A continuation of the Catholic 101 series
We're down to the penultimate sacrament: Holy Orders. Next week we end the Sacraments mini-series with Matrimony.
So these last two sacraments are called the sacraments of vocation. Holy Orders, obviously, is the vocation to the priesthood; Matrimony is to the vocation of married life.
Holy Orders and Matrimony are both fairly simple to explain. What's harder is the theology that undergirds it, but we're not going to get too deep in that, here. We're sticking with the basics. (Maybe I'll offer Catholic 202 at some point. I kill me.:-P ) (And, please do not litter the comment box with attacks on priests, etc.)
Holy Orders can only be given once, and it's done by a bishop (or higher--some priests are ordained by the pope!). The form is the laying on of hands; the matter is the prayer said by the bishop.
The sacrament is open only to men in the Catholic Church--and single men, at that. We stick with this because that's what Jesus did; the 12 apostles were all men. All priests vow to remain celibate for their entire lives.
There are two types of priests: a diocesan priest, or a religious order priest. A diocesan priest is what you're probably most familiar with--he's a priest who serves within a diocese, a specific geographic area. A priest of a religious order, on the other hand, like the Dominicans, can serve anywhere the order sends them. I know Dominican priests who are stationed abroad, who are sent to study in various parts of the world, who are assigned to universities, or who are assigned as chaplains to monasteries of nuns. There's a lot of variety there. Diocesan priests can also be teachers, etc. but they will stay within a certain geographic area.
Diocesan priests do not make vows, technically. Vows are made by members of religious orders. They do promise to obey their bishop and to live in chastity.
Priests of religious orders also take different vows, depending on said order. Dominicans, for example, only verbally take the vow of obedience, when they are professed. Everything is included in that vow, including poverty and chastity. Benedictines take four vows; Franciscans take a special vow of poverty; etc. Religious orders also have their specific habits.
As we know, priests are the only people who can consecrate the Eucharist, hear confessions, perform several of the sacraments, among other things. The course of study is quite long; an undergraduate degree, followed by four years of seminary, for diocesan priests. For religious, it can be even longer--Jesuit formation, for example, takes ten to eleven years, and Dominican formation is at least seven. Why does it take longer? Because the men aren't just becoming priests, but they're also joining an order with a specific charism, way of life, etc.
It's not something a man undertakes lightly. Priesthood is for life (unless you're laicized--that's the term, not "defrocked"). As a priest, he is in charge of al the souls in his parish. That's a big responsibility. A priest can be called to serve at any time, day or night. A Mass cannot be said without a priest, because only a priest can perform the consecration that transforms bread and wine into the Eucharist.
One of the things Catholics should do is pray that God will give us many holy priests, because without them, we're in bad shape.
Priests aren't perfect. Duh. They're human. The sacrament doesn't magically transform you into a different person. Grace has to be cooperated with; it's not a magic wand. So yes, there are priests who aren't great at administrative things, who don't give good homilies, who can't sing, who are gruff in the confessional, etc. They're not perfect. But they have a very important job. So pray for them!
Side note: All men who enter the Dominican order don't have to become priests. They can also become cooperator brothers.