The sacrament of Holy Orders creates a priest.
There's a little more to it than that, of course. As the Catechism's section on Holy Orders says: this "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: thus it is the sacrament of apostolic ministry. It includes three degrees"—the orders of bishop, priest, and deacon. (Catechism, 1536)
But to keep things simple, let's start with the priest.
The priesthood & the sacrifice
To know what a priest is we have to know what a sacrifice is.
Nowadays the word "sacrifice" is used in many different ways. But in its strict meaning, its original meaning, a sacrifice is the offering of a gift to God by a group, through the agency of someone who has the right to represent the group.
The purpose of such an offering is to give group worship to God; that is, to acknowledge God's supreme lordship over mankind, to thank him for his blessings, to atone for human sin, and to beg for his benefits.
It is not that God needs our gifts.
Everything that exists was made by God in the first place. Even a mountain of diamonds would of itself have no value in God's eyes. Until Jesus gave us himself as the perfect gift in the sacrifice of the Mass, nothing that man could offer to God was really worthy of God.
Prayer in action
Nevertheless it pleased God, from the very beginning of human history, to have man "act out" his feelings towards God by means of sacrifice. From all that God had given, man would take the very best (whether it was a lamb or a bullock or fruit or grain) and offer it back to God—destroying it upon an altar to symbolize the act of giving.
These were only "token" gifts—like the Christmas necktie which a poor man might give to his rich and generous uncle. But the gifts expressed, better than could words, the deepest sentiments of the human heart towards God.
"O almighty God," the gift would say, "I know that all which I have, I have from You. I thank You for Your bounty. I beg Your forgiveness for not serving You better. Please be good and merciful to me anyway."
Sacrifice, in short, is prayer in action. It is the prayer-in-action of a group. And the one who offers the sacrifice in the name of the group is the priest.
Deeply rooted in the Old Testament
Since men have offered sacrifice to God from the very beginning of the human race so also have there been priests from the very beginning.
In the first period of Biblical history—the age of the Patriarchs—it was the father of the family who was also the priest. It was the father of the family who offered sacrifice to God for himself and his family. Adam was priest for his family; so were Noah and Abraham and all the other family heads priests for their families.
In the time of Moses, however, God directed that the priesthood of his chosen people, the Jews, should henceforth belong to the family of Aaron of the tribe of Levi. The oldest son in each generation of Aaron's descendants would be the high priest and the other Levites would be his assistants.
When the Old Law ended with the establishment of the New Law by Christ, the priesthood of the Old Law also came to an end.
A new Sacrifice for the New Covenant
The New Law of love would have a new sacrifice and a new priesthood.
At the Last Supper Jesus instituted the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. In this new sacrifice the gift offered to God would not be a mere token gift, such as a sheep or an ox or bread and wine. The gift now, for the first time and always, would be a gift worthy of God.
It would be the gift of God's own Son—a gift of infinite value, even as God himself is infinite.
In the Mass, under the appearances of bread and wine, Jesus would daily renew the once-and-forever offering which, upon the cross, he made of himself to God. In the Mass he would give to each of us, his baptized members, the opportunity to unite ourselves with him in that offering.
But who would be the human priest who would stand at the altar—the human agent whose hands and whose lips Christ would use for the offering of himself? Who would be the human priest to whom Christ would give the power of making the God-Man present upon the altar, under the appearances of bread and wine?
Priests at Christ's own command
There were eleven such priests, to begin with. (It is not certain that Judas was present at the time the Apostles were made priests.) At the Last Supper, as we know, Jesus made his Apostles priests, when he gave them the command (and with the command, the power) to do what he had just done. "Do this," he said, "in remembrance of Me" (Luke 22:20).
It was this power, the power to offer sacrifice in the name of Christ and of Christ's Mystical Body, his Church (which means you and me united to Christ by Baptism), which made the Apostles priests.
To this power of changing bread and wine into his Body and Blood, Jesus on Easter Sunday night added the power to forgive sins in his name. "Receive the Holy Spirit," he said; "whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained" (John 20:22-23).
This power of the priesthood which Christ conferred upon his Apostles was not to die with them.
Jesus came to save the souls of all people who ever would live, down to the end of the world. Consequently, the Apostles passed their priestly power on to other men in the ceremony which we now call the sacrament of Holy Orders.
In the Acts of the Apostles we read of one of the first (if not the first) ordinations by the Apostles:
And the plan met the approval of the whole multitude, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip and Prochorus and Nicanor and Timon and Parmenas and Nicholas, a proselyte from Antioch. These they set before the Apostles, and after they had prayed they laid their hands upon them.
It was as deacons that these men were ordained, not yet as priests. But it gives us the picture of the Apostles sharing, and passing on to others, the sacred power which Jesus had bestowed upon them.
As time went on, the Apostles consecrated more bishops to carry on their work. These bishops in turn ordained other bishops and priests, and these bishops in their turn, still others. So that the Catholic priest of today can truly say that the power of his priesthood has come down, in the sacrament of Holy Orders, in an unbroken line from Christ himself.
