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The Recipient, Minister, And Celebration Of Holy Orders

November 18, 2017 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

By DON FIER

A significant reform of Vatican Council II, as we saw last week, was the restoration of the permanent diaconate in the Western Church “as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy” (Lumen Gentium, n. 29 § 2). An ordained ministry that has always been retained by the Churches of the East, it can be conferred on both married and single men. In a unique way, it sacramentally configures one to Christ the Servant, Who came “not to be served but to serve” (Matt. 20:28).
“Ordination confers on them,” teaches the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), “important functions in the ministry of the word, divine worship, pastoral governance, and the service of charity, tasks which they must carry out under the pastoral authority of their bishop” (n. 1596).
For those of us who can remember back to pre-Vatican II times, prior to 1972 it was through a rite called tonsure that a man entered the clerical state in the Latin Church. He would then pass through four minor orders (porter, lector, acolyte, and exorcist) which were prerequisites for reception of the three major orders (subdeacon, deacon, and priest). It was in his apostolic letter entitled Ministeria Quadam (promulgated on August 15, 1972) that Blessed Paul VI eliminated the rite of tonsure and suppressed the minor orders as well as the major order of subdeacon.
As explained by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ: “The offices of acolyte and lector were reduced to ministries” (Basic Catholic Catechism Course [BCCC], p. 196). Moreover, as specified in the 1983 Code of Canon Law (CIC): “Before anyone is promoted to the permanent or transitional diaconate, he is required to have received the ministries of lector and acolyte and to have exercised them for…an interval of at least six months” (canons 1035 §§ 1–2). It is important to note that “a lector is not the same as a reader, and an acolyte is not the same as an altar server” (BCCC, p. 196).
As such, persons who assist as altar servers or proclaim the Scripture readings at Sunday Mass at parish churches are most often not acolytes and/or lectors. While the ministries of acolyte and lector may also be conferred on certain members of the laity, both are reserved to men and require the formal liturgical Rite of Installation presided over by the diocesan bishop.
Having addressed each of the three degrees of Holy Orders — episcopate, presbyterate, and diaconate — the Catechism next considers the celebration of the sacrament, who may confer it, and who may receive it. “Given the importance that the ordination of a bishop, a priest, or a deacon has for the life of the particular Church,” states the Catechism, “its celebration calls for as many of the faithful as possible to take part” (CCC, n. 1572). The event’s wonder is “similar in both its solemnity and festivity to a wedding. Indeed, those receiving the Sacrament are wedding their lives to Christ and His Church” (The Didache Series: The Sacraments [DS-S], p. 166).
“The essential rite of the sacrament of Holy Orders for all three degrees,” states the Catechism, “consists in the bishop’s imposition of hands on the head of the ordinand [matter of the sacrament] and in the bishop’s specific consecratory prayer [form of the sacrament] asking God for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and his gifts proper to the ministry to which the candidate is being ordained” (CCC, n. 1573).
In addition, the sacrament’s celebration contains a number of complementary rituals and prayers that highlight various aspects of the ministry being conferred on each Order. The newly ordained bishop receives the book of the Gospels, the ring, the miter, and the crosier, each symbolizing a particular element of his sacred ministry; the newly ordained priest receives the chalice and paten; and the newly ordained deacon receives the book of the Gospels (cf. CCC, n. 1574). Important to remember is that ordination of a bishop requires a pontifical mandate, that is, official approval of the Vicar of Rome (see CIC, canon 377 § 1).
In answer to the question: “Who can confer this sacrament?” the Catechism first reminds us that “Christ himself chose the apostles and gave them a share in his mission and authority” (CCC, n. 1575). Furthermore, “since the sacrament of Holy Orders is the sacrament of the apostolic ministry, it is for the bishops as the successors of the apostles to hand on the ‘gift of the Spirit’ (LG, n. 21 § 2), the ‘apostolic line’ (LG, n. 20)” (CCC, n. 1575).
As we saw when we examined the episcopate, it is only validly ordained bishops who receive the fullness of the Sacrament of Holy Orders (see volume 150, n. 5; February 2, 2017). As such, it is only a man ordained to the episcopal degree of Orders who receives authority to ordain a deacon, priest, or bishop in the Catholic Church.
This authoritative teaching is clearly codified in the 1983 Code of Canon Law: “The minister of sacred ordination is a consecrated bishop” (CIC, canon 1012) for the Latin Church, and in the 1990 Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches: “Only a bishop validly administers sacred ordination by the imposition of hands and by the prayers prescribed by the Church (Corpus Canonum Ecclesiarum Orientalium, canon 744).
The Catechism now considers who is eligible to receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders. First and foremost, as specified by Church law: “A baptized male alone receives sacred ordination validly” (CIC, canon 1024). Sacred Scripture and Tradition clearly show that “Jesus chose men to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry” (CCC, n. 1577).
Moreover, “the Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself” (ibid.). As stated in the 1976 declaration Inter Insigniores (issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and approved by Blessed Paul VI), “the Church, in fidelity to the example of the Lord, does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination” (Introduction).
Although “Our Lord’s reasons for making his absolutely binding rule excluding the very possibility of change have been debated by theologians since the early days of the Church” (BCCC, p. 197), it is an authoritative teaching that has not and cannot change.
Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed this continuous and unchangeable teaching of the Church’s infallible ordinary Magisterium in his 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis by forcefully stating: “I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful” (n. 4 § 2).
The Catechism likewise strongly affirms that “no one has a right to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders. Indeed no one claims this office for himself; he is called to it by God (cf. Heb. 5:4)” (CCC, n. 1578).
A true vocation to the clerical life is an interior divine call of grace and must be prudently and prayerfully discerned. When a person feels an interior call to the ordained ministry, he must humbly submit himself to the authority of the Church for her external judgment on whether he possesses the natural and supernatural gifts to enable him to be a worthy minister for the good of all the faithful he will ultimately serve.
“Like every grace this sacrament can be received only as an unmerited gift” (ibid.).

Necessary Qualifications

A concise and excellent summary of the qualifications necessary for a person to receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders is given in The Didache Series: The Sacraments (an earlier cited catechetical work).
The candidate must: be a baptized, confirmed male of excellent character; have an interior call from God and an exterior call from the bishop; have the necessary knowledge of the nature of Holy Orders and what the vocation entails; have attained the proper age for the degree being sought (the year of life to have been completed as currently set by canon law is 25 for priests, 23 for transitional deacons, 35 for permanent deacons if married and 25 if single); have the capacity for the rigors of the ordained ministry; be committed to lifelong celibacy (with the exception of one entering the permanent diaconate as a married man); have the philosophical and theological knowledge and training proper to their particular office; and be free of any impediments or irregularities in keeping with the requirements of canon law (cf. DS-S, p. 159).
The Catechism concludes its section on who is eligible for Ordination with a brief discussion of celibacy. In the Latin Church, men who receive Holy Orders (with the exception of permanent deacons) are normally obliged to practice lifelong celibacy “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:12). As expressed by the Vatican II Fathers, the celibate state “is a precious gift of divine grace given by the Father to certain souls, whereby they may devote themselves to God alone the more easily, due to an undivided heart” (LG, n. 42 § 3).
Blessed Paul VI, in his 1967 encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, wrote: “Priestly celibacy has been guarded by the Church for centuries as a brilliant jewel” (n. 1). Indeed, the life and practice of Our Lord Himself, who remained celibate and unmarried throughout His life is the foundation of the present discipline regarding celibacy in the Latin Church (cf. BCCC, p. 194).

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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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