The Clergy, Holy Orders, and Apostolic Succession
When we speak of the Clergy of the Church, we are referring to those men who have been set apart by the Church via the Sacrament of Holy Orders, for service to God’s faithful people and who minister at the Altar; who share in the Sacred Ministry, Work and Priesthood of our Lord Jesus Christ making Him present every day in the Sacrament of the Altar and in the hearts of His people; who are charged with making the “good news” of the Gospel known to all men, in all lands, and at all times; who minister not in their own names or by their own authority, but rather who minister in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and by His Divine authority via the Great Commission as recorded in the Gospel of Saint Matthew, Chapter 28, Verses 16-20:
“Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them. And when they saw Him, they worshiped Him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying: All power is given unto Me in heaven and in the earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.”
THE SACRAMENT OF HOLY ORDERS
The Sacrament of Holy Orders is the sacrament of the Sacred Ministry. It is via this sacrament that a man is formally set apart by ordination and is given the grace of God to minister in God’s name and by His authority to the people placed in his sacred charge and whose souls have been placed into his care. As such a responsibility is so grave a matter and the souls of countless of the faithful are committed to his care, the priest undergoes a long and intense training and instruction to prepare him for such an undertaking. He progresses through several stages during this time of preparation. At various intervals along the way, he receives a greater share in the ministry he will one day possess.
The first step in the long road to the Sacred Priesthood is known as the First Clerical Tonsure. By this non-sacramental ceremony, in which five locks of hair are cut in the form of a cross from the head of the soon-to-be cleric, he formally is enrolled as a member of the clergy and begins his formal studies.
At various intervals, over the course of his studies, the candidate will receive what is called the Minor Orders. These minor ordinations do not constitute a formal part of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, but rather assist the candidate to prepare himself for Sacred Ordination by charging him with the duties which in former times were exercised by clerics bearing these title and offices. These Minor Orders are: the Ostiariate or Porter, charged with safeguarding the church and its contents and for calling the people to Divine Services; the Lectorate or Lector who is charged with performing some of the sacred readings used during the Mass and other services of the Church, and is also permitted to to bless certain objects for the use of the faithful; the Exorcistate or Exorcist, who were formerly permitted to cast out devils from the faithful and to warn non-communicants to make way for communicants as the approached the altar to receive Holy Communion; the Acolythate or Acolyte who was charged with the candles and lights of the Church and was to assist the clergy at the altar by serving the Mass and by presenting the water and wine at the Offertory of the Mass. As the candidate for the Priesthood approaches his final two years of study, he is customarily ordained to the Subdiaconate or as Subdeacon. Once regarded as a Major Order and one to which several strict obligations (celibacy and the daily recitation of the Divine Office) were attached as well as great privileges (vesting in the sacred vestments and serving at the altar as the assistant to the Deacon and the Celebrant of the Mass) it is now usually listed as the last and the greatest of the Minor Orders, as only the Diaconate, the Priesthood and the Episcopate are considered as Scripturally based and founded, though their duties certainly date back to Gospel times.
The Major or Sacred Orders lead directly to the service of the altar and to the Priesthood. The first Major Order received is the Diaconate or Deacon. This Sacred Order is found in the Book of Acts 6: 1-6. The Deacon assists at the altar, is permitted to distribute Holy Communion, to Baptize, to preach and in some instances, with special permission of his Bishop, he may also exercise the pastoral care of souls. The first seven deacons selected by the Apostles as recorded in the Scriptures were: Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas.
At the conclusion of his studies, the candidate for the Priesthood is ordained to the Presbyterate or Sacred Priesthood of Jesus Christ. The priest is charged with the duties of offering the Sacrifice of the Mass and consecrating the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of the Lord for Holy Communion, to preside at liturgical services, to preach, to baptize, to forgive sins, to anoint the sick, to unite in marriage and to assist the dying to make their final peace with God and to prepare the faithful for their final journey into Christ. They are formally charged with the care of souls of those faithful who are placed into the spiritual care.
Apostolic Succession is the doctrinal teaching and the means by which the ministry and authority of the Christian Church is understood and affirmed to be derived from the original Twelve Apostles by means of a continuous succession, without interruption or change, through a direct line of bishops throughout the centuries down to the present time; by which today’s clergy continue in the same Apostolic Commission, transmit the same Apostolic Teaching and perpetuate the same Apostolic Ministry, and exercise the same Apostolic Authority first bestowed upon the Twelve by Christ Himself and by which means guarantees a direct, continuous, authoritative and essential link to the commission and ministry of the Twelve and thus to Christ Himself.
For Catholics, this understanding of Apostolic Succession grace is transmitted during episcopal consecrations (the ordination of bishops) by the laying on of hands of bishops previously consecrated within the Apostolic Succession. This lineage of ordination is traceable back to the original Twelve Apostles, thus making the Church the continuation of the early Apostolic Christian community. It is one of four Marks of the Church (One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic) which define the true Church of Jesus Christ and legitimizes the ministry of its clergy, as only a bishop within the succession can perform legitimate or valid ordinations. Furthermore, only bishops and priests ordained by bishops in the apostolic succession can validly celebrate several of the sacraments: Penance (the absolution of the sins of penitents), Confirmation (impart the gifts of the Holy Ghost and confirm the baptismal covenant), Holy Unction (anointing of the sick), Holy Orders, (ordination to the sacred ministry) or confect (i.e. consecrate) the Eucharist into the Body and Blood of Christ.