Holy Orders: Historical Origins, Development, and Institution by Christ

This article is the start of a series on the Sacrament of Holy Orders. I would like to spend time this issue focusing on the origins and historical development of the priesthood, and its institution by Christ in the form of the Sacrament of Holy Order. While some of this history may seem unrelated or arcane, it is not: It provides us a fuller understanding of the priesthood, which is made present by a special sacrament called Holy Orders.



Two Priests Walk Into a Church…

“Is there a doctor in the house?” yells a man. Another man steps forward and says, “I’m a doctor. I have a doctorate in history.” The first man says, “No! I need a doctor doctor.” The problem laid out in this dialog above is the problem we have when talking about the priesthood. So, let’s start by clarifying some language: In Catholic dogma there are two types of priesthood: There is the “common priesthood” of all the Baptized (faithful) which is “exercised by the unfolding of baptismal grace --a life of faith, hope, and charity, a life according to the Spirit” (CCC #1547). That’s absolutely correct and true. But when people talk about the “priests” and the “priesthood,” they are rarely talking about that common priesthood; they are almost always talking about ordained (or ministerial) priesthood. In that regard, in this article, when I speak of priesthood, it is that ministerial priesthood to which I refer.

Let us also be clear about the distinctions between these two priesthoods. The Church teaches that the ordained priesthood differs in kind from the common priesthood – not merely in degree, but in the essence of what it is. The priesthood confers a sacred power on a man, by virtue of his ordination, for the service of the faithful; that man is changed on the very level of his being. The Priest exercises his sacred power for the People of God by ministerial authority for teaching, sanctification, and pastoral governance.


Back to the Future

To understand more fully all of the nuances regarding the priesthood, we must step into the Way Back Machine and set the dials to late 2nd millennium B.C. There we will meet the priestly Tribe of Levi (not blue jean maker, but the Levitical priests of ancient Judaism). What do they have to do with this topic? Well, according to the Catechism the ministerial priesthood of the Church is actually modeled after the Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament.


Thank Aaron

Just like the common priesthood of all believers that I mentioned at the outset, the people of Israel were all in a “common priesthood” – they formed a “kingdom of priests.” However, God established a special, ministerial, priesthood from one of the twelve tribes of Israel, the Tribe of Levi.  From this tribe, God chose Aaron (brother of Moses) and his male descendants to be His priests.  Within the ranks of the Levitcal priesthood, certain priests would be singled out to be of higher-standing; those men each carried the creative title, “High Priest.” The remaining men in the tribe of Levi would be in service to the priests and the High Priests. Also worthy to be noted, the priests in the Old Testament (unlike priests in the Catholic tradition) were priests by heredity – as mentioned they were descendents of Aaron, and as such they were priests. Thus for them, priesthood wasn’t a call, answered from love, but an obligation handed down by their parents (kind of like being an Osmond).


Duty Calls

The duties of the Levitical priesthood included: the teaching of the Law, offering the sacrifices, maintaining the Tabernacle and the Temple, officiating in the Holy Place, inspecting ceremonially unclean persons, they adjudicated disputes, and they functioned as tax collectors (yes, this is where the beautiful origin of the collection plate came from).

So, you may be asking – as you hit Wayback Machine overload – what the heck does all that mean? Well, since the Church understands the Catholic priesthood as modeled on the Levitical priesthood, it is fair to assert that there are connections that can be identified. This is not to say one is a direct growth from the other, but rather that one foreshadowed the other. Kind of like “The Godfather” and “The Godfather II” – the sequel can well stand alone, and was even better made than the original, but there are many, many points of connection. This might well be the case for the Levitical priest of the Old Testament and the Catholic priesthood, today. It could be posited, for example, that a prefiguration of the threefold structure of the Sacrament of Holy Order in the Catholic Church can be seen in that Old Testament priesthood:

  • the High Priest seen as the overseer, may be likened to a Bishop;
  • the sons and male descendent of Aaron, were the Priests;
  • the remaining male Levites who assisted the priests, may be likened to Deacons.

In any case the Church herself makes this connection in a prayer used during the ministration of the Sacrament of Holy Orders: “You established a threefold ministry of worship and service for the glory of your name. As ministers of your tabernacle you chose the sons of Levi and gave them your blessing as their everlasting inheritance.”



What’s New (Testament)?

In the New Testament, the High Priest is Jesus Christ, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us ad infinitum. But wait! Jesus belongs to the tribe of Judah, not Levi. Doesn’t that eliminate him from being any kind of “priest” or “High Priest” at all? What’s cooking here? Well, in fact, the Letter to the Hebrews clearly states that Jesus is the High Priest – but with a nuance, and deals with the Book of Genesis and a dude named, Melchizedek. You see, Jesus who is seen as the new Adam – the new beginning – goes “Back to the Egg” (to quote the title of an arcane Paul McCartney album) in terms of priesthood; he goes back to the priesthood we saw in Genesis. Jesus is a priest according to the order of Melchizedek; first referenced in Genesis. This was the original priesthood of the Old Testament, established long before God had to designate the Levi tribe for that role. In other words, to use a KFC analogy, Christ’s priesthood is “original recipe;” it is superior to that of the Levitical priesthood, as it is the primordial priesthood. Thus the Church teaches that Melchizedek was a priest of God and prefiguration of the priesthood of Christ.


Command, Performance

So, certain men of the tribe of Levi were the priests of Israel, and Jesus is High Priest. So what, you may say. How does any of this lead us to tubby Fr. Barcolounger in St. Cunnegunda’s parish today? What’s the connection? Good questions, indeed! You see, Jesus was not merely the High Priest, who did his thing and ascended home. No, he set up shop here and established the priesthood – the ministerial priesthood – at the Last Supper. It was there he gave the command to his Apostles, “do this in memory of me.” He later, in John’s Gospel, gives the authority to forgive sin to those same Apostles. Earlier on he had given Peter the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven – that is, he gave him to bind and loose: to exercise Christ’s (God’s) authority on earth. And, as Christ knew he’d be leaving, he left behind a hierarchical model of Church to continue his work.  And so, the Bishops and their co-workers, the Priests, exercise by Christ’s command the powers of Governance (leading the flock), Sanctification (keeping the flock holy) and Teaching (instructing others in the way of God’s truth).


Was Christ a Carpenter?

The Pop duo, The Carpenters, had a hit album in the mid-1970s entitled, “Then and Now.” Side-two of that album featured an 18-minute medley of hits of 1950s and early 1960s, sandwiched between bookend versions of their hit “Yesterday Once More.” The overarching mood of this lengthy piece was that what was sung in the past can be made new again, for a new generation.  This was done with accuracy and respect for the tradition from which this music came. And it did make it new for a new generation, as “Yesterday Once More” ascended to the top of the charts. And so it is for priesthood, with its Old Testament roots, reimagined and instituted anew by Christ at the Last Supper for a new (testament) generation. Thus, for the Priest, however old or young, as he ascends the steps to the altar to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, it is indeed yesterday once more. From Melchizedek to Aaron to Christ – the history, and the mystery of the priesthood, confected today by the Sacrament of Holy Orders at the hands of a Bishop, finds its roots in God and in his care for his people, no less yesterday than today.