Most Dioceses have their ordinations in the month of June, so I thought this would be a good time to look at Holy Orders in the Church. The word ORDER comes from the ancient Roman language and means an established civil body, or governing body. All organizations need some form of hierarchy, and the Church is no exception. However, the Church is not like any other organization, it is supernatural in nature, established by Jesus himself. When the Spirit came upon the apostles at Pentecost it made a significant change in them. It empowered them to spread the good news and to develop the church. Our modern design of Holy Orders (Bishop, Priest and Deacon) dates back to the very beginnings of the Church. Since the Apostles were all good Jews, as Jesus himself was, and since God was at work from the very beginnings with the Jewish nation, it is not surprising that our Holy Orders closely resemble the Jewish priesthood.
In the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), the chosen people were constituted by God as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” He even chose one of the twelve tribes, Levi, and set it apart for liturgical service. The priests were “appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.” Our present day liturgy reflects that close relationship to the Jewish priesthood of Aaron and the Levites. Here is a sample from the Church’s liturgy:
The Church prays in the consecratory preface of the ordination of bishops:
God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, . . .
by your gracious word
you have established the plan of your Church.
From the beginning,
you chose the descendants of Abraham to be your holy nation.
You established rulers and priests
and did not leave your sanctuary without ministers to serve you. . . .
At the ordination of priests, the Church prays:
Lord, holy Father, . . .
when you had appointed high priests to rule your people,
you chose other men next to them in rank and dignity
to be with them and to help them in their task. . . .
you extended the spirit of Moses to seventy wise men. . . .
You shared among the sons of Aaron
the fullness of their father’s power.
In the consecratory prayer for ordination of deacons, the Church confesses:
Almighty God . . .,
You make the Church, Christ’s body,
grow to its full stature as a new and greater temple.
You enrich it with every kind of grace
and perfect it with a diversity of members
to serve the whole body in a wonderful pattern of unity.
You established a threefold ministry of worship and service,
for the glory of your name.
As ministers of your tabernacle you chose the sons of Levi
and gave them your blessing as their everlasting inheritance.
The Church today has, just as the early Church had, three main offices of ordination. The first, and highest, is the Bishop. The second, and closely related, is the Priest. The third is the Deacon. The Bishop and Priest are together seen as Sacerdotal (priestly) while the deacon is seen as helpers to the Bishops first, and Priests second. Usually the Bishop is seen as a Pastor of a diocese and is often needed as a teacher. The Priest offers the mass in local churches and the Deacon is called to serve where He is directed to by the Bishop. All three are ordained. You can see how early this structure was by looking at a quote by St. Ignatius of Antioch, who was born only 17 years after Jesus died. He said, “Let everyone revere the deacons as Jesus Christ, the bishop as the image of the Father, and the presbyters (priests) as the senate of God and the assembly of the apostles. For without them one cannot speak of the Church.”
The Ordination of Bishops, Priests and Deacons are done only by Bishops who are in the line of apostolic succession. That means that when Bishop John R. McGann ordained me, back in 1980, I know that he was ordained by a Bishop who was ordained by a Bishop who was ordained by a Bishop…..going back all the way to the Apostles. This is called Apostolic Succession. The Church keeps records to ascertain that this occurs. The power of ordination has thus been passed down by the Apostles to all of us who are validly ordained. So what is this power? Quite simply, it is the power of the Holy Spirit. This is a permanent grace given to allow the ordained minister to carry out his mission within the Church that Jesus himself formed.
We know that no Bishop or Priest or Deacon is perfect, indeed they are human, but the grace of the Holy Spirit still works through them for the building up of the Church. It is Jesus, and His Spirit that ultimately works through the ordained minister. The unworthiness of the minister does not keep Jesus from working through him. St. Augustine states this quite strongly when he says, “As for the proud minister, he is to be ranked with the devil. Christ’s gift is not thereby profaned: what flows through him keeps its purity, and what passes through him remains dear and reaches the fertile earth. . . . The spiritual power of the sacrament is indeed comparable to light: those to be enlightened receive it in its purity, and if it should pass through defiled beings, it is not itself defiled.”
The man who is ordained must go through a substantial training and preparation program. At the heart of it has to be his own conversion to Jesus and His Church. St. Gregory of Nazianzus says it so beautifully, “We must begin by purifying ourselves before purifying others; we must be instructed to be able to instruct, become light to illuminate, draw close to God to bring him close to others, be sanctified to sanctify, lead by the hand and counsel prudently. I know whose ministers we are, where we find ourselves and to where we strive. I know God’s greatness and man’s weakness, but also his potential. [Who then is the priest? He is] the defender of truth, who stands with angels, gives glory with archangels, causes sacrifices to rise to the altar on high, shares Christ’s priesthood, refashions creation, restores it in God’s image, recreates it for the world on high and, even greater, is divinized (make divine) and divinizes.” And the Cure of Ars says, “The priest continues the work of redemption on earth. . . . If we really understood the priest on earth, we would die not of fright but of love. . . . The Priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus.”
Being a Bishop or a Priest or a Deacon is not an easy thing. However, it is a great thing. I thank God for calling me and giving me the strength and power to minister as a Deacon. God knew what he was doing when he set up the Church. The call to ordained ministry is an important call. We should all do what we can to encourage men to look in to the ordained ministry. We should also say a “thank you” to those who serve us now. God is good.