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Degrees Of Holy Orders — Presbyterate

November 4, 2017 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


The Sacrament of Holy Orders, as was reaffirmed last week, has been conferred and exercised in three levels or degrees — the episcopate, the presbyterate, and the diaconate — since the beginning of the Church. As highlighted in the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, all three “are irreplaceable for the organic structure of the Church” (n. 325).
In fact, St. Ignatius, the third bishop of Antioch who was martyred in early post-apostolic times (AD 107), resolutely proclaimed: “Apart from these there is not even the name of a church” (Letter to the Trallians 3, 1; as cited in Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], n. 1593).
In treating the episcopate last week, we saw that through episcopal ordination “the bishop receives the fullness of the sacrament of Holy Orders, which integrates him into the episcopal college and makes him the visible head of the particular Church entrusted to him” (CCC, n. 1594).
As aptly stated in Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the bishop “is to be considered as the high priest of his flock, from whom the life in Christ of his faithful is in some way derived and dependent” (Sacrosanctum Concilium [SC], n. 41).
As a legitimate successor to the apostles, a bishop not only has jurisdiction over the diocese entrusted to his care, but with his fellow bishops and in union with and under the authority of the Pope, shares responsibility for the universal Church. It is only a bishop who can ordain other bishops, priests, and deacons.
The next section of the Catechism examines the second level of Holy Orders, that of priests, who become the co-workers of the bishop in his ministry to the Church. “Priests, although they do not possess the highest degree of the priesthood and although they are dependent on the bishops in the exercise of their power,” teach the Vatican II fathers, “are nevertheless united with the bishops in sacerdotal dignity” (Lumen Gentium [LG], n. 28 § 1).
In the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, the council fathers elaborate: “The office of priests…shares the authority by which Christ builds up, sanctifies, and rules his Body….[P]riests, by the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are signed with a special character and are conformed to Christ the Priest in such a way that they can act in the person of Christ the Head” (Presbyterorum Ordinis [PO], n. 2 § 3).
Before proceeding, let us consider the etymology of the word priest. It has its origin in the Greek word presbyteros, which means “elder.”
However, as Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, explains in his Basic Catholic Catechism Course (BCCC), in the early Church the term denoted a person senior “not in age but in wisdom, to whom was entrusted the government of a community. In fact, the first priests in the Church, that is, the Apostles, were also elders or governors of the Church” (p. 190). In Latin, the word for priest is sacerdos, which literally means “offerer of sacrifices.”
From this, one can see how Fr. Hardon’s definition for priest reasonably follows: “An authorized mediator who offers a true sacrifice in acknowledgement of God’s supreme dominion over human beings and in expiation for their sins” (Modern Catholic Dictionary, p. 438).
What power, then, is granted to priests through sacramental Ordination? The Catechism cites Lumen Gentium once again to answer this question:
“By the power of the sacrament of Orders, in the image of Christ the eternal high Priest, they are consecrated to preach the Gospel and shepherd the faithful and to celebrate divine worship, so that they are true priests of the New Testament” (LG, n. 28 § 1; as cited in CCC, n. 1564).
They make their diocesan bishop — to whom they promise their obedience — present in the local congregation or parish. Moreover, their mandate is even more expansive, for they “share in the universal dimensions of the mission that Christ entrusted to the apostles” (CCC, n. 1565).
This dimension of priestly ministry is expanded upon in Vatican II’s Decree on Priestly Training. Their formation as seminarians is intended to imbue them with a Catholic spirit which will enable them “to transcend the limits of their own diocese, nation, or rite, and to help the needs of the whole Church, prepared in spirit to preach the Gospel everywhere” (Optatam Totius, n. 20 § 1).
Furthermore, “the spiritual gift which priests receive at their ordination prepared them not for a sort of limited and narrow mission but for the widest possible and universal mission of salvation ‘even to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8)” (PO, § 1).
What are the primary duties of a priest? Fr. Hardon provides an excellent, albeit abbreviated, summary:
1) To proclaim the Gospel message to all; 2) to administer the sacraments, most especially the Holy Eucharist, Penance, and Anointing of the Sick; 3) to help others to grow in virtue and holiness; 4) to assist the bishop in providing for the pastoral care of the People of God and administration of his diocese; 5) to pray the Liturgy of the Hours on a daily basis; and 6) to administer the parish to which he is assigned and to attentively provide for the spiritual welfare of all souls entrusted to his care (cf. BCCC, p. 191).
The most central duty of a sacramentally ordained priest is the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, an obligation the Vatican II fathers especially accentuated:
“They [priests] exercise their sacred function especially in the Eucharistic worship or the celebration of the Mass by which acting in the person of Christ and proclaiming His Mystery they unite the prayers of the faithful with the sacrifice of their Head and renew and apply in the sacrifice of the Mass until the coming of the Lord (cf. 1 Cor. 11:26) the only sacrifice of the New Testament, namely that of Christ offering Himself once for all a spotless Victim to the Father (cf. Heb. 5:1-4)” (LG, n. 28 § 1).
It is “from this unique sacrifice,” affirms the Catechism, that “their whole priestly ministry draws its strength (cf. PO, n. 2 § 5)” (CCC, n. 1566).
The importance and influence of the ministry of the parish priest cannot be overemphasized, for it is normally he whom members of the Catholic faithful have direct contact with in the most defining moments of their lives. As strikingly expressed in The Didache Series: The Sacraments:
“It is the priest who will baptize them at birth and later give them their First Holy Communion. It is the priest who they see each Sunday at Mass and who hears their Confessions. It is the priest who will help them prepare for marriage and who will celebrate their wedding day with them as well as the wedding anniversaries that follow. In times of crisis, it is the priest who is called to the hospital to bring the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick to those who are ill, and Viaticum to the dying.
“Finally, it will be the priest who celebrates the funeral Mass and commends the souls of the faithful departed to a merciful and loving God” (p. 162).

