The Sacrament of Holy Orders: Definition, History & Symbols

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  • 0:01 The Sacrament of Holy Orders
  • 1:09 The History of Holy Orders
  • 3:10 Three Levels of Holy Orders
  • 4:51 The Symbols of Holy Orders
  • 5:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

This lesson discusses the Sacrament of Holy Orders, which is one of seven Catholic sacraments. In this lesson, you will learn what it is, its early history, and the symbols associated with it.

The Sacrament of Holy Orders

In Christianity, members of the church receive different sacraments, or sacred rites, that mark an important religious milestone. In the Catholic Church, there are seven sacraments:

  1. Baptism
  2. Reconciliation, or confession
  3. Communion
  4. Confirmation
  5. Matrimony, or marriage
  6. Holy orders
  7. Anointing of the sick

Of the seven sacraments, all Catholics may be baptized, confess their sins, receive the Eucharist (or communion), become confirmed members of the Church, and receive the anointing of the sick when they are very sick or close to death. Marriage and holy orders, however, are a different story. Not all Catholics will get married and not all Catholics will receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

The Sacrament of Holy Orders is when a member of the Church is ordained, or accepts the responsibilities of a spiritual leader in the church. To become ordained, you must be both a man and a baptized member of the Church. As a leader of the Church, ordained individuals are responsible for spreading the word of the Gospel and for making the other sacraments available to members of the Church.

The History of Holy Orders

The Sacrament of Holy Orders has grown and changed over the past 2,000 years. The Catholic Church wasn't the first religion to invent or use priests. The Old Testament, known as the Torah in the Jewish religion or the first half of the Bible for Christians, discusses the role of priests in the Jewish community. Priests were not officially ordained. Instead, they were called upon to fulfill a responsibility based on their tribe or family, and their status as the head of a family or household.

Deacons, priests, and bishops as we know them today, began at the Last Supper. According to Christian beliefs, Jesus Christ gathered his apostles and had one final meal before being sentenced to death. The apostles were Christ's closest and most devoted followers.

At the Last Supper, Christ gave the apostles certain rights and authority to continue to spread the word of God after he ascended into heaven. The apostles had the authority to govern, sanctify, and teach. In other words, they were allowed to create and enforce rules for the Church, forgive sins on behalf of Jesus Christ, and to tell others about the Church's message and important lessons from God.

The apostles were effectively the first bishops. Unlike the Jewish tradition of the priesthood, the Last Supper created what's called the ministerial priesthood where, instead of religious responsibilities coming from your family status, ministerial priests were chosen and ordained because of their dedication to spreading the word of God and teaching the followers of the Church. They then began to pass on the authority to other individuals who they ordained as bishops or priests.

Deacons became an important part of the Church during this time as well. Early deacons were men, and sometimes women, who were active in their communities and could help spread the word of God. Many deacons became assistants to the bishops and helped them with their ministerial responsibilities.

Over time, the Sacrament of Holy Orders evolved to include three degrees of special leadership that created a hierarchy, or system of organization.

Three Levels of Holy Orders

The Sacrament of Holy Orders is unique and different from the other six Catholic sacraments because it is given in degrees or levels. The three levels of the Sacrament of Holy Orders are the diaconate, the priesthood and the episcopate.

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