August 16, 2013

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Year of Faith: The sacrament of holy orders

John F. FinkMost Catholics recognize holy orders as the sacrament in which deacons, priests and bishops are ordained. But why is it called “holy orders”?

It goes back to ancient Rome where the word “ordo” meant an established civil body. “Ordinatio” meant incorporation into an “ordo.” Therefore, in the Church today, men are ordained into the orders of deacons, priests and bishops. The sacrament confers a gift of the Holy Spirit that permits the exercise of certain sacred powers.

As a result of ordination, bishops and priests can be ministers of the sacraments of confirmation, Eucharist, penance and reconciliation, and anointing of the sick. Only bishops can ordain deacons, priests and other bishops. Deacons, as well as bishops and priests, can confer the sacrament of baptism and witness the sacrament of matrimony.

Naturally, those who are ordained are called to a life of holiness and humility that conforms them to Christ, whose priesthood they share. But the sacrament of holy orders does not preserve those ordained from weakness and sin. However, the effectiveness of the sacraments is not dependent upon the holiness of the ministers.

When a bishop is ordained to the highest order, he becomes a successor of the Apostles and a member of the college of bishops. If appointed to lead a diocese, he becomes the visible head of a local Church, where he is the chief teacher, sanctifier and shepherd.

Diocesan bishops appoint priests to be their co-workers and assist them with the pastoral care of parishes and other diocesan ministries. Bishops and priests form a presbyteral (priestly) community.

Diocesan priests promise obedience to the bishop and to live a celibate life. Priests in most religious orders take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to their religious superiors.

A deacon, from the Greek word “diakonia” that means “servant,” is ordained to the ministry of service. In today’s Latin Rite Church, deacons may baptize, proclaim the Gospel, preach homilies, assist in the celebration of the Eucharist, assist at and bless marriages, and preside at funerals. They also dedicate themselves to charitable endeavors, their ministerial role in New Testament times.

In the Catholic Church, only men can receive the sacrament of holy orders—as unpopular as that is in American society. One reason for that is that Jesus chose only men as his Apostles. The Apostles continued that practice and so have their successors throughout the centuries.

Another reason given is that priests and bishops act in the person of Christ at the Mass. Since Christ was a man, the priest should also be a man. Still another reason is that the priest should reflect Christ as the bridegroom of the Church.

Those who have received holy orders may not marry. However, men who are already married can be ordained deacons, and, in some cases, married clergy from other Christian churches who convert to Catholicism can be ordained priests.

It’s true that married men were priests in the early Church and still are today in Eastern Catholic Churches, where only bishops are celibate. The celibacy rule could be changed, but it’s not likely. †

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