When in the ordination ceremony does one become a priest?


“Ask the Newly Ordained” features Fathers Brian Morris, Joseph Brice and Stephen Battey — who respond to questions about the faith from Rhode Island Catholic readers.

This past Saturday at the cathedral I was ordained by Bishop Thomas J. Tobin along with my two brothers who have been writing this column. It was just a small ceremony with about 500 of our closest friends and family! The beautiful ordination ceremony has many parts. Hence one question that has been asked of me is, ‘When in the actual ceremony does a man become a priest?’ It is a good question that recognizes that transformative power of the sacrament. At one point the man is still a deacon, and at another point he has become a priest of Jesus Christ. His soul has been dramatically changed in a way that will stay with him even after death. So, what is that moment in the ceremony?

Every sacrament has what is called matter and form, or as I like to call it, the “stuff” and the “description.” The matter, or the “stuff” is what is materially necessary for the sacrament. For example, in baptism there must be water either poured over or into which the person is immersed. You cannot use anything else. No flower petals or other things that look nice; it must be water. The matter for the Eucharist is bread and grape wine. Therefore, you cannot use tequila and corn chips or soda and pizza. The form, on the other hand, are specific prayers that are said in order to indicate precisely what is happening in this sacramental action. It is what indicates the intention of the minister that, for example, he wishes to baptize a person into the Church and not simply wash their hair. The form of baptism comes directly from the Gospel of Matthew “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The form of the Eucharist is when the priest says “This is my body which will be given up for you. . . . This is the cup of my blood. . . .” The priest can say any other crazy thing he wants during the rest of the Mass, but as long as he says these words over bread and wine, then the body and blood of Christ are made truly present. The matter and form for all the sacraments can be found in the Catechism.

Both matter and form are required for the sacrament to be valid. So what are the matter and form of Holy Orders, since this would indicate the moment at which a man is now a priest. Some thought that perhaps it was when the bishop hands over the chalice and paten to the man, others say it is when the bishop anoints the priest’s hands with Holy Chrism. Neither are correct, but good guesses. In fact, it is in the laying on of hands by the bishop on the head of the man, that is the matter, and saying the specific consecratory prayer asking God for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, that is the form. Thus, although Fathers Steve, Joe and I knelt before the bishop and had him lay his hands on us a few seconds apart, the sacramental change from deacon to priest did not occur until he said the prayer. So, the three of us were all ordained at exactly the same time! This change is made evident in the ordination ceremony when right afterwards the man removes his deacon stole and is given a priest stole and chasuble to put on.

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