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Subject of Holy Orders
 Holy Orders 

Subject of Holy Orders

Every baptized male can validly receive ordination. Though in former times there were several semi-clerical ranks of women in the Church (see DEACONESSES), they were not admitted to orders properly so called and had no spiritual power. The first requisite for lawful ordination is a Divine vocation; by which is understood the action of God, whereby He selects some to be His special ministers, endowing them with the spiritual, mental, moral, and physical qualities required for the fitting discharge of their order and inspiring them with a sincere desire to enter the ecclesiastical state for God’s honor and their own sanctification. The reality of this Divine call is manifested in general by sanctity of life, right faith, knowledge corresponding to the proper exercise of the order to which one is raised, absence of physical defects, the age required by the canons (see IRREGULARITY). Sometimes this call was manifested in an extraordinary manner (Acts 1:15; 13:2); in general, however, the “calling” was made according to the laws of the Church founded on the example of the Apostles. Though clergy and laity had a voice in the election of the candidates, the ultimate and definite determination rested with the bishops. The election of the candidates by clergy and laity was in the nature of a testimony of fitness, the bishop had to personally ascertain the candidates’ qualifications. A public inquiry was held regarding their faith and moral character and the electors were consulted. Only such as were personally known to the electing congregation, i.e., members of the same Church, were chosen.

A specified age was required, and, though there was some diversity in different places, in general, for deacons the age was twenty-five or thirty, for priests thirty or thirty-five, for bishops thirty-five or forty or even fifty (Apost. Const., II, i). Nor was physical age deemed sufficient, but there were prescribed specified periods of time, during which the ordained should remain in a particular degree. The different degrees were considered not merely as steps preparatory to the priesthood, but as real church offices. In the beginning no such periods, called interstices, were appointed, though the tendency to orderly promotion is attested already in the pastoral Epistles (1 Timothy 3:3, 16). The first rules were apparently made in the fourth century. They seem to have been enforced by Siricius (385) and somewhat modified by Zosimus (418), who decreed that the office of reader or exorcist should last till the candidate was twenty, or for five years in case of those baptized as adults; four years were to be spent as acolyte or subdeacon, five years as deacon. This was modified by Pope Gelasius (492), according to whom a layman who had been a monk might be ordained priest after one year, thus allowing three months to elapse between each ordination, and a layman who had not been a monk might be ordained priest after eighteen months. At present the minor orders are generally conferred together on one day.

The bishops, who are the ministers of the sacrament ex officio, must inquire about the birth, person, age, title, faith, and moral character of the candidate. They must examine whether he is born of Catholic parents, and is spiritually, intellectually, morally, and physically fit for the exercise of the ministry. The age required by the canons is for subdeacons twenty-one, for deacons twenty-two, and for priests twenty-four years completed. The pope may dispense from any irregularity and the bishops generally receive some power of dispensation also with regard to age, not usually for subdeacons and deacons, but for priests. Bishops can generally dispense for one year, whilst the pope gives dispensation for over a year; a dispensation for more than eighteen months is but very rarely granted. For admission to minor orders, the testimony from the parish priest or from the master of the school where the candidate was educated--generally, therefore, the superior of the seminary--is required. For major orders further inquiries must be made. The names of the candidate must be published in the place of his birth and of his domicile and the result of such inquiries are to be forwarded to the bishop. No bishop may ordain those not belonging to his diocese by reason of birth, domicile, benefice, or familiaritas, without dimissorial letters from the candidate’s bishop. Testimonial letters are also required from all the bishops in whose dioceses the candidate has resided for over six months, after the age of seven. Transgression of this rule is punished by suspension latæ sententiæ against the ordaining bishop. In recent years several decisions insist on the strict interpretation of these rules. Subdeacons and deacons should pass one full year in these orders and they may then proceed to receive the priesthood. This is laid down by the Council of Trent (Sess. XXIII, c.xi.), which did not prescribe the time for minor orders. The bishop generally has the power to dispense from these interstices, but it is absolutely forbidden, unless a special indult be obtained, to receive two major orders or the minor orders and the subdiaconate in one day.

For the subdiaconate and the higher orders there is, moreover, required a title, i.e., the right to receive maintenance from a determined source. Again, the candidate must observe the interstices, or times required to elapse between the reception of various orders; he must also have received confirmation and the lower orders preceding the one to which he is raised. This last requirement does not affect the validity of the order conferred, as every order gives a distinct and independent power. One exception is made by the majority of theologians and canonists, who are of opinion that episcopal consecration requires the previous reception of priest’s orders for its validity. Others, however, maintain that episcopal power includes full priestly power, which is thus conferred by episcopal consecration. They appeal to history and bring forward cases of bishops who were consecrated without having previously received priest’s orders, and though most of the cases are somewhat doubtful and can be explained on other grounds, it seems impossible to reject them all. It is further to be remembered that scholastic theologians mostly required the previous reception of priest’s orders for valid episcopal consecration, because they did not consider episcopacy an order, a view which is now generally abandoned.


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

 Holy Orders 
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