Holy Orders,
the Catholic priesthood

THE true Christian tradition, which is the Roman Catholic tradition, spontaneously places us in harmony with every century, with our source Jesus Christ and beyond even to communion with Moses and Abraham (…).

OrdinationYet, beneath the universality of hierarchical institution, beneath the continuity of Priesthood from Aaron and the tribe of Levi to Jesus Christ and His Apostles, continuing down the Christian centuries, we notice a profound difference. There seems to be a profound break in the Christian priesthood away from the powers and functions of the Jewish sacerdotal caste. In a certain way the Christian priesthood is Christ, sole mediator between God and men, Christ the unique and Sovereign Priest of the New and Eternal Testament. In union with Him, the Christian priesthood is also His Mystical Body, the entire body of the faithful, hierarchically constituted, convened and gathered for praise and intercession. How it is at the same time an order apart of an entirely new essence, constituted according to its own rites and diversified in a hierarchy of many degrees is the object of our study now. This study will lead us to the very depths of the Mystery of Christ and of the Church, the Sacrament and source of our salvation (…).


Christ chose twelve apostles for Himself, “ the twelve" who constituted the permanent group of His trusted men, who were no longer His servants but friends (Jn 15 :15). He chose them that they might be the witnesses to His signs and His resurrection and the depositaries of His teaching and of His will after Him (…). It is only during the last days of His earthly life that Jesus manifested Himself as Priest of the New Alliance when, at the Last Supper He adopted an Essene symbolism, that of the meal of bread and wine, and when on the Cross He accomplished the ritual liturgy of the sacrifice of expiation. He is then the Unique Mediator and Sovereign Priest as the Epistle to the Hebrews shows (ch. 7). He alone cast out devils and forgave sins; He alone could give His life as a ransom for the many; He alone effectively intercedes with God His Father and already presides over the Messianic Feast.

Nevertheless, in His last moments, He shared His priestly power with His apostles; He wished them to inherit this power and perpetuate its tradition in the Church He was to found through the power of the Holy Spirit, which would be given them. The Apostolate, then, assumes the form and nature of priesthood with no continuity between it and the priesthood of the Levites and Temple priests, but in continuity with Christ’s perfect priesthood, itself the distant and mysterious heir of Melchisedech, King of Salem’s priesthood.

Thus was constituted the new hierarchy, which was undistinguishable from the people during the time of Our Lord’s preaching but which from the time of Pentecost was raised above the people. As the Pastor of a new people, led as by Moses to the other shore of the Red Sea and introduced into the definitive Kingdom, Jesus instituted His Apostles as Ministers of His word, priests of His Sacrifice, chiefs and judges of the New Israel. From the day of Pentecost, such is the Order of the Church.


Even before the day of Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit we see Saint Peter deciding on a replacement for Judas. The choice between two possible disciples was made by prayer and the drawing of lots, by which the Divine election for this Apostolic ministry was to be made manifest. (Ac 1 :24-25) Peter’s authority over the little group of one hundred and twenty Christians gathered there already seems sovereign and recognised as being beyond dispute.

At a later stage we find an innovation, which is all the more remarkable in that there is no explicit preparation for it in the Gospel accounts, whereby the Apostles created the Order of Deacon to assist them in their secondary needs. “ It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table. Brethren, select from among you seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task, whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word. ” (Ac 6 :2-4) Again we note the Apostles’ perfect freedom to give the nascent Church those institutions necessary for it without needing to invoke any particular order of Christ’s (…).

From among these co-operators, whether they were itinerant or fixed, the Apostles were later to choose their successors, but again in a very free and spontaneous manner as occasion required. In his letter to the Corinthians, which dates from 95-96. Saint Clement of Rome gives us the first serious piece of information we have on the Apostolic succession : “ Having received perfect prescience, they will establish a procedure whereby other tried men shall succeed those in the ministry who have fallen asleep in the Lord ” (cp. 44) (…).


At the beginning of the third century the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome bears witness to the existence of the following three sacred orders : The Episcopate, the Presbyterate and the Diaconate. The mention of secondary ministries such as reader and sub-deacon seems due to a later modification. (Ott 35-36) However, other orders appeared soon after this as an Epistle of Pope Cornelius in the year 251 numbers the Roman clergy as comprising 1 bishop, 46 presbyters, 7 deacons, 7 sub-deacons, 42 acolytes, 52 exorcists, lectors and porters (…).

