Before going through minor orders, a young man is constituted a member of the clerical state through the ceremony of tonsure, in which some hair is cut from the top of his head in the form of a cross, while he recites a verse from the Psalms to signify that he is dedicating himself to the service of God. For orders this can be cutting a crown similar to Saint Francis of Assisi or Saint Dominic. Today, this mostly is symbolic and very little hair is actually cut. By the tonsure a cleric is incardinated or assigned to the diocese to which he will belong upon his ordination. He may not change to another diocese without the consent of his bishop and the bishop of the diocese to which he wishes to transfer. He then is ready to ascend through the minor and major orders.
The minor orders are the lower ranks of the clergy, through which aspirants are prepared to receive the holy priesthood. They were instituted by the Church in the early days when men of outstanding merit performed certain offices. They are not a sacrament, but only preparatory steps to major orders. For the minor orders the symbols of office are handed over to the aspirant, with accompanying words constituting the form. Given to the porter is a key, with the right to guard the church doors as "doorkeeper." For the order of lector, he is given a book with the right to read certain passages of Holy Scripture when ordered by priest or bishop. The minor order of exorcist constitutes being given a book of exorcisms, with the right to exorcise evil spirits. Finally, as acolyte he is given a candlestick with the right to carry lights and give wine and water at Holy Mass.
The major orders are the higher ranks beginning with the subdiaconate in which the the person is pledged to perpetual celibacy and the daily recitation of the Divine Office or Breviary - the latter of which has been somewhat relaxed since Vatican II. The subdeacon presents water at solemn High Mass, sings or reads the psalms and readings, brings the vessels to the altar, holds the paten at the great Amen, and gives the kiss of peace to the choir. In practice, these are done by the priest and appointed laity today except when a subdeacon is present. The deaconate is the highest of the orders before priesthood, but the lowest degree in the sacrament of Holy Orders. The deacon receives sacramental grace. That is, the grace by which the ordained has God's constant help in his sacred ministry. He assists the priest at Holy Mass, reads or sings the Gospel, and may preach. At Solemn High Mass he incenses the celebrant and the choir, gives the altar bread, pours wine into the chalice, takes off the pall and puts it on, receives the kiss of peace directly from the celebrant. Today there are seldom Solemn High Masses and most of these duties are done by the priest or appointed laity, however if a deacon is present he will assist the priest at Holy Mass and often read the gospel as well as preach the homily. Though the laity, after Vatican II, became more involved in all of these duties, they still are not allowed to read the gospel or preach. This can only be done by the priest or an ordained deacon.
The priesthood is the second degree in the sacrament of Holy Orders. The episcopate, which is the highest degree in the sacrament is the fullness of the Holy Orders, which gives the power of administering the sacrament of Holy Orders, and makes the bishop the ordinary minister of the sacrament of Confirmation. Thus priests may be classified into two grades: Priests, who are those, who by ordination to the priesthood, have power to offer Holy Mass, to administer solemn Baptism, and the Last Rights or Sacrament of Healing and may hear confessions and are given the power to absolve sins though they need jurisdiction from the bishop to do so. This permission to perform these duties and privileges is called faculties which every bishop must approve in each diocese. If a priest comes into another bishop's jurisdiction, other than visiting for a very short time, he must apply to the bishop to have his faculties approved.
Bishops are the second grade, and consecration of a bishop is highest of the three degrees in major orders. Bishops possess the additional power of administering the Sacraments of Holy Order and Confirmation. In some dioceses, the bishop may give permission to priests to administer Confirmation for either cases of those in danger of death or remote locations where the bishop cannot make all the rounds. By means of the sacrament of Holy Orders, the graces earned by the sacrifice of Christ are to be applied to the faithful at all times. "As the Father has sent Me, I also send you." - for the same ends: to glorify God and lead men to salvation; by the same means: through prayer and teaching; in difficulties and against obstacles, and with the promise of ultimate victory: "And I appoint to you a kingdom, even as My Father has appointed Me, that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom; and you shall sit upon thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Luke 22: 29-30).
Once a man is ordained a priest, he is a "a priest forever". The sacrament imprints an indelible mark on the soul and therefore cannot be repeated. It is a known fact that the Church cannot exist without priests and with one billion Catholics - one sixth of the entire global population, Holy Mother Church is in great need of more priests today as never before. When the bishop lays hands on the priest at ordination the new priest receives a character, that is lasting forever, which is a sharing in the priesthood of Christ, and which gives the priest special supernatural powers. In the next installment we will delve into those powers.