When meeting someone for the first time, I always enjoy trying to figure out where they are from. Sometimes, the mention of a favorite food will give them away. But more often, their dialect will. One website notes that there are more than twenty active dialects in the United States. Included among them are: Coastal Southern, New England Eastern, New England Western, and Southwestern. As an inhabitant of Michigan, my dialect is classified as Chicago Urban. While these classifications are helpful in describing the present inhabitants of a 247- year-old nation, have you ever considered the lineage of your local bishop, priest, or deacon? Similar to the way we might research our own family tree at Ancestry.com, Catholic clergy have been ordained by someone, who in turn was ordained by someone else, and so forth. With ample time on your hands to continue playing this game, you would find yourself entering a time machine that would take you—-way back!
So let’s enter.
Scriptural and Historical Foundations
In Sacred Scripture, numerous verses within the New Testament build solid support for the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
Acts 6:6 (“They presented these men to the Apostles who prayed and laid hands on them.”) is a reference given for the ordination of deacons. Later, in Acts 14:23 (“They appointed presbyters for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, commended them to the Lord in whom they had put their faith.”), we find a commonly used verse for the ordination of priests. Other important verses include 2 Tim 1:6 and 1 Tim 4:14 (imposition of hands), 1 Tim 3:1-13 (bishops and deacons), and Titus 1:5-9 (bishops and presbyters). The priesthood is established in Lk 22:19 and 1 Cor 11:24. Finally, apostolic succession may be found in Acts 1:20-26.
In his classic work, Fundamentals of Catholic Doctrine, Ludwig Ott provides saintly “proofs” of Holy Orders from Church Tradition:
St. Gregory of Nyssa compares the consecration of priests to the consecration of the Eucharist: “The same power of the word makes the priest also sublime and venerable, marked off from the crowd by the rarity of consecration. As to the outside he remains the same as he was, but by an invisible power and grace his invisible soul has been changed for the better.” (pp. 449, see Or. In baptismum Christi)
St. Augustine compares the consecration of priests to Baptism: “Both are Sacraments and both are administered to man with a certain consecration; the former when he is baptized; the latter when he is ordained; thus in the Catholic Church neither can be repeated.” (pp.450, see Contra ep. Parmeniani II 13, 28)
In addition, sayings from Sts. Cyprian and Hippolytus, Ecclesiastical Canons from the 4th Century, and the Ecumenical Council of Trent are also helpful:
“He cannot have the ordination of the Church who does not hold the unity of the Church.” (St. Cyprian: Letters, 51, 8., With regard to the consecration of Bishops, 3rd Century)
“For the presbyter has authority only for this one thing, to receive. But he has no authority to give Holy Orders. Wherefore he does not ordain a man to orders, but by laying on hands at the ordination of a presbyter he only blesses [ lit. seals], while the bishop ordains.” (St. Hippolytus: The Apostolic Tradition, 9., 3rd Century)
“Let a bishop be ordained by two or three bishops, a presbyter by one bishop, as also a deacon, and the rest of the clergy.” (Ecclesiastical Canons of the Holy Apostles, 1-2, 4th Century)
“If any one saith that in the Catholic Church there is not a hierarchy by divine ordination instituted, consisting of bishops, priests, and ministers (deacons); let him be anathema.” (Council of Trent, Session 23, Canon 6, July 15, 1563)
Speaking in regards to Orders and Apostolic Succession, St. Clement of Rome, the 3rd successor to St. Peter, wrote:
“The Apostles received the Gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ was God’s ambassador. Thus Christ is sent from God and the apostles from Christ; both these dispositions originated in an orderly way from God’s will. Having thus received their mandate and fully convinced by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and committed to the Word of God, they went forth with the full assurance of the Holy Spirit, announcing the good news that the Kingdom of God was close at hand. Preaching from country to country and from city to city, they established some of their first followers as “episkopoi” and “diakonoi” of the future believers, after having tested them by the Spirit. Similarly our Apostles knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be dissensions over the title of bishop. In their full foreknowledge of this, therefore, they proceeded to appoint the ministers I spoke of, and they went on to add instruction that if they should fall asleep, other accredited persons should succeed them in their office.” ( The Christian Faith, Neuner & DuPuis, 7th edition, 2001, pp. 720.)
Hierarchical Character and Purpose
In our day, the Catechism of the Catholic Church continues to clarify our understanding of hierarchy:
“The divinely instituted ecclesiastical ministry is exercised in different degrees by those who even from ancient times have been called bishops, priests, and deacons. Catholic doctrine, expressed in the liturgy, the Magisterium, and the constant practice of the Church, recognizes that there are two degrees of ministerial participation in the priesthood of Christ: the episcopacy and the presbyterate. The diaconate is intended to help and serve them. Yet Catholic doctrine teaches that the degrees of priestly participation (episcopate and presbyterate) and the degree of service (diaconate) are all three conferred by a sacramental act called ordination.” (#1554)
“The Sacrament of Holy Orders like Baptism and Confirmation, confers an indelible spiritual character and cannot be repeated or conferred temporarily.” (#1582)
In his Essential Catholic Handbook of the Sacraments (Liguori, 2001, pp. 102-103), Thomas Santa further describes these offices.
As pertains to bishops (episkopoi), they: possess the fullness of Holy Orders; are the visible representative of Christ; and possess the office of teacher, shepherd, and priest.
As pertains to priests (presbyters), they: are understood as co-workers of the episcopal order; and realize the fullness of their ordination when they function as the celebrant of the Eucharist, the sacrifice of the Mass.
As pertains to deacons (diakonia), they: share in the Sacrament of Holy Orders, but more specifically are ordained to ministry- not priesthood; and assist the bishop and priest in the celebration of the Eucharist, proclaim the gospel and preach, preside over funerals, baptize solemnly, and witness and bless marriages.
Apostolic Succession is the Key
With regard to the validity of Holy Orders, the Catholic Church maintains that for one to receive Holy Orders, a bishop in apostolic succession must ordain them.
In the 16th century, this was made clear during the 23rd session of The Council of Trent. Regarding the Doctrine on the Sacrament of Orders (1563), Canon #7 states:
“If anyone says that bishops are not superior to priests; or that they do not have the power to confirm and ordain, or that the power they have is common both to them and to priests; or if anyone says that Orders conferred by them without the consent or call of the people or of the civil power are invalid; or that those who have neither been rightly ordained by ecclesiastical and canonical authority nor sent by it, but come from some other source, are lawful ministers of the word and of the sacraments, anathema sit.”
Three-hundred years later, a famous dubium (doubt) regarding the validity of Protestant ordinations arose during the papacy of Leo XIII. In his Bull, Apostolicae Curae on Anglican Ordinations (1896), the pope declared:
“Anglican ordinations are to be considered invalid because of a double defect of form and intention: the new rites did not mention adequately the offices of bishops and priests; the changes had been introduced with the explicit intention of excluding the idea of a sacrificial ministerial priesthood exercised in the Eucharist.”
In issuing this document, Pope Leo intended to “give a final judgment and to completely settle the matter.” (Neuner & DuPuis, The Christian Faith, 2001, pp. 727-728).
Who Ordained your Bishop?
In closing, an unofficial website called CatholicHierarchy.org was created some years ago that provides valuable information regarding today’s bishops. While this site is not capable of tracing each bishop’s lineage back to the Apostles, you should know that somewhere within the Vatican walls, there are probably ancient and dusty documents that can.
Despite the paperwork bottleneck, the bottom line is this: The next time you speak with a bishop, remember that like the Apostles, he is not perfect. He is, however, a true successor of the Apostles. A rather divinely-given gift, don’t you think?