The Rite of Holy Orders

by A. Biskupek, S.V.D
Mission Press, 1954
Imprimi Potest May 4, 1942 Charles Michel, S.V.D. Provincial
Imprimatur May 4, 1942 + Samuel A. Stritch, D.D.
Archbishop of Chicago
The Sacrament of Holy Orders

The Tonsure

The Minor Orders

  1. The Order of Porter
  2. The Order of Reader
  3. The Order of Exorcist
  4. The Order of Acolyte

The Major Orders

  1. The Order of Subdeacon
  2. The Order of Deacon
  3. The Order of Priest

Ordinations have a profound significance for Catholics. The young clerical student sees in them the fulfillment of his youthful visions, the goal of his aspirations and labors during the many years of his college and seminary training. Happy parents, relatives, and friends of the ordinand await the days of ordination with anxious hopefulness, as days of honor and happiness, of abundant reward for all the sacrifices made in behalf of the candidate. But Catholics in general also feel the greatness of these days and rejoice with the happy ones who are led to the altar for ordination. Witness the large number of people who hasten to be present at the ordination of a priest or at his first Mass! After all, the priest is not ordained for his family or friends alone; he belongs to the people. The priest "taken from among men, is ordained for men in the things that appertain to God, that he may offer up gifts and sacrifices for sins" (Heb. 5,1). The honor bestowed upon the priest is honor bestowed upon the whole Catholic people out of whose midst he is taken. 

It is for the purpose of keeping alive and increasing this interest in the priesthood that this document has been prepared. It is intended, in the first place, for the clerical students preparing for the reception of holy orders. They must understand and possess the spirit of the priesthood; and nowhere else will they find it portrayed so clearly and impressively as in the rite or ordination. The guidance and mysterious unction of the Holy Spirit, the Maker of the priest, are clearly visible in the beauty, vigor, and unction of the instructions, prayers, and ceremonies which give to it its form and substance. Every candidate for the priesthood ought to have the rite of ordination place in his hands, ought to study it and meditate upon it, not only before ordination but also after: "I admonish thee, that thou stir up the grace which is in thee by the imposition of my hands." (2 Tim. 1,6). 

In the second place, the document is intended for our Catholic people, particularly the parents, relatives, and friends of the cleric. They want to know to the full what it means for a beloved boy to rise from order to order until he ascends the altar, a priest of God. The priesthood is the heart of the Church; but the priest comes from the people. A deeper understanding therefore of the dignity and mission of the priest cannot but increase the general reverence and love for him and add to the happiness of those whom God calls to offer one of their own to His service. How many parents would not do much more to foster priestly vocations among their sons if they had a better knowledge of the exalted dignity and profound significance of the priesthood! It is just such an understanding attitude toward priestly vocations that must be developed among our Catholic people. Holy Church can fulfill her mission of bringing salvation to the world only through priests; but today, as in the days of Christ, "the harvest is great, but the laborers are few" (Luke 10,2) 

May this purpose be accomplished for the honor and glory of our divine High Priest, Jesus Christ.


The Minor Orders

The worthy conduct of divine worship renders necessary many distinct functions which stand in a more or less intimate relation to the central act of divine worship, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Such functions are, for instance, to take care of the place of worship and of the many things needed for the Holy Sacrifice, to instruct the people and admit them to the divine services, to keep out unworthy persons, to supervise the congregation so that due order and reverence may be observed by all, to serve at Mass, etc. In ancient times, when the faithful formed small minorities in the midst of a pagan population not well disposed toward Christianity, it was of the utmost importance that such offices should be entrusted to thoroughly reliable men. For this reason special orders were introduced by the Church, and men were ordained by a sacred rite for the worthy discharge of these offices. At what time this was done cannot be established with certainty. But we know that Pope Cornelius, in a letter written to Fabian, Bishop of Antioch, about the year 250, mentions that four minor orders as we have them today. He writes that in the Church of Rome were at the time 46 priests, 7 deacons, 7 subdeacons, 42 acolytes, 52 exorcists, lectors, and porters. 

Accordingly, the four minor orders are: 

  1. The Order of Porter (The Ostiarate)
  2. The Order of Reader (The Lectorate)
  3. The Order of Exorcist (The Exorcistate)
  4. The Order of Acolyte (The Acolytate)
The historical development of these orders was not the same throughout the Church and, moreover, their functions underwent considerable modifications according to the exigencies of the times. Gradually they lost their original importance. But, although for centuries already many of the functions of the minor orders are performed by laymen, the orders have remained. They now form a fitting preparation for the major orders, and recall the fact that, after all, the priest is the responsible guardian of the house of God and of all the functions performed therein; and that, if laymen are employed in rendering such services, the priest must see to it that worthy persons are chosed and that they perform their offices in the proper way. 

These four orders are called minor orders because of their lesser importance and dignity when compared to major orders; they are not sacraments. According to the present discipline of the Church, only candidates who have the intention of becoming priests are permitted to receive minor orders. However, if in the course of time a minorite changes his mind and decides not to become a priest, he is at liberty to choose another state of life without being under any further obligations in consequence of the orders received. 

Minor orders are conferred on Sundays and double feasts; also outside Mass, but always in the morning. Not more than two minor orders may be received on the same day; nor is it allowed that tonsure and a minor order be received by the same candidate on the same day. 

The rite of conferring these orders comprises the following features: 

  1. The Call. The candidates are called by name to come forward; they in turn answer, "Adsum," i.e. "Present." This is to show, on the one hand, that the promotion to an ecclesiastical office must come from the ecclesiastical superiors, and on the other hand, that no one is forced to accept such an office, but offers himself of his own free will.
  2. The Instruction. It contains a statement of the various duties of the order and then points out the particular obligations arising from its reception.
  3. The Bestowal of the Order. This is the essential part of the rite and consists in the so-called tradition of instruments, i.e., the handing over to the candidates of the symbols of their office and in the accompanying words of the bishop.
  4. The Prayer. It is a prayer for the ordained, that they may faithfully discharge the duties of their office.
The candidates present themselves for ordination dressed as clerics, in cassock and surplice. In their right hand they carry a burning candle.


The Major Orders

There are three Major Orders: 

  1. The Subdiaconate
  2. The Diaconate
  3. The Priesthood
They are called major or sacred because of their dignity, powers, and obligations. Of these orders two are sacramental, namely, the diaconate and the priesthood: only these two orders imprint upon the soul the indelible mark of the priesthood, that is, a special similarity with Christ, the divine High Priest. We do not mention the consecration of a bishop as a special order, because the episcopal order is that of the priesthood in its highest perfection. In the bishop are vested the full powers of the priesthood; but not all these powers are conferred upon the ordinary priest, who is therefore a priest of lower rank. 

Major orders must be conferred during Mass, and, as a rule, on the Ember Saturdays, the Saturday before Passion Sunday, and Holy Saturday. For a grave reason, however, the bishop may also confer them on any Sunday or feast of obligation. 

The rite of conferring major orders is more solemn that that of minor orders. The features of the preceding ordinations remain: 

  1. the call, 
  2. the instruction, 
  3. the bestowal of the office, and 
  4. prayer. 

But there are added more prayers and other ceremonies, in accordance with the nature of the respective order.