The Sacrament of Holy Orders

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Jean Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, put it well: “The Sacrament of Orders seems to relate to no one among you, and yet relates to everyone. If we had not the Sacrament of Orders, we should not have Our Lord. Who placed Him in that tabernacle…it was the priest.”

The next section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1533-1600) treats the Sacrament of Holy Orders. The Sacrament of Holy Orders, instituted by Christ, is conferred in three degrees, diaconate, priesthood, and the episcopacy (the office of bishop).

Bishops receive the fullness of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. They are true successors of the apostles. Bishops alone confer the Sacrament of Holy Orders in its three degrees. The Sacrament is conferred by the ancient ritual of laying on of hands and prayer of consecration invoking the Holy Spirit. Bishops—and by extension priests—exercise a teaching, sanctifying and governing function in the Church. They are configured to Christ the Head of His Body the Church.

The Catechism explains, “ordination…is reserved for the sacramental act which integrates a man into the order of bishops, presbyters, or deacons, and goes beyond a simple election, designation, delegation, or institution by the community, for it confers a gift of the Holy Spirit that permits the exercise of a “sacred power” which can come only from Christ himself through his Church”

Deacons receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders as they are configured to Christ the servant but not Christ the priest, Head of the Church. They give expression to the Church’s charitable work and assist as Mass, preside at Baptisms and weddings, and distribute Holy Communion. Transitional deacons will go on to be ordained priests, while others, known as permanent deacons, will not seek ordination as priests. This latter group of deacons is composed of many married men.

The Sacrament of Holy Orders is conferred validly only upon a baptized man. Following the example of Christ who called only men as His apostles, the Church has no authority to do otherwise than her Master. Because the priest is an icon of Christ, the priest must be male to make Him present as an icon. God, in His divinity is not male, but Christ is and thus the priest must be male to represent Him.

In a similar way, a celibate priest more appropriately makes present Christ's total self-sacrifice for the Church, His bride. Christ Himself speaks about celibacy for the Kingdom of God (Mt 19) and the Church’s wisdom sees an appropriate link to the priesthood. While the Church has ordained some married men (especially in the Eastern Churches and converts from Anglicanism), the value of celibacy and its special link to priestly ministry remains an unchangeable truth of Catholic faith.

Like Baptism and Confirmation, Holy Orders imprints an indelible character on the soul. The Sacrament cannot be repeated or repealed. An ordained priest, for example, remains a priest forever. While for grave reasons one can be released from certain obligations and ordinary functions of a priest, not even the Pope can declare him a lay man in the strict sense. The Sacrament of Holy Orders can never be undone.

All that is to say, in a Sacrament something really happens. In Holy Orders, God shows His love for His people. Because the Lord wants to come and meet His people, He gave us ordained ministers. God doesn’t save us in generic anonymity, but in the personal and loving encounter of a Sacrament. The Sacraments, whose power is derived from Christ, are linked back to Christ through the ordained. They are not magic but real encounters effected through God’s ordained ministers.

The Sacrament of Holy Orders thus relates to everyone because it is how God comes to meet us. No substitute exists for this saving work and that is no small thing indeed.

Father Connors was ordained in June and is currently studying at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, where he is pursuing a licentiate in moral theology. This column is part of a yearlong biweekly series on the Year of Faith by Father Connors and Father Joseph Upton.