Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Holy Orders - Part III

by Benedictine Monks of Buckfast Abbey


The diaconate and the ordination of a priest are the points of discussion in this third and final article in a series about the rites and ceremonies of the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review



Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, July 1928

I. The Diaconate

The fullness of spiritual power was bestowed by our Lord upon the Apostolic College. At a very early date the Twelve chose from among their followers other men to whom they granted some share in their supernatural authority; hence, the order of deacons and priests is found in the Church from the very beginning of her history. The institution of deacons, as related in the Acts, gives us a description of the first ordination held in the Church. Ostensibly the seven were chosen solely for the purpose of ministering at table — but that their duties were of an even higher order is made plain when we consider the qualities required from them, for they were to be "men of good reputation, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom" (Acts, vi. 3). Their ordination also was carried out with prayer and the imposition of hands (vi. 6).

St. Paul in his turn enumerates the virtues of a deacon: "Deacons in like manner [that is, like the priests] chaste, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre: holding the mystery of faith in a pure conscience…" (1 Tim., iii. 8, 9). The story of the early Church is resplendent with the shining example of many great and holy deacons, beginning with Stephen (whom the Greeks call the protodiaconus), Lawrence in Rome, and Vincent in Spain.

The number of deacons, in the great cities at least, was at first restricted to seven, out of reverence for the number of the first deacons. The Synod of Neo-Caesarea, held in 314, lays down that this number should not be exceeded. There were seven deacons at Rome at the time of the pontificate of St. Cornelius (251-252). Later on, however, no limit was set to their number.

The rite of their ordination, as we have it in the Pontifical, is an admirable exposition of the office and sacred dignity of the Order of deacons. At no time did the Church hold that deacons were nothing more than servers at table, or men in charge of the temporalities of the Church, or the care of the poor and the widows. These things did belong to their office, but were not its sole constituents. "The deacons should be of good repute with all," says St. Ignatius, "for they are not ministers of food and drink, but the servants of the Church of God" (Ad Trall., 2). Among their duties was that of visiting the confessors of the faith in their prisons and keeping a record of the Acts of their martyrdom. In the Apostolic Constitutions, II, 44, they are styled the eye, ear, mouth, hand, heart and soul of the bishop. But, most important of all, it was the deacon's right to baptize, to preach, and to distribute the precious Blood at the moment of Communion. Everybody knows the moving accents with which the glorious Roman deacon, Lawrence, addressed Pope St. Sixtus, whom he met as the latter was on his way to his martyrdom: "Whither goest thou, O father, without thy son? Whither hastenest thou, holy priest, without thy deacon? Thou wast never wont to offer sacrifice without my assistance. What has displeased thee in me? Make trial of me, whether thou didst choose a fit minister to whom thou didst commit the distribution of the Blood of the Lord" (cfr. Brev. Rom., August 10).

The rite of the ordination of a deacon, as we find it in the Roman Pontifical, is of great beauty, and an occasional quiet perusal of its prayers would be the most efficacious means of stirring up in the priest the Spirit that is in him through the imposition of hands.

When the Litany of the Saints has been sung, the archdeacon formally presents the subdeacon to the bishop, who, on the archdeacon's assurance that he is worthy, announces to the clergy and people that he accepts the candidate. In a lengthy allocution he then explains the nature of the diaconate, and enumerates the qualities that should adorn the soul of one who is thus exalted. His three great duties are to minister at the altar, to baptize, and to preach. How moving is the exhortation — nay, the prayer — of the successor of the Apostles: "Most beloved sons … be ye raised above fleshly desires, and all earthly covetousness which war against the soul. Be ye neat, clean, pure, chaste, as behooves the ministers of Christ and the dispensers of the mysteries of God." Estote nitidi, mundi, puri, casti — it is all but impossible to render in English this wonderful gradation of the perfection of purity demanded from those who share the dignity of the priesthood.

Having addressed and exhorted the ordinands, the bishop now calls upon the assistants to persevere in united supplication. Another prayer follows, and at its conclusion the bishop breaks forth into the melody of the Preface. In inspired accents God, who is honorum dator, ordinum distributor, officiorum dispositor, is asked to look with favor upon this His servant. Interrupting himself suddenly, the prelate lays his right hand upon the head of the candidate. This action together with the words then spoken, convey that which they signify, and are the sacramental form: "Receive the Holy Ghost, for strength, and to resist the devil and his temptations, in the name of the Lord."

