Sunday 18th March 2018

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The Effects Of The Sacrament Of Holy Orders

November 25, 2017 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


Conferral of the Sacrament of Holy Orders in each of its three degrees, as we saw last week, occurs “by means of the imposition of hands [matter] on the head of the ordinand by the Bishop who pronounces the solemn prayer of consecration [form]” (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 331).
Furthermore, we saw that “only validly ordained bishops, as successors of the apostles, can confer the sacrament of Holy Orders” (n. 332) and that the sacrament “can only be validly received by a baptized man” (n. 333).
Important to comprehend and wholeheartedly accept is that no one has a right to receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders — it is a vocational call from Almighty God that “can be received only as an unmerited gift” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], n. 1578). Although an interior call from God is an essential precondition, it is for the bishops of the Church (and the Pope in the case of episcopal Ordination) to discern whom God is calling to one of the degrees of ordained ministry.
Moreover, although not a doctrinal requirement, celibacy of ordained ministers is a normal discipline embraced by the Latin Church (except for permanent diaconate) that has clear scriptural precedent and has borne much good fruit over the centuries. Practiced by Christ Himself, it is an expression of the gift of oneself to God and the Church out of generous love.
The Catechism now considers the manifold effects of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, initially reminding us that “this sacrament configures the recipient to Christ by a special grace of the Holy Spirit, so that he may serve as Christ’s instrument for his Church” (CCC, n. 1581). Indeed, “in the ecclesial service of the ordained minister, it is Christ himself who is present to his Church” (CCC, n. 1548).
As Pope Pius XII eloquently stated in his 1947 encyclical on the Sacred Liturgy, “by reason of the sacerdotal consecration which he has received, [the validly ordained minister]…possesses the power of performing actions in virtue of Christ’s very person…[and] in a certain manner ‘lends his tongue, and gives his hand’ to Christ” (Mediator Dei, n. 69).
Just like two other sacraments covered earlier in this series — Baptism and Confirmation — the Sacrament of Holy Orders “confers an indelible spiritual character and cannot be repeated or conferred temporarily” (CCC, n. 1582). The fathers of the Council of Trent taught this dogma of our faith with the following solemn declaration:
“If any one shall say, that, by sacred ordination the Holy Ghost is not given; and that bishops do therefore vainly say, Receive ye the Holy Ghost; or, that a character is not thereby imprinted; or, that he who has once been a priest, can again become a layman; let him be anathema” (Session 23, canon 4).
At this juncture, it would be good to examine more carefully precisely what is meant by the term “character,” drawing again from the teaching of the learned theologian and catechist, Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ. As he explains in The Catholic Catechism (TCC), its meaning “is not to be taken in the sense in which we commonly understand it, i.e., the estimate placed upon a person or thing, its reputation or value. Its meaning is rather derived from the ancient Greek term charassein, used in the Bible to describe an image or inscription engraved in a permanent way on a medal, coin, or piece of stone” (p. 502).
As articulated by Fr. Hardon, this is the expression that is used to speak of Christ in the Letter to the Hebrews in the following verse: “He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp [character] of his nature” (Heb. 1:3). Accordingly, it represents not merely an indelible mark but an essential likeness.
The Pauline figure for sacramental character is that of a seal and explicitly appears when he speaks about the effects of Baptism and Confirmation (see 2 Cor. 1:21-22; Eph. 1:13; 4:30). “The sacramental character imprints on the soul of one who receives it,” explains Fr. Hardon, “a likeness to the attribute of Christ with which the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and ordination are mainly concerned, namely, Christ’s priesthood” (TCC, p. 503).
Furthermore, these three sacraments “radically and permanently change the person who receives them . . . [so that] he remains unalterably baptized, or confirmed, or ordained, no matter what else may happen to his holiness in the sight of God” (TCC, p. 504).
Even if removed from the clerical state by the Holy See and dispensed of obligations associated with the office of deacon, priest, or bishop, the ordained person’s soul retains the indelible character imprinted at Ordination (cf. CCC, n. 1583). As such, laicization is not a technically accurate term, for as Fr. Hardon explains:
“The person does not lose his sacramental powers and remains an ordained person. But he is legitimately dispensed from the ordinary duties attached to his office and, generally also, of his vow of celibacy, giving him the right to marry” (Modern Catholic Dictionary, p. 307).
This step is taken for extraordinary reasons and for the greater good of the Church. Even so, a priest who has received such a dispensation retains the power to administer Penance and Anointing of the Sick in emergency situations.
What other spiritual effects are conferred upon the recipient of the Sacrament of Holy Orders?
Fr. Hardon provides a concise summary in his Basic Catholic Catechism Course (BCCC): an increase in the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit appropriate to the office of a person’s clerical state; an increase in sanctifying grace that, as is the case for all the sacraments, strengthens and deepens God’s life in the soul; an increase in the theological virtues, the cardinal virtues, and the Gifts of the Holy Spirit; and the special sacramental graces that are needed to carry out the responsibilities of the offices of deacon, priest, and bishop (cf. p. 194).
Needless to say, God always provides the graces necessary to carry out the duties of one’s state in life.
As discussed in an earlier installment, the unworthiness of an ordained minister does not prevent Christ from acting in the sacraments he confers (for a fuller discussion of the principle of ex opere operato, see volume 148, n. 31; August 6, 2015). This was forcefully proclaimed by the Council of Trent:
“If anyone shall say that a minister who is in mortal sin, although he observes all the essentials which pertain to the performance or conferring of the sacrament, neither performs nor confers the sacrament: let him be anathema” (Session 7, canon 12).
St. Augustine compares the spiritual power of sacraments to that of light: “Those to be enlightened receive it in its purity, and if it should pass through defiled beings, it is not itself defiled” (In Jo. ev. 5, 15; as cited in CCC, n. 1584).
Holy Orders is a sacrament of the living. In other words, one commits the sin of sacrilege by receiving it in the state of mortal sin. Yet, “it is validly received even by one who is in the state of grave sin,” explains Fr. Hardon. “However, recipients must be in the state of grace in order to receive it fruitfully” (BCCC, p. 193).
An indelible character is imprinted on the person’s soul, but the graces of the sacrament are not effective until the state of grace is recovered.

The Heart Of Jesus

The Catechism closes its treatment of Holy Orders by citing awe-inspiring quotations from two luminary saints, St. Gregory of Nazianzus and St. John Vianney (the patron saint of parish priests).
The dignity of a priest is such, exclaims St. Gregory, that 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 and divinizes” (Oratio 2, 73).
And the Curé of Ars adds: “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” (quoted in B. Nodet, Jean-Marie Vianney, Curé d’Ars, p. 100; as cited in CCC, n. 1589).
It is impossible to overstate the debt of gratitude that the People of God owe to the countless zealous and faithful members of the clergy who serve our spiritual needs as we sojourn through this life on our way, we pray, to eternal beatitude in Heaven.
It is most fitting to conclude our consideration of the Sacrament of Holy Orders by reflecting on a prayer by Jean-Baptiste Henri Lacordaire, OP (1802-1861) that beautifully reckons the attributes of a holy priest:
“To live in the midst of the world without wishing its pleasures; to be a member of each family, yet belonging to none; to share all suffering; to penetrate all secrets; to heal all wounds; to go from men to God and offer Him their prayers; to return from God to men to bring pardon and hope; to have a heart of fire for Charity, and a heart of bronze for Chastity; to teach and to pardon, console and bless always. My God, what a life; and it is yours, O priest of Jesus Christ.”

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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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