The existence of other ministries is also to be noted; for example, grave-diggers, or in the East psalmists and singers. It indicates how freely the various liturgical and charitable functions gave rise to the creation of diverse orders. The historian is bound to note, however, that these orders were promptly stabilised and then from the fifth century they began to decline until they withered away (…).


Into this domain of Holy Order the Mediaeval theologians also introduced their love of systematisation, clarity and universal symbolism (…). Yves of Chartres, however, wanted the number stopped at the perfect number of seven and so excluded the Episcopate from the degrees of Holy Order. In his view the priesthood was the final degree of the Sacrament of Order to which episcopal consecration was but an added dignity and authority. In this he was followed by a large number of scholastic theologians including Peter Lombard, Hugh of Saint Victor and St. Thomas Aquinas (…).


After Wycliffe and Luther, Calvin heaped abuse on the Catholic priesthood with his constant and biting sarcasm, not forgetting that of Erasmus… In Calvin’s eyes all priests were magicians. Even though Protestantism subsequently restored functions related to Divine worship in its various communities, those functions would no longer be Orders constituted by a definitive gift of grace with an ineradicable character; the ministers thus created would have no higher dignity for they would be deputed from among the assembly to the service of presidency or preaching but in no way would they be conferred with sacramental power.

The Council of Trent was to save the identity of the Catholic priesthood by defining infallibly that the Sacrament of Order is of Divine Institution, founded by Christ at least in its higher degrees; that the sacrament of order bestows on those who receive it the gift of the Holy Spirit accompanied by an indelible character, effected by fitting and worthy rites; that the priesthood comprises the power of consecrating as well as that of remitting sins; that the other major orders lead thereto by degrees.

The Council added, without further detail, that the sacred hierarchy comprises three degrees : bishops, priests and ministers, with the Bishops superior to the priests by virtue of their power to ordain other priests and to confirm (a notable affirmation). Finally the Council declared that only Bishops chosen by the Sovereign Pontiff are true and legitimate.

There is no doubt that Protestant criticism had prompted the Church’s Magisterium to a great reserve (…).


In order to counter Protestant negations concerning the Episcopate, French, Spanish and many Italian bishops at the Council of Trent requested that the Episcopate be declared of Divine institution : jure divino… or at least founded by virtue of a Divine disposition : “ divina ordinatione institutus ”… (Ott 298-308). Such a declaration would have implied that the Episcopate is no simple dignity, but that it constitutes a distinct and superior degree of order, in fact the final degree of the Hierarchy, and is, therefore, a sacrament conferred by a veritable ordination, possessing a character with spiritual powers proper to it. Thus the Bishops would have seen their authority recognised as something received from God and inherited from Christ by Apostolic succession : a Divine authority touching their Order and even their Jurisdiction over all the People of God ! What could have been finer, more evangelical and more legitimate than that ?

This request, however, came up against the vehement and irreducible opposition of the Roman Curia (…). The question was to be left in a state of indecision (…). Yet nothing stands still and throughout these enormous theological controversies there is a positive and irresistible development from the great Cardinal Bellarmine (Ott 333-335) up to our Second Vatican Council. Only this time it will be the opposing party that wins the French and German party. One cannot help noticing that the debate covered the same difficulties envenomed still further by the most questionable idea of collegiality. The affirmation of the sacramentalitv of the Episcopate would have come unimpeded, as it indeed it had to, but the great debate for or against collegiality would have cast no shadow over the new dogmatic definition (…).


Instead of abandoning ourselves to the ascending scale of Holy Order from porter and lector up to priest, as the ultimate point of perfection, the new theology, which is more profoundly traditional, leads us to make a deliberate choice of the descending scheme, so well expounded in chapter III of Lumen Gentium. It is a conception of Order that corresponds with the direct, simple and obvious perspective of the New Testament.

In the first place there is the Apostolic Ministry, which is the only order to have been instituted by Christ, strictly speaking, and endowed by Him with every necessary power. There is no question but that Christ chose the Apostles. After the obscure first beginnings, we undoubtedly find bishops in every place, chosen by the Apostles to succeed them and who had received the laying on of hands as a sign of the power of the Apostles intended to confer on them. [p. 9] It is from these bishops that priests will receive their ordination and powers, by way of delegation and participation in the Bishop’s authority and spiritual gifts. From the 3rd century, we find that preaching, offering the holy Sacrifice and government are universally considered as pertaining to the Bishop as head of the Church, whilst the priests are only aids in the Episcopal ministry and deacons are there to relieve both bishops and priests of temporal needs and charitable works.

