The Sacrament of Holy Orders or ‘Ordination’ gives a person a sacred power to serve the people of God in the name and authority of Christ through the Holy Spirit.
There are three different kinds of ordination: bishop, priest and deacon.
In the Roman Catholic church, bishops and priests are obliged to celibacy, to remain unmarried. Married men may be ordained as deacons. In the Eastern Catholic churches, married men may become priests, but may not become bishops.
The bishop, who has the fullest of orders, has a three-fold ministry of prophet, priest and shepherd. As a prophet, the bishop speaks for God or on behalf of God. In his priestly role, the bishop has responsibility for the proper celebration of the liturgy and the sacraments in his diocese. As a shepherd, the bishop cares for all people in the diocese where he is appointed to serve, especially the poor and the suffering. The bishop’s staff (crozier) symbolizes his role as spiritual shepherd of his flock.
A priest shares in the ministry of the bishop. The main roles of the priest are preaching, celebrating the sacraments and leadership for building up the community of the church. The priest is called to serve his people in word and in sacrament and by leadership after the model of our Lord.
The Order of Priesthood gives to the man ordained the office of offering the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist and of forgiving sins in the sacrament of Reconciliation. In and through the exercise of these ministries the ordained priest is further charged with celebrating the sacraments of Baptism, Matrimony and Anointing of the Sick.
Priesthood also embraces the exercise of spiritual leadership, the teaching of faith and morals, formation of lay leaders and whatever other duties are deemed necessary by his Bishop or Religious Superior.
A deacon is ordained to serve the church through ministry of word, worship, pastoral care and charity. A deacon may baptise, preach, officiate at marriages and funerals but cannot preside at Eucharist or give absolution. Before someone is ordained a priest, he is first ordained to the order of deacon. There are also what are called ‘permanent’ deacons who have been ordained and function as deacons who will not be ordained to the priesthood.
Deacons enjoy a special relationship with the Bishop. They serve as he directs. This may be in a parish, or anywhere the Bishop discerns a need. Deacons are called to carry Christ and the Gospel to their workplaces, places of relaxation and to the heart of their family life. The work of the Deacon has been described as being commissioned by the bishop to discern the needs of people, and bringing back word of needs to the diocesan and/or parish community. Deacons were in early times referred to as “the eyes and ears” of the bishop.
What about nuns and sisters, as well as brothers, monks, and friars?
All of these are part of the church’s tradition of religious life. Religious life is in fact is “outside” of the hierarchy of the church. It is not part of ordained life (although some within religious life may happen to also be called to ordained life as well) and religious (the noun for people who are in religious life) do not have ecclesiastical authority and are not responsible for the administration of the church.
Individual religious may of course be involved in the hierarchy. The preeminent example, of course, is Pope Francis, who is a member of the religious community called the Society of Jesus, or ‘Jesuits’, and is also a bishop who is the head of the entire Roman Catholic hierarchy!
Women and men religious are of course leaders in their own right in many different ways. They may be pastoral leaders, prayer leaders, educational leaders, justice leaders, and so forth. Their chosen way of life means that they are publicly committed to ministry, outreach, growing in the spiritual life, living and giving witness to the Gospel, and celebrating the Catholic faith. They are very much ministers in that they give their lives to ministering to others, but not in the sense of being ordained (“Minister” is used in other Christian traditions to signify an ordained person).
So are nuns and sisters clergy? No. Are they Catholic leaders and ministers? Yes. Are we all working for the glory of God and the good of one another and all creation? Absolutely!