The sacrament of holy orders confers priesthood on a man. The sacrament has three orders or levels: deacon, priest, and bishop.
The order of deacon has two distinct groups. The first is the transitional deacon for men who will go on to become priests. The second is the permanent deacon for men who will remain deacons for the rest of their lives. Before the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the Church only had transitional deacons. Since Vatican II, married men have been allowed to become permanent deacons. While they live as ordinary married men, they must take a vow to remain celibate after the death of their wives. Transitional deacons must be celibate. Deacons—transitional and permanent—may be authorized by the bishop to preach, baptize, and witness the sacrament of matrimony.
The order of priest (or presbyter) may be authorized by the bishop to preach and to administer all of the sacraments except holy orders. Some priests are members of religious orders, who take the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Other priests—known as diocesan or “secular” priests—belong to the diocese for which they are ordained. They make a promise of obedience to the bishop, but they do not take the vows that members of religious orders take. At present, most priests in the West are celibate, but some exceptions to this rule have been made.
The order of bishop is said to have the fullness of priesthood. A priest becomes a bishop when he is selected by the pope and ordained by at least one other bishop. A bishop retains all of the powers and obligations of a priest, but he is given the additional responsibility of the administration of a diocese and the power to ordain deacons, presbyters, and bishops. Collectively the bishops of the Church make up the hierarchy.
Like baptism and confirmation, holy orders imparts an indelible character on the soul of the man ordained. It may only be received once for each order. While some priests leave the active priesthood through a special dispensation from the pope, they remain priests forever. They are no longer authorized to administer the sacraments, but they retain the power to do so for the rest of their lives.
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