Holy Orders

Latin: ordo, rank

A sacrament of the New Law, instituted by Christ, by which spiritual power is given and grace is conferred for the performance of sacred duties. There are seven orders in the Latin Church: four minor, acolyte, exorcist, reader, and porter; and three major, or sacred orders, subdeacon, deacon, and priest. Since the episcopate is the fullness and the perfection of the priesthood, it is included in the priesthood. Though there are seven orders, there is but one Sacrament of Holy Orders. Three orders are of Divine institution, the episcopate, the priesthood, and the diaconate, and produce grace ex opere operato. Bishops are superior to priests and have greater power, while priests are in turn superior to deacons. The remaining orders are of ecclesiastical institution.


For minor orders, the instruments whose use is commanded by the Roman Pontifical are the matter; the words pronounced by the minister as the ordinandus touches the instruments, are the form. For the subdiaconate, the instruments used, i.e., paten and chalice, and the book of the Epistles, are the matter; the words, pronounced by the minister as he offers the instruments to the ordinandus, are the form. For the diaconate, the matter is the imposition of the right hand of the bishop on the head of the ordinandus; the words, “Receive the Holy Ghost,” spoken by tle bishop as he conforms the above action, are the form. There are two opinions regarding the matter and form of the priesthood and the episcopate. For the priesthood, some contend that the matter is the first imposition of hands made by the bishop; while the form is the prayer and the preface immediately following, as found in the Roman Pontifical. Others hold that the imposition of hands together with the giving of the instruments constitute the matter; while the form is the words pronounced by the bishop at the imposition of hands and the giving of the instruments. For the episcopate some authorities declare that the essential matter is the imposition of hands made by the consecrating bishop; and the prayer pronounced by the bishop as he imposes hands is the form. Others claim that the partial or total matter is the imposition of the book of the Gospels on the shoulders of the conseorandus, while the form is the words “Receive the Holy Ghost,” pronounced as this action is performed. In practise whatever is prescribed by the Church in ordination must be observed; thus in this, as in other sacraments, the Church insists, that anything omitted, must be supplied.


The effects of the minor orders and the subdiaconate are to confer spiritual power, enabling the recipient to discharge the duties and offices proper to each individual order. The effects of the diaconate and of the major orders are the supernatural effects proper to a sacrament:

  • the increase of sanctifying grace as befits a sacrament of the living
  • sacramental grace, i.e., the right to actual graces so that the Divine Office and its obligations can be rightly fulfilled
  • an indelible character imprinted on the soul (according to the more common opinion, each of the above orders im- prints a new character on the soul, distinct one from the other)
  • the bestowal of spiritual power, enabling the recipient to discharge the sacred offices, i.e., empowering priests to consecrate, to administer the sacraments, to preach, etc., the bishop to be the ordinary minister of Confirmation, to ordain, to consecrate, and the deacon to chant the Gospel, etc.


The ordinary minister of a valid ordination is a consecrated bishop; the extraordinary minister can be a priest who obtains the power to confer some orders, either from law or Apostolic indult, e.g., a cardinal or an abbot nullius can confer first tonsure and the minor orders. The minister of episcopal consecration is a bishop, who is assisted by two other bishops; the Holy See can dispense from the need of co-consecrating bishops. Only a baptized male is capable of receiving Holy Orders; also there is required in the adult recipient, an habitual intention of receiving the sacrament. For lawful ordination, the Church demands that the candidate is of due age and knowledge, is free from irregularity and excommunication, is of good life, and shows signs of a vocation, and finally that the interstices are observed, i.e., that the candidate for the priesthood shall receive and exercise the various orders, both minor and major, which precede the priesthood.