Spiritual Prosperity

Especially applicable to the crucial role that the parish priest plays in the lives of the faithful is a point that was briefly touched upon in an earlier installment: the holiness of priests. “A priest, as one assimilated to Christ the King,” says Fr. Hardon, “is obliged to strive for Christian perfection, directing others on the way to salvation only after mastering himself through an ever-deeper relationship with Christ. Indeed, a priest’s ministry precludes conformity to the world. To this end, priests are obligated to lead a holy life” (BCCC, p. 191).
As expressed by the fathers of Vatican II: “They [priests] cannot be ministers of Christ unless they be witnesses and dispensers of a life other than earthly life” (PO, n. 3).
Why is this so important? On multiple occasions, Fr. Hardon said, “Like priest, like people is not a clever phrase, but the verdict of almost 2,000 years of the Church’s history.”
Toward that end, Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen asserts that a priest’s “emptying of self for the people of the parish produces the spiritual prosperity of the parish” (The Priest Is Not His Own, p. 28). A sterling example is that of St. John Vianney (1786-1859), the patron saint of parish priests. So renowned for his holiness and the unparalleled hours he labored in the confessional, it is said that the Devil told him, “If there were three such priests as you, my kingdom would be ruined.”
“The priest’s proclamation of the Gospel,” submits Fr. Hardon, “must be nourished by prayer and study so that his life itself gives witness to the Gospel faith he professes and teaches” (BCCC, p. 191). In fact, the development of a profound life of prayer as part of the seminary formation experience was emphasized by Vatican II (see OT, n. 8).
To underscore the importance of example, Archbishop Sheen notes that seminarians “are edified when they see their professors at early meditation with them and at their spiritual exercises! Lacking this example, they easily come to think of spirituality as something to be practiced only to the day of ordination” (ibid., Sheen, p. 26).
Formed is this manner, a young priest is better prepared to be “united with his fellow priests in a bond of charity, prayer, and total cooperation” (PO, n. 8 § 1).

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a consecrated Marian catechist.)

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