Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

The MOST Theological Collection: A Basic Catholic Catechism

"Part XVI: Holy Orders and the Anointing of the Sick "


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Holy orders: Ministers to sanctify and rule the Church

1. Institution, Reception and Effects: Bishops, Priests, and Deacons

The Council of Trent defined that at the Last Supper, when Our Lord said to the Apostles, "Do this in memory of me," (Luke 22:19) He ordained them Priests, with the power to consecrate the Eucharist and celebrate Mass. But more was still to come: On Easter Sunday night He gave them the power to forgive sins: "Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; whose sins you shall retain, they are retained" (John 20:22-23).

So we gather that historically, Jesus gave them the Sacrament of Orders not all at once, but in parts. Against this background, we note that the Apostles imposed hands on some men and ordained them deacons (Acts 6:1-6).

So there are three degrees of the Sacrament of Holy Orders: Bishops, Priests, and Deacons. The Council of Trent defined: "If anyone says that the Holy Spirit is not given by sacred ordination, and so that Bishops say in vain, "Receive the Holy Spirit' or that no character is imprinted by it... let him be anathema." Therefore in all three degrees of Orders, Diaconate, Priesthood, and Episcopate, the Holy Spirit is received, and the sacred character to conform them to Christ, is imprinted, which is indelible. In the ordination of each of the three degrees of the hierarchy - for the word hierarchy includes all three - there is the imposition of the hands of the Bishop, along with the consecratory prayer.

For deacons, that prayer is: "Lord, we pray, send forth upon them the Holy Spirit, so that by the grace of your seven gifts, they may be strengthened by Him to carry out faithfully the work of the ministry." For priests it is: "We ask you, all-powerful Father, give these servants of yours the dignity of the presbyterate. Renew the Spirit of holiness within them. By your divine gift, may they attain the second order in the hierarchy and exemplify right conduct in their lives." For Bishops it is: "Now pour out upon this chosen one that power which flows from you, the perfect Spirit whom you gave to the apostles, who established the Church in every place as the sanctuary where your name would always be praised and glorified."

Deacons are dedicated to the people of God, in cooperation with the Bishops and their body of Priests, in the service of the liturgy, of the Gospel, and of works of Christian charity. In First Timothy 3:13 we read of them: "Those who serve well as Deacons earn a high standing for themselves, and great confidence in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.

The principal functions of the Deacon are these: to give solemn baptism; to be the ordinary minister of distributing the Holy Eucharist; to assist at and bless Christian marriage in the name of the Church; to bring Viaticum to the dying; to read the Gospel to the people; to instruct and exhort the people; to preach; to preside over the worship and prayer of the faithful, under the Priest; to administer sacramentals and blessings; to officiate at funeral and burial services.

In the Roman rite there are two forms of the diaconate now. One is a permanent diaconate, such that the Deacons remain in that order for life; the other is a transitional diaconate which is on the road to ordination to the priesthood. The candidate must make a formal statement of which form he wishes to enter, and must testify he is doing this freely. He also makes his choice between a celibate or married diaconate. Transitional Deacons must be celibate; those who are already married can be ordained permanent Deacons, but Deacons who are celibate may not marry after ordination without giving up the right to exercise their diaconate. If the wife of a married Deacon dies, he may not marry again.

The chief functions of a Priest are to baptize, to consecrate and to offer the Holy Sacrifice, to forgive sins, and to confer the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, as well as to be the official witness at marriages.

The Sacrament of Holy Orders confers a character, on all three degrees, Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, to conform the recipient to Christ the priest, the prophet, the king. The ordained Bishop or Priest is conformed to Christ the Priest to such an extent that he can act "in the person of Christ" in saying, "This is my body... This is my blood" (LG § 10).

Vatican II (On the Liturgy § 7, citing St. Augustine, On John 6. 1 7) says that Christ "is present by His power in the Sacraments, so that when someone baptizes, Christ Himself baptizes." We notice St. Augustine speaks of Christ baptizing when "someone" baptizes. True, in that everyone can baptize in cases of necessity. But when the Bishop, Priest or Deacon baptizes, he does so by virtue of the character conforming him to Christ. When they preach, they are acting for Christ, since the character conforms them to Christ the Prophet. When they lead the people of God, they do so since the character conforms them to Christ the King, the divine leader. So, although the Church has not yet pronounced on the point (except for the Eucharist, cited above), it seems we could say that all three, Bishop, Priest, and Deacon can act "in the person of Christ", to the extent that they are conformed to Him, represent Him, and do what he does through them. And when they pray the Divine Office, it is not a private prayer, such as it is when a layman prays the office. They are acting in the name of the Church. Vatican II wrote (On Liturgy §7):"When the Church prays and sings psalms, He is present."

Since all three, Deacons, Priests, and Bishops receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders, are given the Holy Spirit, and the sacred character conforming them to Christ, clearly, they are not only members of the clergy, but also of the hierarchy, a word that means not "higher-archy" but "sacred government or rule."

But it is important to remember that the official conformity is far less than the conformity in holiness that their very character calls for. Our Lord Himself, in a dramatic teaching, compared the dignity of the Divine Motherhood, which Pius XI called "the highest dignity next to God" and "'a sort of infinite dignity from the infinite good that God is'" (Lux veritatis, Dec. 25, 1931, citing St. Thomas I. 25. 6 ad 4) with that of hearing the word of God and keeping it. He declared the second greater than the first (Mk 3. 31-35: cf. LG § 58. ) Of course, His Mother was at the peak in both categories. So the recipient of Holy Orders must have a strong enlightened faith himself, strengthened by prayer, mortification, and study. He must communicate the faith to others, by his preaching and example. Indeed, St. Paul seems to consider preaching his chief function (1 Corinthians 1:17).

