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 Holy Orders 

Number of Orders

The Council of Trent (Sess. XXIII, can. 3) defined that, besides the priesthood, there are in the Church other orders, both major and minor. Though nothing has been defined with regard to the number of orders it is usually given as seven: priests, deacons, subdeacons, acolytes, exorcists, readers, and doorkeepers. The priesthood is thus counted as including bishops; if the latter be numbered separately we have eight; and if we add first tonsure, which was at one time regarded as an order, we have nine. We meet with different numberings in different Churches, and it would seem that mystical reasons influenced them to some extent (Martène, “De antiq. eccl. rit.”, I, viii, l, 1; Denzinger, “Rit. orient.”, II, 155). The “Statuta ecclesiæ antiqua” enumerate nine orders, adding psalmists and counting bishops and priests separately. Others enumerate eight orders, thus, e.g. the author of “De divin. offic.”, 33, and St. Dunstan’s and the Jumièges pontificals (Martène I, viii, 11), the latter not counting bishops, and adding cantor. Innocent III, “De sacro alt. minister.”, I, i, counts six orders, as do also the Irish canons, where acolytes were unknown. Besides the psalmista or cantor, several other functionaries seem to have been recognized as holding orders, e.g., fossarii (fossores) grave diggers, hermeneutoe (interpreters), custodes martyrum etc. Some consider them to have been real orders (Morin, “Comm. de sacris eccl. ordin.”, III, Ex. 11, 7); but it is more probable that they were merely offices, generally committed to clerics (Benedict XIV, “De syn, dioc.”, VIII, ix, 7, 8). In the East there is considerable variety of tradition regarding the number of orders. The Greek Church acknowledges five, bishops, priests, deacons, subdeacons, and readers. The same number is found in St. John Damascene (Dial. contra manichæos, iii); in the ancient Greek Church acolytes, exorcists, and doorkeepers were probably considered only as offices (cf. Denzinger, “Rit. orient.”, I, 116).

In the Latin Church a distinction is made between major and minor orders. In the East the subdiaconate is regarded as a minor order, and it includes three of the other minor orders (porter, exorcist, acolyte). In the Latin Church the priesthood, diaconate, and subdiaconate are the major, or sacred, orders, so-called because they have immediate reference to what is consecrated (St. Thom., “Suppl.”, Q. xxxvii, a. 3). The hierarchical orders strictly so-called are of divine origin (Conc. Trid., Sess. XXIII, can. 6). We have seen that our Lord instituted a ministry in the persons of His Apostles, who received fullness of authority and power. One of the first exercises of this Apostolic power was the appointment of others to help and succeed them. The Apostles did not confine their labors to any particular Church, but, following the Divine command to make disciples of all men, they were the missionaries of the first generation. Others also are mentioned in Holy Scripture as exercising an itinerant ministry, such as those who are in a wider sense called Apostles (Romans 16:7), or prophets, teachers, and evangelists (Ephesians 4:11). Side by side with this itinerant ministry provision is made for the ordinary ministrations by the appointment of local ministers, to whom the duties of the ministry passed entirely when the itinerant ministers disappeared (see DEACON).

Besides deacons others were appointed to the ministry, who are called presbyteroi and episkopoi. There is no record of their institution, but the names occur casually. Though some have explained the appointment of the seventy-two disciples in Luke 10, as the institution of the presbyterate, it is generally agreed that they had only a temporary appointment. We find presbyters in the Mother Church at Jerusalem, receiving the gifts of the brethren of Antioch. They appear in close connection with the Apostles, and the Apostles and presbyters sent forth the decree which freed the gentile converts from the burden of the Mosaic law (Acts 15:23). In St. James (5:14-15) they appear as performing ritual actions, and from St. Peter we learn that they are shepherds of the flock (1 Peter 5:2). The bishops hold a position of authority (Philippians 1; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:7) and have been appointed shepherds by the Holy Ghost (Acts 20:28). That the ministry of both was local appears from Acts 14:23, where we read that Paul and Barnabas appointed presbyters in the various Churches which they founded during their first missionary journey. It is shown also by the fact that they had to shepherd the flock, wherein they have been appointed, the presbyters have to shepherd the flock, that is amongst them (1 Peter 5:2). Titus is left in Crete that he might appoint presbyters in every city (kata eolin, Tit., i, 5; cf. Chrys., “Ad Tit., homil.”, II, i).