Continuing in the tone of the Preface, the bishop prays that the new deacon may receive the sevenfold gift of the Holy Ghost, and that every virtue may shine forth in him. Once again we are shown the picture of the ideal minister of Christ: Abundet in eo totius forma virtutis, auctoritas modesta, pudor constans, innocentiae puritas et spiritualis observantia disciplinae

The bishop then adorns the new deacon with the stole belonging to his Order. He receives this "white robe" from the very hand of God: Accipe vestem candidam de manu Dei; and he is bidden to "do thine allotted task (adimple ministerium tuum), for God hath power to add to the grace already given to thee." After this the deacon is clothed with the dalmatic, "a garment of salvation and a vesture of joy and the dalmatic of justice." Finally, the bishop hands the book of the gospels to the new deacon, giving him power to "read it in the Church of God, both for the living and the dead."

Two prayers follow and mark the conclusion of the ceremony.

II. The Ordination Of A Priest

The New Testament uses two names to designate those who receive the Sacred Order of the priesthood. They are called presbyteri, not so much, perhaps, to signify that they should be men old in years, as that they should possess the wisdom which is, by common consent, associated with mature years. "We should be called presbyters, not because of our age or office of the priesthood, but by reason of our perfect interior formation and our gravity and steadfastness" (Origen, Hom. iv in Ps. xxxvi). The word sacerdos was used to designate bishops and priests alike, though more often bishops only. From the fifth century, in the Latin Church, the title sacerdos, when attributed to a simple priest, is usually qualified by an adjectival phrase such as secundi ordinis sacerdos (Leo Magnus, Sermo xlviii), minoris ordinis sacerdotes — a phrase still found in the ritual of ordination in the Roman Pontifical (St. Gregory, Hom. i in Ezech.). Innocent I (Ep. ad Decent.) says definitely that "presbyters, though they are priests of the second rank, are not placed on the height where the bishop stands" (licet sint secundi sacerdotes, pontificis apicem non habent).

The rite of ordination, as we find it in the Roman Pontifical, is, with the consecration of bishops and that of churches, among the most wonderful liturgical functions of the Catholic Church. It begins with the petition of the archdeacon who informs the bishop that "holy Mother the Catholic Church" asks that he would bestow the office of the priesthood upon the deacon here present. Hereupon the bishop calls upon the assistants to make known any objection that they may have to the raising of the candidate to so high a dignity. The reason is the common interest of bishop and people, which demands that only suitable men should be ordained.

If no objection is raised by the people, the prelate turns to the ordinand to whom he explains the duties of the priesthood: "It behooves the priest to offer (sacrifice), to bless, to preach, and to baptize. So lofty a degree must be approached with great fear, and heavenly wisdom, irreproachable conduct and a long practice of virtue should be the recommendation of those who are thus chosen." The allocution ends on a note of exhortation and supplication which must ring in the heart of the priest as long as he lives, like the echo of a far-off bell. Here we have the portrait of the priest such as the Catholic Church visualizes him, such as she needs him — a perfect man, another Christ: "Agnoscite quod agitis," says the bishop, "know, realize what it is that you do; imitate that which you handle, to the end that, whilst you yourself celebrate the mystery of the death of the Lord, you take care to mortify your body and to keep it from all vice and evil desires. Let your teaching be a spiritual medicine for God's people; let the fragrance of your life be the delight of the Church of Christ..."

Immediately after the allocution follows the imposition of hands, first by the bishop and after him by all the priests present. The imposition is accompanied by prayer: "Let us pray, beloved brethren, God the Father Almighty that He would increase His heavenly gifts to this His servant whom He has chosen for the honor of the priesthood: and may he obtain by His help that which he receives from His mercy. Through Christ our Lord. Amen."

This imposition of hands is certainly the essential rite in the ordination of a priest. The Scriptures never speak of any other, the Greek Church has no unction, and the handing of the instruments is comparatively recent. "Neglect not the grace that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with imposition of the hands of the priesthood" (1 Tim., iv. 14). And in his Second Epistle St. Paul admonishes Timothy to "stir up the grace of God which is in thee by the imposition of my hands" (2 Tim., i. 6). This has been the custom in the East and the West, from the beginning of the Church. The Fourth Council of Carthage describes the above ceremony just as it is carried out today, and St. Jerome says that the grace of Order is given by prayer and laying-on of hands: non solum ad imprecationem vocis, sed ad impositionem impletur manus (cfr. Chardon, "Hist. des Sacraments," in Migne, "Curs. theol.," col. 864).

Another prayer follows, the conclusion of which marks the beginning of the stately phrases of a magnificent Preface in which the dignity of the priesthood is described in noble language. Though the priesthood is styled secundi meriti munus, it nevertheless demands from those who are raised to it the most consummate holiness (eluceat in eis totius forma justitiae).