Their close association with the Most Holy Eucharist means all three should be specially devoted to that surpassing Sacrament, even outside the time of liturgical functions.

In addition to the Mass and the Sacraments, there are added means of holiness for all three ranks, the Divine Office (which may not be required in its completeness of permanent Deacons) and celibacy (as we said, married Deacons may be ordained permanent Deacons, but may not remarry if the wife dies). The Church esteems the value of celibacy so highly that even in a time of shortage of priests, celibacy must still be maintained (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:32-35). It helps free men from the very powerful pulls of even the legitimate use of sex (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:5 and 7:35).

The chief additional power of Orders a Bishop receives is that of ordaining other Bishops, Priests and Deacons. Also, in the Latin rite, only Bishops are the ordinary ministers of Confirmation.

In virtue of his divine commission to rule and teach and sanctify, the Bishop takes on responsibility for every soul in his diocese, for which he must one day give an account to the Divine Judge. An awesome responsibility as well as a marvelous privilege!

The Bishop too, in virtue of collegiality - the fact that the Bishops and the Pope form a body somewhat like the body formed by Peter and the Apostles(cf. LG §§ 22-23) - have a responsibility for the universal Church as well as for their own dioceses.

The Pope does not have a still higher degree of the Sacrament of Orders. But he does, at his election, obtain by divine right as the successor of St. Peter, supreme and immediate jurisdiction over the whole Church even over the Bishops (LG §22), and he can even define a doctrine without consulting the Bishops - though he normally does consult (LG § 25). Bishops, Priests, and Deacons have the right to teach and exercise authority only insofar as they are themselves subject to the teaching and authority of the Pope.

2. The Ministries: Lector and Acolyte

Those formally installed in the ministries of Lector and Acolyte may be laymen. The Lector, or reader is to read the Word of God in the liturgy, except for the Gospel. The Lector may also recite the psalm between the readings, and present the intentions during the prayer of the faith. The Lector may also direct singing, and instruct the faithful for worthy reception of the Sacraments.

The Acolyte is assigned to help the Deacon, and to minister to the Priest especially during Mass. He may when needed, and if installed in the ministry by the Bishop, distribute Holy Communion as an auxiliary minister, and take Holy Communion to the sick. In unusual circumstances the Acolyte may be assigned to publicly expose the Blessed Sacrament for adoration and afterwards replace it. But he is not allowed to give the Benediction.

These two ministries are conferred by the Bishop of the diocese, or by the Major Superior in clerical religious institutes, according to the prescribed liturgical rites. Only men are eligible.

Anointing of the Sick: Strength for the final struggle

We know this Sacrament was instituted by Christ, as the Council of Trent defined. The same Council said that this Sacrament was insinuated in Mark 6:13, but promulgated in James 5:14-15: "Is anyone sick among you? Let him call the presbyters of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he be in sins, they will be remitted for him." Mark 6:13 tells of the Apostles on their trial mission anointing the sick with oil and healing them. Some object that they had not yet been ordained priests, (until the Last Supper) and so this could not be the Sacrament. However, Jesus did give them powers of the priesthood in installments, as we saw. So this could be it. But, on the other hand, Mark 6:13 makes no mention of forgiving sins of which James speaks.

The anointing with oil stands for strengthening the one anointed, for athletes in those days did use olive oil to strengthen muscles. So this Sacrament is to strengthen the sick person in what may be his last sickness, and to give help in bearing the sufferings. It need not and should not be put off until almost the very end). Especially aid is needed against the special assaults of satan that are apt to come then. For this reason it can give added confidence in God's mercy. If there is need, and if the sick one cannot confess, this anointing can remit even mortal sins, provided that the sick person had, in faith, been sorry for sins with at least attrition. It can also remit to a certain extent the temporal punishment remaining after sins are forgiven. Sometimes it gives a physical improvement, if God so wills. These effects remain with the person as long as the physical condition that called for the anointing continues.

It can be conferred by a Bishop or Priest. The essential words are (while anointing the forehead): "Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit". (Sick person answers: Amen). (While anointing the hands): "May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up". (Sick person answers: Amen)

In case of necessity, one anointing, on the forehead, suffices.

It may be received by anyone who is in danger of death from illness, or who is aged enough to be gravely weakened. It should not be put off until near the end. It can be given even when the person is unconscious or when the sick one has lost the use of reason, provided that he/she would likely have asked for it while in possession of their faculties and probably had at least attrition.

If there is doubt whether the person is still alive, it may be given conditionally if there is any respectable chance he is still alive. There is sometimes an interval between seeming and real death, especially in sudden death.

It can be given before surgery if the illness in itself is serious.

If the person gets better, and then falls again into danger, the Sacrament may be repeated. It may also be repeated if the illness gets notably worse.

The oil to be used should be olive oil, blessed by the Bishop on Holy Thursday. However in case of need, any priest can bless just enough oil for the occasion. What is left over in such a case should be burned. If olive oil is not obtainable, any vegetable oil may be used.

The sick person who has received this Sacrament should be encouraged to offer his/her sufferings in reparation for sins, in union with those of Jesus and His Mother. We should help those who are dying by being at their side, and by whispering aspirations with or to them, and by helping them to make acts of faith, hope, love and contrition. It is good to offer them the crucifix to hold and venerate if they can do so.

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