The sacrament of holy orders was given by Jesus to establish a ministerial priesthood for administering His saving works through the sacraments. Through holy orders, a new way of life in sharing in Christ’s priesthood is given to those who receive it - one that goes far beyond simply being entrusted with a set of duties or functions. This way of life is evident when considering the ritual of the sacrament of holy orders and its effects.
The conferral of holy orders is carried out through the rite of “ordination,” wherein the act of “imposition” or “laying on” of hands by the bishop is the outward sign. In the New Testament, multiple references are made to this act of laying hands on those who are ordained, particularly in Acts 6 where the first “deacons” are chosen and ordained – noting especially verse six of this passage. Likewise, in Paul’s letters, especially 1 and 2 Timothy there is reference to his own laying of hands on Timothy (see 2 Tim 1:6), and of Paul exhorting Timothy not to lay hands on just anyone too readily (1 Tim 5:22) when speaking of priests (presbyters). With this act of laying on of hands is a prayer over those to be ordained that calls upon the Holy Spirit to come upon them according particular degree of ordination that they are receiving – as there are three distinct degrees of ordination: diaconate (deacon), priesthood (priest), or the episcopacy (bishop).
While each degree is conferred by the laying on of hands and the prayer over the candidate/s, each degree also has distinctions that clearly express the type of ordination. Each rite begins with the calling of the candidate/s that includes a public testimony that they are rightly called to be ordained – whether by receiving right preparation and approval to be ordained, or (in the case of a bishop) by the mandate of the Holy See – as given by the Pope’s own representative who is present. Each man is then questioned about their intentions to live that which they are presented to receive (which for priests and deacons includes the making of a promise of obedience to the bishop under whom he will serve). When deacons are ordained, only the ordaining bishop lays his hands on the candidate/ s head; for priesthood, the ordaining bishop is joined by all the other priests present in laying hands; and for the ordination of bishop, the principal ordaining bishop is joined by two co-consecrating bishops, as well as all other bishops who may be present in laying hands on the man to be ordained. Each degree is therefore visibly distinct in the ordination rite itself.
The rites of ordination also contain other “explanatory” rites that further express the order being conferred and the particular effects of the ordination. In the diaconate ordination, as deacons are called to service of the Word, they are given the Book of the Gospels and exhorted to believe, preach, and practice what is contained within it. Priests receive an anointing of their hands with the sacred chrism and are presented with the chalice and paten for Mass, which they are called to offer and consecrate. Finally, bishops are anointed on their heads with a pouring of chrism upon them, followed by the reception of the “insignia” of their office: the ring they wear, the pastoral staff (called a “crosier”) and the “miter” (the pointed hat) – as the fullness of priesthood in Christ and the chief shepherds, teachers, and governors of the Church.
Once more, the sacrament of holy orders changes those who receive into what they receive not as a mere passing on of responsibility, but as sharers in the priesthood of Christ, called to offer themselves in His likeness.
For further reading: In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the paragraphs 1572-1574 and 1581-1589 speak of the rite and its effects.