If one is to speak of Priesthood, then, as an ultimate Sacred Order, the term must apply firstly and fully to the Bishops and only indirectly, via them, to the priests who constitute a derived priesthood of the second order and who only exercise their priesthood in their Bishop’s name and because a portion of the Bishop’s flock has been delegated to them (…).

In speaking of the rites of Episcopal consecration and in describing those for the ordination of Bishops, priests and deacons, Pius XII, as we shall see later on, had already adopted this descending perspective in practice and had suggested its liberating implications.The Second Vatican Council reaped the fruits of Pius XII’s initiative and carried the theology of the episcopate to a stage of even greater development (…).

What has been effected in our times has been an admirable setting in order, and it needs saying. The Bishop is once more the true Minister of the Apostolate and all the other orders flow from his paternity. The Bishop is invested with the fullness of powers, which make of him a Christ within his diocese, the Spouse of His Church (…).


Christ chose twelve apostles, whom He sent out as preachers of the Gospel and priests and pastors of the Kingdom He planned to spread throughout the whole world. Did He invest them with supernatural powers for this mission and if so with what words and actions ? The fact of their being so invested is not open to discussion but the moment, the symbolic action and the words of this first ordination are.

Was it at the Last Supper when Christ commanded them : “ Do this in memory of Me ” (Lk 22 :19) which should be translated as “ Sacrifice henceforth as you recall Me so doing ” ? Was it the evening of the First Easter Sunday when Christ gave them the power of binding and loosing as He breathed on them : “ Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you shall forgive are forgiven them; whose sins you shall retain are retained ” (Jn 20 :22) ? Was it at the moment when He sent them out on the mission (Mt 28 :19) ? Or was it on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended upon them in the fullness of power ? (Ac 2 :4) All these hypotheses have been upheld and they all contain an element of the truth. (Lecuyer. R.J. 175-176).

It is better to leave that question undetermined lest we reduce the Apostles’ power to re-iterating the Sacrifice alone, to forgiving sins or to the preaching of the Gospel. Bellarmine extricated us from the difficulty by remarking that Jesus Christ was bound by no ritual form or sacramental matter and that He conferred the graces and powers (…).


In the Apostolic Tradition, which is the first ordination ceremonial known to us. we see that for every ordination of a deacon, a priest or a bishop there had to be a choice or election, then a laying on of hands followed by a consecratory prayer relevant to the degree of order being conferred. There are countless proofs of this being the only universal and obligatory rite.


The disadvantage of this profusion of rites is that it distracts attention away from essentials and fixes it on symbols, which distort the reality of the sacrament. So many ceremonies of purely material, symbols appear to impose the idea of a power coming through things and being exercised on things (…).


When Luther’s and Calvin’s criticism fell on all this ritualism, it obviously found ample matter for denigration. We are not prohibited from noting the correctness of such criticism bearing on many mediaeval works. In demolishing what was real and essential, the Reformers also brought down much that was useless and sometimes derisory. They made the dust fall.

The Reformers themselves would recognise only the laying on of hands, such as the Acts of the Apostles shows to have been the constant use in the Early Church when sending out Apostles on the mission as Ministers of the Word… And on that point how can they be proved wrong ?


With the approach of modern times, however, and with greater historical science and the sense of development there was bound to be a recovery of the essential. That was to be the work of very great minds; a precursor was Huguccio (Ott 137-138) and then in the Counter Reformation period Cardinal Bellarmine and Gonet and finally in the 17th century there was Dom Morin, the most remarkable initiator and founder of modern scientific historical liturgy. (Ott 360-361; 369).

The first and liberating principle of these Catholic reformers was as follows : Christ left the rites of the sacraments, other than those of Baptism and the Eucharist, in an indeterminate state and He gave the Church full authority to make sovereign decisions concerning them, in particular to determine their matter and form. It is for the Magisterium, therefore, to decide what is essential for the validity of each sacrament, to determine its substance by distinguishing it from secondary rites that are purely explanatory or for the purposes of solemnity and which duplicate the purely sacramental word and action (…).

The second principle concerning the method used in liturgical research was no longer to consider the sum total of tradition bequeathed by the centuries indiscriminately, but to distinguish innovations and local curiosities from the universal basis of the most ancient, traditions found in the Apostolic source, in order to reach the true tradition and there discern the essential rites of the sacraments.