Holy Orders is a unique sacrament
There are two notable ways in which the sacrament of Holy Orders differs from the other sacraments.
One is the fact that Holy Orders can be administered only by a bishop. Only a bishop has the power to ordain priests. An ordinary priest cannot pass his power on to another.
The second way in which Holy Orders differs from other sacraments is that Holy Orders is not received all at once.
When we are baptized, we are completely baptized by the single pouring of water. When we are confirmed, we are completely confirmed in a single ceremony. Holy Orders, however, is given by degrees, by successive steps.
Three successive stages
Like a flower developing from bud to full bloom, so does the sacrament of Holy Orders unfold itself through three stages as it confers successively the powers of deacon, priest, and bishop.
Deaconship, priesthood, and bishopric are the three stages in the sacrament of Holy Orders as it was instituted by Christ. At each stage, as in every sacrament, there is an increase in sanctifying grace. At each stage there is the imprinting of a character upon the soul; each successive character, like a progressively brighter sun, enveloping and containing the one that has gone before.
In that character are rooted the right and the power that belong to the order which is being received.
- For the deacon it is the right to baptize, to preach, and to administer Holy Communion.
- For the priest it is the power to change bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ and to forgive sins.
- For the bishop, who alone has the complete fullness of the priesthood, it is the power to confirm and to ordain—to pass the power of the priesthood on to others in the sacrament of Holy Orders.
Then, besides the increase in sanctifying grace and the priestly character with its accompanying power, there is the special sacramental grace which gives to the one ordained a claim upon God for whatever actual graces he may need in the faithful discharge of his office.
The priest & the Sacrifice of the Mass
For priests (and of course bishops), Holy Orders "configures them to Christ" in a special way so that they can act in the person of Christ the Head.
Through the sacrament of Holy Orders, the Holy Spirit imparts that tremendous and almost unbelievable power to call Jesus Christ himself down upon the altar. It is in the Sacrifice of the Mass that the priest exercises the supreme degree of his sacred office.
This is the supreme Sacrifice, offered in divine worship in the person of Christ (in persona Christi), by which the priest acts as a true priest of the New Covenant.
We must also remember that it is only by this sacred, ordained power to act in persona Christi that the priest has the power to forgive, in Christ's name, the sins of men.
Sustained by grace
No priest would or could wish for more than this extraordinary privilege of acting in persona Christi.
As he bends each morning over the bread and the wine, lending his lips to Christ as he speaks Christ's words, "This is My Body. . . . This is My Blood," the priest time and again feels all but crushed by the sense of his own unworthiness, by the consciousness of his human weakness. He would be crushed, too, if it were not for the grace of the sacrament of Holy Orders, which God infallibly gives to those who humbly ask it.
It is, of course, this power to offer sacrifice, this power to offer the Perfect Gift to God in the name of God's people, that distinguishes a priest from a Protestant minister. The minister does not have the power to offer sacrifice, which is precisely what makes a priest a priest.
A major difference between Catholics and Protestants
Indeed, Protestant ministers do not even believe in such a power to offer sacrifice.
One notable exception to this belief is the clergy of the High Episcopalian Church, or the Anglican Church. These Anglican clergy do consider themselves priests and bishops, but the Catholic Church does not recognize them as such. The reason is simple: there is no one who can impart to them the power of the priesthood.
Back in the sixteenth century, the leaders of the Anglican church eliminated all reference to the Mass and the power of sacrifice from their ordination ceremony. Without the intention of ordaining sacrificing priests, the sacrament of Holy Orders is invalid; it is not Holy Orders.
In fact that is true of any sacrament—whoever gives a sacrament must have the intention of doing what the sacrament is supposed to do, or the sacrament is invalid. That is how true priests and bishops died out, in the Anglican church, once the intention of ordaining sacrificing priests and bishops was taken out of the ordination service. The line of succession by which the power of the priesthood has come down to us, from Christ to the Apostles to bishop to bishop to bishop, was broken centuries ago when the Anglican Church rejected the whole idea of the Mass and a sacrificing priesthood.
In later times some Anglican High churchmen have revived the idea of the Mass, but they have no bishops who are true successors of the Apostles, no bishops who themselves have any of the power which the sacrament of Holy Orders gives. This is not said in any spirit of prideful disdain—it is just a sad fact of history; one that should move us to renewed prayer that our separated brethren may return to the one true fold.
An essential link to Christ
In the sacrament of Holy Orders, Christ has provided us with an essential link to himself.
Above all else, Holy Orders makes possible the extraordinary gift of the Sacrifice of the Mass—a gift from Christ himself.
This article contains material adapted and abridged from Father Leo Trese's classic book,The Faith Explained. That work is Nihil Obstat: Louis J. Putz, C.S.C., University of Notre Dame. Imprimatur: Leo A. Pursley, D.D., Bishop of Fort Wayne, Indiana.