The Preface being ended, the bishop clothes the new priest with the stole, laying it on his neck and crossing it over his breast. The mystical signification of the stole is that it reminds us of the yoke of Christ, a yoke that is sweet and a. burden that is light. After this the newly ordained is robed with the priestly garb par excellence, the ample folds of which, enveloping as they do the whole body, are an apt emblem of the queenly virtue of charity: Accipe vestem sacerdotalem! What music there is in those words! How often, during the long years of preparation, has he not longed for this day, for this hour! How often, in daydreams that were a real help to his vocation, has he not seen himself thus attired? Now he is a priest, and his sacerdotal vesture reminds him that henceforth charity — love of God and love of souls — must be the supreme passion of his heart: "Love weights our soul" (Pondus meum amor meus), says St. Augustine (Confess., XIII, 9); but it carries us not downwards but upwards (dono tuo accendimur et sursum ferimur; inardescimus et imus).

Another prayer follows which contains a soul-stirring supplication to God that He would grant to the new priest grace and strength, so that his life may be the realization of the ideal described in the Epistles to Titus and to Timothy: let him show himself to be a senior, a presbyter, by the gravity of his conduct and the strictness of his life . . . may he study Thy law by day and by night, and may he believe what he has read, teach what he has believed, carry out what he teaches (in lege tua die ac node meditans). The Holy Scriptures, theology, the lives of the Saints — not the daily papers, the magazines, the reviews — will give to the priest that mature wisdom, that supernatural outlook, which enables him to be "the salt of the earth."

The bishop now intones the Veni Creator. After the first verse, he consecrates the hands of the priest with the oil of the catechumens, praying meanwhile that God would "consecrate and sanctify these hands ... so that whatever they bless may be blessed and whatever they consecrate may be consecrated and sanctified, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." "By the imposition of hands is given the fullness of grace," says St. Thomas, "by which they (priests and deacons) become fit for great duties … but by the unction they are consecrated to handle holy things; hence only priests are anointed who with their own hands touch the Body of Christ" (Suppl., Q. xxxvii, art. 5).

After the unction the bishop presents to the priest a chalice containing wine and water, covered by a paten on which there is a host. Whilst the priest touches these instruments, the bishop says: "Receive power to offer sacrifice to God and to celebrate Masses for the living and the dead, in the name of the Lord." St. Thomas, the Catechism of Trent, and others, hold that this ceremony and the words that accompany it, confer the actual power of offering Mass. But it is now commonly held that this power is given in the first imposition of hands, so that the handing of the chalice and paten is only a further declaration of what has already been given.

At the Offertory begins the thrilling rite of concelebration, when bishop and priest together offer, consecrate and sacrifice. This is the real first Mass of every priest.

After the Communion the new priest hears spoken to himself the touching words, which our Lord first addressed to the Apostles: "Henceforth I shall not call you servants, but friends." He makes a profession of faith by reciting the Creed, after which the bishop lays his hands on his head for a second time: "Receive the Holy Ghost: whose sins thou shalt forgive, they are forgiven, and whose thou shalt retain, they are retained."

This last imposition of hands is likewise merely explanatory, declaratoria: the power to forgive sins is actually conveyed when the priestly character is imprinted on the soul, and this, according to common opinion, takes place at the moment of the first laying-on of hands. The chasuble is now completely unfolded, the bishop meanwhile saying: Stola innocentiae induat te Dominus. After this the newly ordained makes to the bishop the promise of canonical obedience.

Finally, after exhorting him to learn the ceremonies of the Mass, the bishop blesses the new priest with a solemnity that is reminiscent of our Lord's blessing given to the Apostles as He was about to leave them, when they were to go forth into the world and win it for Him: "May the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, come down upon you, that you may be blessed in the Order of priests, and may offer pleasing sacrifices for the sins and offences of the people to Almighty God, to whom belong honor and glory world without end. Amen."

Thus concludes the sublime rite of the ordination of a priest. We have only summarized the wonderful prayers which contain the very marrow of all that theology can tell us about the divine dignity of the priesthood. Would that all priests made a point of frequently reading and pondering their meaning! It is good for us, as the years slip by, to go back in spirit to the morning of our ordination; to renew the wondrous joy which God then poured into our youthful hearts: Deus, qui laetificat juventutem meam. In this way we shall never grow really old, hardened, stale, but shall experience all the days of our life something of the supernatural fragrance of the gift bestowed upon us. This fragrance will be the most efficacious guard against the evil of worldliness and forgetfulness of what we owe to Christ, our high-priest, and to our own personal dignity as Catholic priests.

Holy Orders- Part I
Holy Orders Part— II

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