Understanding the sacraments: The sacrament of holy orders

This celebration is a rich and profound liturgy that expresses the mystery and power of the ordained ministry

The Diocese of Knoxville is celebrating two ordinations within a month. On May 31, Bishop Stika ordained four men to the priesthood, and on June 14 he will ordain three seminarians to the diaconate at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In this column I want to discuss the celebration of the sacrament of holy orders.

The rite of ordination consists of three parts that express “the multiple aspects of sacramental grace” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1574). The first part consists of the preparatory rites: the presentation of the one(s) to be ordained, the homily, the promise of the elect, and the Litany of Supplication. These rites “attest that the choice of the candidate is made in keeping with the practice of the Church and prepare for the solemn act of consecration” (CCC, 1574). This is followed by the essential rite of ordination: the laying on of hands and the prayer of ordination (also referred to as the consecratory prayer). The rite concludes with explanatory rites that “symbolically express and complete the mystery accomplished” (CCC, 1574).

The Litany of the Saints, which is one of the preparatory rites, has been part of the rite of ordination from the seventh century onward to invoke on behalf of those being ordained the aid of the saints. Beginning in the eighth century, the candidates prostrated themselves during the litany. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI described his experience of the Litany of the Saints during his episcopal ordination: “The fact that the praying Church was calling upon the saints, that the prayer of the Church really was enveloping and embracing me, was a wonderful consolation. In my incapacity, which had to be expressed in the bodily posture of prostration, this prayer, this presence of all the saints, of the living and the dead, was a wonderful strength—it was the only thing that could, as it were, lift me up. Only the presence of the saints with me made possible the path that lay before me” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, 188).

The preparatory rites are followed by the essential rite—the imposition of hands by the bishop and the prayer of ordination. “The imposition of hands,” wrote St. John Paul II, “is the continuation of the gesture used by the early Church to signify that the Holy Spirit is being given for a specific mission (cf. Acts 6:6, 8:17, 13:3), Paul imposed hands on the disciple Timothy (cf. 2 Timothy 1:6; 1 Timothy 4:14), and the gesture has remained in the Church (cf. 1 Timothy 5:22) as the efficacious sign of the Holy Spirit’s active presence in the sacrament of holy orders” (Gift and Mystery, 44).

The central petition of the prayer of ordination for priests asks God to grant to the ordinandi “the dignity of the Priesthood; renew deep within them the Spirit of holiness; may they henceforth possess this office, which comes from you, O God, and is next in rank to the office of Bishop; and by the example of their manner of life, may they instill right conduct.” The Spirit is given to priests to enable them to participate in the specifically priestly ministry of Christ, to progress in holiness, and to inspire holiness in others through their manner of life.

The essential words for the ordination of deacons are, “Send forth upon them, Lord, we pray, the Holy Spirit, that they may be strengthened by the gift of your sevenfold grace for the faithful carrying out of the work of the ministry.” Deacons are strengthened by the gifts of the Spirit for ministry and service.

The rite of ordination concludes with explanatory rites that “explain” the ministry of priests and deacons. I would like to give just one example for each. In the ordination of priests, the bishop presents to the new priests a paten holding the bread and a chalice containing wine mixed with water for the celebration of the Mass. As the bishop hands them to the newly ordained, he says, “Receive the oblation of the holy people, to be offered to God. Understand what you do, imitate what you celebrate, and conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s Cross.” This rite signifies priests’ “duty of presiding at the celebration of the Eucharist and of following Christ crucified” (Rite of Ordination, n. 113).

For deacons, the bishop places the Book of the Gospels in the new deacon’s hands and says, “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you have become. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.” This action and the explanatory words signify “the office of the Deacon to proclaim the Gospel in liturgical celebrations and to preach the faith of the Church in word and in deed” (Rite of Ordination, n. 188).

The celebration of the sacrament of holy orders is a rich and profound liturgy that expresses the mystery and power of the ordained ministry.


Father Stice is pastor of St. Mary Church in Athens and directs the diocesan Office of Worship and Liturgy. He can be reached at frrandy@dioknox.org.