Treated in this way, the liturgical books allow one to perceive what is the constant, important and universal usage in all ordinations beneath the accumulation of additional rites (…) : the laying on of hands. It defines another essence of the priesthood which is much wider and deeper than that signified by the tendering of the instruments or the anointing with oil


It was Pius XII who settled the matter once and for all by his magnificent decision which determined authoritatively the definitive, ancient and essential data of Tradition; that was his Apostolic Constitution Sacramentun Ordinis of November 30, 1947. The Sacrament of Order instituted by Christ is one single sacrament comprising the three degrees of Episcopate, Presbyterate and Diaconate; they alone constitute the Sacred Orders, the sacrament of which is conferred by the laying on of hands in silence followed by a prayer of consecration (…).

Vatican II subscribed fully to this doctrine and considered the Bishop to be the holder of the plenitude of the priesthood, with the presbyterate and then the diaconate as sharing in the bishop’s power. This doctrinal reform was to be followed by a restoration of the most traditional and purest Catholic liturgy. That is what the Post Conciliar Commission applied itself to and the fruit of their work is the new Roman Pontifical presented by Paul VI in his Apostolic Constitution Pontificalis Romani Recognitio on June 18, 1968. It is a considerable and even revolutionary return to the essential and to simplicity. It does not absolutely exclude the ceremonies that had been added in the course of the centuries but it places each of them in its right place (…). The simple and direct structure of the new Roman Pontifical is in three parts, as in their ancient form, for each ordination (…). The new consecratory prayer is modelled on the venerable formula of Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition, which is still in use in the East and is of great beauty and scriptural richness (…). I believe they will then share my admiration for this success which deserves a very long future.


Against this renovation of the Pontifical there has emerged a total opposition going so far as to denounce the new rites as invalid. There are two reasons for this distressing fact.

The first reason lies with a certain integrist tradition, which I had already denounced in my Letter to My Friends No. 151 of September 1963 wherein I singled out Integrism’s main shortcomings : they are wilful and concerted ignorance of the sciences, in particular of the historical sciences. Bossuet, Pius IX, Pius X and Pius XII, together with all that is most solid, firm, holy and intelligent in the Church have warned against this lazy confusion between what is modern and modernism, between science and scientism, reason and rationalism, development and evolution, progress and subversion. The New Pontifical’s opponents denounce it for its victorious intrusion (…). This accusation, however, does not hold good. It is a blend of dishonesty, ignorance and dogmatism that defeats analysis (…).

But the second reason for denouncing the new rites lies with the Post-conciliar Church. The fact is that the hierarchy have tolerated an unbelievable, organised obscuring of the nature of the priesthood and its powers touching precisely the consecration of the bread and wine, the offering of the Holy Sacrifice and remitting of sins. The two ceremonies that so movingly highlighted the relationship between the two powers in our thousand year old liturgy have been attenuated in the one case and suppressed in the other because they duplicated and seemed to eclipse the essential rite. We admit that...

The question now arises – and this is the second we shall leave in suspense – how is it that such an intelligent restoration of the ordination rites to their full truth and most expressive symbolism should have coincided with the gravest crisis the clergy has ever experienced in all its history : an identity crisis of the Catholic priesthood, a catastrophic vocations crisis, without in the least bringing those rites to a halt (…) ?


There is a way out of this distressing conflict of all or nothing, which is so disastrous for the clergy, by penetrating the mystery of the Catholic priesthood and in determining the exact nature of these divine powers which constitute both its grandeur and its humble merit.

The harm has come from a magical tendency to conceive of the priest’s power as something transmitted from man to man giving him power over things as instruments in action on spirits and gaining possession of souls (…). Now such a concept is but a caricature of the Christian priesthood. We know that it is not an irrational illuminism but a doctrinal Magisterium, nor is it a theocratic despotism but a pastoral ministry. Still less is it sorcery but a mysterious co-operation of man with God. What is that ?

This : the Bishop in the first place and the priests under his orders have no power over things to transform them and use as instruments in acting on souls. What they have is an Amical, Filial Power over the Will of God, Who ties Himself to them and their work and is bound up with them. Thus God wills what they will and speaks through their very words. He does what they say in accordance with the rites they carry out. When they baptise it is God Who justifies the infidel; when they pronounce the consecration it is Christ Who takes hold of the bread and wine to make them His Body and Blood; when they forgive sins and bless marriages it is God Who sends His Holy Spirit following the gifts asked for and given in the consecratory prayer. God’s servant is effaced and disappears at the sublime moment of becoming God’s co-operator. What is he then ? He is a mediator; he infallibly unleashes a divine work of which he is the instrument. The work has to be done by means of his powerful word and action, but it is Christ Who operates and not Peter or Paul or Apollos...

