The Sacraments: Holy Orders

Posted on May 2, 2023 by Published by

The last of the seven sacraments we will review is Holy Orders – a sacrament of Service. The Sacrament of Holy Orders is the continuation of Jesus Christ’s priesthood, which He bestowed upon His Apostles. Therefore, the Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to the Sacrament of Holy Orders as “the sacrament of apostolic ministry.”

Through the Sacrament of Holy Orders, a baptized man is configured to Christ by the grace of the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands, becoming an icon of Christ so he can stand in the very Person of Christ among those he serves. The grace of ordination imparts a permanent seal on his soul that conforms him to Christ in a deep way.

“Ordination” comes from the Latin word ordinatio, which means to incorporate someone into an order. In the Sacrament of Holy Orders, a man is incorporated into the priesthood of Christ at one of three levels: the episcopate (office of a bishop), the priesthood, or the diaconate.

  • Bishops receive the fullness of Holy Orders and can trace their ordination in succession all the way back to the Apostles themselves. The importance of this apostolic succession for the preservation of the Church’s teaching is clearly documented as early as the second century. Bishops receive the office of Jesus for sanctifying, teaching, and guiding or governing the faithful under their care. They are assigned by the Pope to serve the Church in a particular geographic area called a Diocese or Archdiocese, and they share in the Pope’s responsibility for the whole Church as his brothers.
  • Priests are also ordained into Jesus’ ministerial priesthood. They serve as co-workers with their bishops, to whom they promise obedience and by whom they are ordained, and he assigns them to serve the people in a particular parish or ministry and to share in his office of sanctifying, teaching, and governing. As priests, they receive from Christ the power to forgive sins and to celebrate Mass.
  • Deacons are also ordained by the bishop, but not to the priesthood. A deacon’s ministry is one of service, so that bishops and priests may focus primarily on those duties reserved to them. Deacons may assist at the Mass, preach, and teach, witness, and bless marriages, preside at funerals, baptize, and carry out works of charity, but they cannot hear confessions or celebrate Mass.

How does one become ordained?

Priests must undergo a challenging formation program which lasts from five to thirteen years, depending upon his background and the seminary he attends. Seminaries address four types of formation: human, spiritual, academic, and pastoral. In addition to the academic course work, seminarians participate in a full schedule of spiritual activities – Daily Mass, Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, spiritual direction, and retreats. At each level of seminary training, the seminarian prepares for future pastoral ministry in various settings, such as schools, religious education programs, hospitals, prisons, and parishes. All the formation takes into consideration the human person, fostered by community living, workshops and other programs. The formation of future priests also includes practical learning, such as preaching, presiding at Mass and pastoral counseling.

Deacons also undergo a challenging formation period of 3-5 years depending on the Diocese. In the Archdiocese of Chicago, formation is a four-year program. It includes a one-year Aspirancy Path, which concentrates on prayer and discernment, and a three-year Candidate Path, which focuses on academic courses in addition to the formation elements of human, spiritual and pastoral, which lead to Holy Orders.

Holy Orders is a call from God, not to be confused with a career choice or a right that anyone can invoke. Unlike the Sacraments of Initiation, which are intended for everyone in the Church, Holy Orders is a gift given as God wills and the Church confirms. This past weekend we heard stories from our Deacons about how they heard God’s call – and for many this call from God lasted decades before it was acted on. I invite you to ask any Priest or Deacon to share their story – it is a powerful witness of how God speaks to us, how we need to listen, and how He does not abandon us even if we are slow to answer His call.

This is the eighth installment in a series of articles about the Seven Sacraments, contributed by Deacon Peter LeTourneau, Director of Parish Ministry and Evangelization at Our Lady of the Wayside Parish. Please feel free to reach out to Deacon Peter with questions or comments at

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