We cannot argue from the difference of names to the difference of official position, because the names are to some extent interchangeable (Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:6-7). The New Testament does not clearly show the distinction between presbyters and bishops, and we must examine its evidence in the light of later times. Toward the end of the second century there is a universal and unquestioned tradition, that bishops and their superior authority date from Apostolic times (see HIERARCHY OF THE EARLY CHURCH). It throws much light on the New-Testament evidence and we find that what appears distinctly at the time of Ignatius can be traced through the pastoral epistles of St. Paul, to the very beginning of the history of the Mother Church at Jerusalem, where St. James, the brother of the Lord, appears to occupy the position of bishop (Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18; Galatians 2:9); Timothy and Titus possess full episcopal authority, and were ever thus recognized in tradition (cf. Titus 1:5; 1 Timothy 5:19 and 22). No doubt there is much obscurity in the New Testament, but this is accounted for by many reasons. The monuments of tradition never give us the life of the Church in all its fullness, and we cannot expect this fullness, with regard to the internal organization of the Church existing in Apostolic times, from the cursory references in the occasional writings of the New Testament. The position of bishops would necessarily be much less prominent than in later times. The supreme authority of the Apostles, the great number of charismatically gifted persons, the fact that various Churches were ruled by Apostolic delegates who exercised episcopal authority under Apostolic direction, would prevent that special prominence. The union between bishops and presbyters was close, and the names remained interchangeable long after the distinction between presbyters and bishops was commonly recognized, e.g., in Iren., “Adv. hæres.”, IV, xxvi, 2. Hence it would seem that already, in the New Testament, we find, obscurely no doubt, the same ministry which appeared so distinctly afterwards.

Which of the Orders are Sacramental?

All agree that there is but one Sacrament of Order, i.e., the totality of the power conferred by the sacrament is contained in the supreme order, whilst the others contain only part thereof (St. Thomas, “Supplem.”, Q. xxxvii, a. i, ad 2um). The sacramental character of the priesthood has never been denied by anyone who admitted the Sacrament of Order, and, though not explicitly defined, it follows immediately from the statements of the Council of Trent. Thus (Sess. XXIII, can. 2), “If any one saith that besides the priesthood there are not in the Catholic Church other orders, both major and minor, by which as by certain steps, advance is made to the priesthood, let him be anathema.” In the fourth chapter of the same session, after declaring that the Sacrament of Order imprints a character “which can neither be effaced nor taken away; the holy synod with reason condemns the opinion of those who assert that priests of the New Testament have only a temporary power”. The priesthood is therefore a sacrament.

With regard to the episcopate the Council of Trent defines that bishops belong to the divinely instituted hierarchy, that they are superior to priests, and that they have the power of confirming and ordaining which is proper to them (Sess. XXIII, c. iv, can. 6, 7). The superiority of bishops is abundantly attested in Tradition, and we have seen above that the distinction between priests and bishops is of Apostolic origin. Most of the older scholastics were of opinion that the episcopate is not a sacrament; this opinion finds able defenders even now (e.g., Billot, “De sacramentis”, II), though the majority of theologians hold it is certain that a bishop’s ordination is a sacrament.

Written by Hubert Ahaus. Transcribed by Robert B. Olson. Offered to Almighty God for the priests and brothers of the Legionaries of Christ and all the men ordained into the Priesthood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XI. Published 1911. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, February 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York

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