarantee” (2 Cor 1:21-22).
It is Paul and the council of elders that ordain Timothy (1 Tim 4:14). Again, apostolic authority is transferred through the laying on of hands. And Timothy himself is instructed by Paul on how to properly ordain someone by the imposition of hands (1 Tim 5:22; 2 Tim 1:6). Paul uses the word episkopēs (ἐπισκοπῆς) which means “bishop” and thereby requires an office (1 Tim 3:1). Paul’s use of this Greek word presupposes the office of the bishop shall carry on after his death by those who will succeed him through the sacrament of ordination until Christ returns.
I wish to conclude this article by explaining how it is that Catholics call ordained priests “Father.” Dr. Scott Hahn tells us that in the Old Testament the priesthood can be divided into two periods: the patriarchal and the Levitical. The patriarchal period is covered in the Book of Genesis while the Levitical period begins in Exodus. These two periods differ significantly. “Patriarchal religion was firmly based on the natural family order, most especially the authority handed down from the father to the son – ideally the firstborn – often in the form of the ‘blessing’.” (See Genesis 27.) There is no separate priestly institution or caste as there is from the time of Moses, as well as no temple and prescribed sacrifice. “The patriarchs themselves build altars and present offerings at places and at times of their own choosing (See Gen 4:3-4; 8:20-21; 12:7-8). Fathers are empowered as priests by nature.”
Dr. Hahn continues: “There are vestments associated with the office. When Rebekah took the garments of Esau, her firstborn, and gave them to Jacob, she was symbolically transferring the priestly office (Gen 27:15). We see the same priestly significance, a generation later, in the ‘long robe’ Jacob gave to his son Joseph” (See Gen 37:3-4). Thus, fatherhood is the original basis for the priesthood. “The very meaning of priesthood goes back to the father of the family – his representative role, spiritual authority, and religious service… priesthood belonged to fathers and their ‘blessed’ sons.” On the other hand, the Levitical priesthood “became a hereditary office reserved to the cultural elite. And the home was no longer the primary place of priesthood and sacrifice.” (Signs of Life: 40 Catholic Customs and Their Biblical Roots: Doubleday, 2009). Still, when a Levitical priest comes knocking at Micah’s door, he pleads, “Stay with me, and be to me a father and a priest” (Jdgs. 17:10).
When Paul says, “I became your father through the gospel,” he is referring to himself as being a priest. The community of believers in Corinth is his sons and daughters and heirs to the kingdom of heaven. Not unlike Paul, his successors in the Catholic Church – through the Sacrament of Holy Orders – are fathers and priests by their role of representing Christ, their spiritual authority, and religious service: the preaching of the gospel and ministration of the sacraments for the family in the house of God which is the Church.
Early Sacred Tradition
“Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, and there would be strife on account of the office
of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect fore-knowledge of this,
they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these
should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry.”
St. (Pope) Clement of Rome, 1st Epistle to the Corinthians, 44:1-2
(c. A.D. 96)
“See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles;
and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without
the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom
he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever
Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast;
but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.”
St. Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Smyraens, 8
(c. A.D. 110)
“Since, according to my opinion, the grades here in the Church, of bishops, presbyters, deacons, are imitations
of the angelic glory, and of that economy which, the Scriptures say, awaits those who, following the footsteps of
the apostles, have lived in perfection of righteousness according to the Gospel.”
St. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 6:13
“And before you had received the grace of the episcopate, no one knew you; but after you became one,
the laity expected you to bring them food, namely instruction from the Scriptures…For if all were of the same
mind as your present advisers, how would you have become a Christian, since there would be no bishops?
Or if our successors are to inherit the state of mind, how will the Churches be able to hold together?”
St. Athanasius, To Dracontius, Epistle 49:2,4
(c. A.D. 355)
“The Blessed Apostle Paul in laying down the form for appointing a bishop and creating by his instructions
an entirely new type of member of the Church, has taught us in the following words the sum total of all the
virtues perfected in him:–Holding fast the word according to the doctrine of faith that he may be able to exhort
to sound doctrine and to convict gain savers. For there are many unruly men, vain talkers and deceivers. For in
this way he points out that the essentials of orderliness and morals are only profitable for good service in the
priesthood if at the same time the qualities needful for knowing how to teach and preserve the faith are not lacking,
for a man is not straightway made a good and useful priest by a merely innocent life or by a mere knowledge of preaching.”
St. Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity
“There is not, however, such narrowness in the moral excellence of the Catholic Church as that I should limit
my praise of it to the life of those here mentioned. For how many bishops have I known most excellent and holy men,
how many, presbyters, how many deacons, and ministers of all kinds of the divine sacraments, whose virtue seems
to me more admirable and more worthy of commendation on account of the greater difficulty of preserving it
amidst the manifold varieties of men, and in this life of turmoil!”
St. Augustine, On the Morals of the Catholic Church, 69
It is you who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer a kingdom on you, just as my Father
has conferred one on me, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom;
and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
Luke 22, 28-30