From apostolic times there existed in the Church a hierarchical priesthood: certain men chosen to celebrate the Eucharist and lead the people. The Book of the Acts (6:6) speaks of the election of seven deacons (Greek diakonos, ‘servant’, or ‘minister’) and their being set aside to serve. The apostles founded Christian communities in the various cities of the Roman Empire where they preached and ordained bishops and presbyters to lead these communities.
The three-fold hierarchy of bishops, presbyters and deacons has existed in the Church from a very early time, though probably not from the first century. In the letters of the apostles we cannot see any clear distinction between bishop and presbyter — both terms are used most often as synonyms: ‘This is why I left you in Crete, that you might amend what was defective, and appoint elders (presbyters) in every town as I directed you, if any man is blameless, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers... For a bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless’ (1 Tim.1:5-7). In apostolic times there was still no distinction between diocese and parish: the church community, whether it was in Crete, Ephesus or Rome, incorporated all the faithful of that city or country and was a ‘local’ Church (that is, a Church of that locality).
But as the Church expanded there arose a need for senior presbyters in charge of communities in a single province and possessing the right to ordain presbyters for these communities. As early as the second century St. Ignatius clearly refers to the bishop as the head of the Church and the presbyters as his concelebrants, of one mind as him and in subjection to him: ‘The presbyters are in harmony with the bishop as the strings of a lyre’. In subjecting themselves to the bishop, the presbyters are subjecting themselves to Christ in his person. For St. Ignatius the bishop embodies the plenitude of the Church. To be out of harmony with the bishop is to break away from the Church. The three-fold hierarchy has to be treated with greatest respect on the part of the faithful: ‘All must respect the deacons as Christ’s commandments and the bishops as Jesus Christ Himself... the presbyters are to be respected as the assembly of God, as the host of angels. Without them there is no Church’.
The Church teaches that the moral imperfection of the celebrant in no way affects the validity of the sacraments, for when the priest celebrates the services he is but an instrument of God. It is Christ Himself Who baptizes people, it is He Who offers the Eucharist and communicates the people, it is He Who in the sacrament of confession absolves sins. In the rite of confession the priest says to the penitent, ‘Behold, Christ stands here invisibly and receives your confession… and I am but a witness, bearing testimony before Him of all things which you have said to me’. However, if Christ in His infinite mercy tolerates sinful servants of the Church as He tolerated Judas among the apostles, this in no way justifies those ministers of the Church who are unworthy of their vocation. The moral imperfection of priesthood and the sins and vices of the clergy have always been an illness and a bane to the Church. They undermine the authority of the Church in the eyes of the people and destroy their faith in God, even though they do not affect the validity of the sacraments. God is above all judged by the actions of His servants, for they are the image of Christ in the Church. It is indeed demoralizing for one to see in a priest indifference instead of compassion, disdain instead of love, depravity instead of moral purity, hypocrisy instead of sincerity. A priest carries on his chest a Cross bearing an image of Christ crucified for humanity. He is therefore expected to show the same compassion and love as Christ Himself showed. ‘Set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity’, says St. Paul to the newly-ordained Timothy.