A reflection on the meaning of holy orders


By Father Bud Grant

The basis of “holy orders” in the Church is the holiness of all Creation, all life, all humanity and all baptized Catholics. So, what is “holy?”

The Greek hagios (άγιος) means devoted, sacred, pious, pure. In Latin, it is “sacer,” the root of “sacerdos” (priest), “sacrum” (consecrated) and “sanctus” (holy one or saint). In the New Testa­ment, “holy” mostly refers to the Holy Spirit. It also refers to God, angels, prophets or Jerusalem. More rarely, it refers to Jesus, disciples and martyrs.

In the Hebrew Bible, everything (places, names, persons, numbers, colors, minerals, calendar dates, etc.) exists on a spectrum between the “holy of holies” (the Temple) and the profane (literally, “outside the temple”). But — and this is really important — all things are holy (טוֹב, “tov,” “good”) because they are created by God (Gen. 1:1-27). Evil, or the “unholy,” is simply the absence of good (Aquinas, QDM 1.1).


When considering holiness, I first think of the Eucharist. At the consecration my prayer is “if this is not holy, nothing is holy. Because this is holy, all things are holy.” The real presence of the body and blood of Jesus Christ, through the matter of bread and wine, sacrilizes all of creation anew (Rom. 8: 19-22). The Catholic understanding of holy orders begins here.

Every baptized daughter or son of God is holy (sacer) and, in that sense, a priest (sacerdos). Our common priesthood is not replaced by ordained priests. When I was in high school, before going out for the evening, my best friend’s mother always sprinkled both of us with holy water. She was exercising her sacerdotal power over her son and even her son’s friend. It worked (mostly).

Ordained priesthood is the last of the “holy orders” to be recognized in the early Church. The apostles and then, through apostolic succession, their successor “bishops” (episcopi: επισκόπους, “overseers”) selected men and women to be “servants” (deacons: διακόνους) of God (Acts 6:1-6). Yes, women were ordained to serve at the eucharistic table. They also ministered to women at baptism (which required nakedness), birth giving and other intimate sacramental moments. Male deacons served their bishop in a variety of ministries. Priests finally appear, out of practical necessity, representing the bishop in a quickly growing Church.

So, exaggerating the “holiness” of priestly orders is dangerous. We are part of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-27). We, too, are sinners (1 Tim. 1:12). Toxic clericalism inverts the witness and the command of Jesus at the Last Supper (Jn. 13) and that “whoever wishes to be first shall be your slave” (Mt. 20:25-28). The Holy Thursday ritual is a stark reminder to clerics and laity that priests are the lowliest, not the greatest, in the Kingdom of God. During the Eucharist, the presiding priest prays for “X our pope, Y our bishop…”. Bishops say “X our pope and me your unworthy servant.” When Pope John Paul II came to Iowa, I heard him pray, “For me, your most unworthy servant…” I was shocked: thousands had come to see the pope! Then I got it: “Yes. No one is worthy to consecrate the body and blood of Christ or represent him to the ‘λαός’ (Laos: laity).” We shouldn’t have come to see the Holy Father, but, first, to encounter Christ.

What can be said of ordained priesthood? First, it is awesome. In Jesus’s name, I baptize, wed, anoint and, in a pinch, confirm and even absolve sins. Most frighteningly, the community uses my hands to consecrate the body and blood of Christ. Further, I have the awful duty of breaking the body of Christ before the entire community. Perhaps this doesn’t strike my fellow priests (the lay ones anyway) as notable, but think about it: in the name of the people of God, I break the consecrated host. It is as if I am a crucifier. I have a prayer to get me through that moment. “It is only by your being broken that we are made whole.” This is to say that the body of Christ, broken on the cross, is the means of our salvation. That breaking, as awful as it is, reminds us of Christ’s brokenness and of our brokenness. That realization, alone, is salvific.

Your priest is no more or less holy than you, nor is he called to be. He can’t lift that broken bread without your prayers. We serve you; we need each other.

(Father Bud Grant is professor of Theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport and the director of the Academy for the Study of St. Ambrose of Milan. He serves as sacramental minister at St. Andrew Parish in Blue Grass and St. Mary Parish in Wilton.)

Support The Catholic Messenger’s mission to inform, educate and inspire the faithful of the Diocese of Davenport – and beyond! Subscribe to the print and/or e-edition, or make a one-time donation, today!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Posted on