The Sacrament of Holy Orders is unique among the seven sacraments, in that it has three distinct but related “degrees” or levels. Other sacraments can be repeated, such as Eucharist and Penance, but the Church does not really speak about “repeating” the sacrament of Holy Orders. Rather, a man receives ordination, which confers another degree of the sacrament. The three degrees of Holy Orders are the diaconate, the priesthood, and the episcopacy. Men in the episcopacy are called “bishops.”
The first degree of Holy Orders is known as the order of deacons, or the diaconate. Deacons are usually married men who have full-time careers, but are ordained to official ministry in the Church in both the liturgy and in parish life. The word “deacon” comes from the Greek word for “service.” In the Acts of the Apostles, the deacons were entrusted with the burden of the administration of food and money when it became overwhelming for the apostles. Today, deacons assist the priest at Mass, preach, celebrate baptisms and weddings, visit the sick, among many of forms of service to God’s people.
Priests are celibate men (although there are some married priests) who have been called by Christ to continue his ministry on earth through the celebration of the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Penance. Priests remain celibate in imitation of Jesus himself, who was unmarried in order to more clearly be the image of the Bridegroom, wedded to the Catholic Church. Priests usually spend a year in ministry as a deacon before being ordained priests. However, they never cease to be deacons sacramentally.
Bishops receive the fullness of the sacrament of Holy Orders. There are provisions laid out in Canon Law for the process of choosing priests to become bishops. Every few years, a bishop of a diocese submits a list of names of priests to the pope’s delegate. In the bishop’s judgment, these priests would be good candidates to become a bishop. When a bishop dies or retires, the pope’s delegate will begin the search for a new bishop from the names of priests which have been submitted. Confidential questionnaires may be sent out to people who know these candidates so that a full profile can be submitted to the Vatican. From there, a committee of bishops will put forth the three best candidates for the pope to choose a new bishop for the diocese. This entire process is extremely confidential, and a priest may not know he is under consideration until he gets a phone call, asking him to become a bishop. In the past, the practice of careerism, or priests jockeying to become a bishop, has been a problem. The Church clearly wants to avoid any careerism or even an appearance of careerism. In fact, it seems that the opposite has become true today.
It is widely known among priests that being a bishop is an extremely difficult calling and a very heavy burden to carry. Even St. Paul, as one of the first bishops, said, “there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28). Imagine having the responsibility for the salvation of hundreds of thousands, sometimes even millions, of both Catholics and non-Catholics in your diocese. Being the chief shepherd of a diocese is certainly a huge responsibility. I have heard being a bishop described as a “living crucifixion” because of the constant criticism which inevitably comes from the media, priests, and parishioners. Because of this, some priests turn down the request to become a bishop. However, as with any calling that comes from God, we can trust that God will sustain those who are faithful to him. Faithfulness to God is a source of a great joy that even the heaviest burdens cannot take away. Those who have received the sacrament of Holy Orders are set apart for a special service of God’s people. Let us keep our bishop, priests, and deacons in our prayers so that they may remain faithful to Christ, who called them to share in his ministry.