Understanding the sacraments: Mystical rites

A catechesis of the sacrament of holy orders in which Christ authorizes, empowers ministers of grace

Baptism, Eucharist and confirmation are the sacraments of initiation through which we receive new life in Christ. Penance and anointing of the sick are sacraments of healing through which we are restored to spiritual and bodily health. Marriage and holy orders are sacraments at the service of communion, for they “are directed towards the salvation of others. …They confer a particular mission in the Church and serve to build up the People of God” (Catechism, 1534).  In this column we will look at the sacrament of holy orders.

The sacrament of holy orders includes the episcopacy (bishops), the presbyterate (priesthood), and the diaconate (deacons). The first two, episcopacy and presbyterate, are “two degrees of ministerial participation in the priesthood of Christ…The diaconate is intended to help and serve them” (Catechism, 1554). All three degrees are conferred by the sacramental act called “ordination”—the sacrament of holy orders.

This sacrament confers a specific gift of the Holy Spirit that permits the ordained to exercise a “sacred power…which can come only from Christ himself through his Church” (Catechism, 1538). “The grace of the Holy Spirit proper to this sacrament is configuration to Christ as Priest, Teacher, and Pastor, of whom the ordained is made a minister” (Catechism, 1585). It also is called a consecration, “for it is a setting apart and an investiture by Christ himself for his Church” (Catechism, 1538). The essential rite and visible sign is the laying on of hands by the bishop with the consecratory prayer.

As with the other sacraments, our presentation of holy orders will be a three-part mystagogical catechesis. First, we will look at the Old Testament roots of the sacrament. Next, we will examine one of the essential signs of the sacramental rite. Finally, we will consider the meaning of the sacrament for the whole of the minister’s life.

The Old Testament roots of this sacrament are found “in the priesthood of Aaron and the service of the Levites, as in the institution of the seventy elders” (Catechism, 1541). “A special rite consecrated the beginnings of the priesthood of the Old Covenant” (Catechism, 1539). In the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, priests of the Old Covenant were “appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins” (Hebrews 5:1).

These Old Testament roots are expressed in the Prayer of Consecration for priests: “O Lord, holy Father,…in the earlier covenant offices arose, established through mystical rites…upon the sons of Aaron you poured an abundant share of their father’s plenty, that the number of the priests prescribed by the Law might be sufficient for the sacrifices of the tabernacle, which were a shadow of the good things to come.” St. Thomas Aquinas explained the unity of the priesthoods of the Old and New Covenants: “Christ is the source of all priesthood: the priest of the old law was a figure of Christ, and the priest of the new law acts in the person of Christ” (Catechism, 1549).

The second aspect of our catechesis considers the signs in the rite. As noted above, one of the essential elements of this sacrament is the imposition of hands by the bishop on the head of the ordinand. We find the meaning of this gesture in the practice of the early Church, for “it is by the Apostles’ imposition of hands that the Holy Spirit is given [Acts 8:17-19; 13:3; 19:6] (Catechism, 699). The Church has preserved this sign of “the all-powerful outpouring of the Holy Spirit in its sacramental epiclesis [invocation of the Holy Spirit]” (Catechism, 699).

The third aspect to consider is the meaning of this sacrament for the minister. St. Gregory of Nazianzus describes the responsibility that comes with ordination: “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” (Catechism, 1589).

With sacred power comes sacred responsibility.

Through the sacrament of holy orders Christ authorizes and empowers ministers of grace. “In the ecclesial service of the ordained minister, it is Christ himself who is present to his Church as Head of his Body, Shepherd of his flock, high priest of the redemptive sacrifice, Teacher of Truth” (Catechism, 1548).

He does so through “mystical rites” that beautifully express the power they confer.

Father Stice directs the diocesan Office of Worship and Liturgy. He can be reached at frrandy@dioknox.org.