Thus conceived, the priesthood is both ministry and power without contradiction. It is both service and authority; the Gift of the Spirit and the character of a consecrated man whereby the priest is established above other men and yet is the lowest among them. The priesthood in all its fullness is that of the Bishop and pre-eminently that of the Sovereign Pontiff, who is the first among them and our dear Christ on earth (…).


The Bishop is another Christ; firstly in the fullness of the priesthood he is the Mediator between God and His special people; he is Mediator through the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the celebration of which belongs to him for the renewal of the Alliance and the sanctification of His Church. In this act the fullness of his priesthood shines most vividly because he there renews, in the Person and Name of Christ, the Alliance with God thrice holy of the local church, His spouse, whose unique head and pastor he is as well as unique and legitimate spouse.

Thus identified with Christ through episcopal consecration and wedded to his people by the designation and particular gift of it made by the Pope to him, the Bishop exercises all the powers necessary for the care of his flock by virtue of this Sacrament of the Alliance.


In the first place preaching, in which he will be helped by devout lay people who are confirmed and chosen as porters, readers, chanters and animators in order to convene the Assembly in the Bishop’s name and to celebrate God’s Word. He will ordain deacons and catechists in order to teach and preach doctrine with him and under his control.

In the second place distributing the sacraments to build up, fortify and sanctify the living Church through Baptism and Confirmation, which the Bishop cannot do alone without the help of priests ordained by him for a share in his ministry and a share in his powers to the extent of being entrusted with a portion of the flock to care for – the parishes (…).

In the third place, there is the government of the Catholic Christian community, with the aid of the parish clergy and the priests of his presbyterium, by decreeing laws, fixing sanctions and inflicting penalties but more especially by aiding, consoling and encouraging the entire holy people, each according to his supernatural needs, as pastor and father of all (…).


It is certain that in fact the seven degrees of order have been dismembered these last ten years; doctrinally they have been dismembered for four centuries and in the reality and practice of the Church for fifteen centuries. This means that the symbolic number of seven is not to be regretted; so what will the new disposition be (…) ?


What were called the minor orders could be restored not as inferior degrees of the priesthood but as superior developments of Confirmation. For them to have a practical value, it would suffice that they be held as a function conferred by the Bishop locally and temporarily, thus putting the power of Confirmation into effect, accompanied by a sacramental rite of official recognition and simple blessing (…).

These inferior ministers would make up the ranks of the Church’s Non Commissioned Officers. Thus re-established, these charisms would visibly flourish, as is generally hoped today, in the form of catechists, infirmarians, almoners, alms-collectors, sacristans, teachers, bell ringers – why not ? – gravediggers, and so on, as various as all the different subordinate functions of a great city, of our Holy City, the New Jerusalem !


As for the Priesthood, its restoration is well on the way along the three lines we have just studied : the redistribution of the Sacred Orders; their consecratory rites; the definition of their powers. These constitute the Church’s Senior Officers and Generals. When the Modernist heresy has been cast out together with the progressivist non sense of the cult of man, service of the people and democratic representation poisons which were injected into Vatican II’s constitution Lumen Gentium (CRC No. 52, Eng. Ed. No. 23) – but to be cast out by a restorative Vatican III, then practical renewal can easily be made by the very force of life which is that of the Roman Church’s indefectible hierarchy. How and in what directions (…) ?

Vatican III will have priests enter the ranks of the Church’s Officers, as members by Order of the teaching, sanctifying and governing Church. Instead of keeping priests, by right, in a passive state of submission as part of the taught Church, the Bishop will have them work as collaborators in the priestly ministry and consider them no longer as hired servants but as friends. Thus the notion and reality of the “ presbyterium ” will be restored and recovered. The presbyterium is as old as the Church but it now needs exorcising of the democratic and class-warfare poison.

Such is the Sacrament of Order and such it will be tomorrow for the Church to be extended to all mankind. All that would be necessary is for the “ sacerdotal pyramid ” to be aware of and always willing for God’s service and the salvation of souls but not for the service of men in their project of rebellion against God.

Fr. Georges de Nantes