Read ~ Chapter 13: The Sacrament of Holy Orders
The teachings contained in this chapter are based on Holy Scriptures, the Tradition of the Catholic Church [especially the First and Second Vatican Councils, The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), the Fathers of the Church (especially St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine)], the Magisterium of the Catholic Church (especially Saint Pope Paul VI, Saint Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI).
Ancient Concept of priesthood
Before the Old Testament: Before the Old Testament mediations existed in the old world (i.e. Egypt and Mesopotamia). That concept goes very much to the beginning of creation where special human beings played a role of mediation between people and the divine. Sacrificing human beings to the gods was common back then.
Old Testament and priesthood: In the Old Testament God chose one tribe among the tribes of Israel to be a priestly tribe. The role of the tribe of Levites was to be of service to God and his people. However, here the concept of priesthood, as we know from the Letter to the Hebrews, was incomplete. As the Catechism teaches “this priesthood nevertheless remains powerless to bring about salvation, needing to repeat its sacrifices ceaselessly and being unable to achieve a definitive sanctification, which only the sacrifice of Christ would accomplish.” (CCC, 1540 and Hebrews 5:3).
God is still unreachable through the Old Testament’s priesthood: God is still unreachable way up there and the priest was still a mere human being ‘floating’ between God and the people. Being merely human, those priests could not finish the job: “the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office (Hebrews 7:23).”
Priesthood and mediation
Incarnation as the beginning of Christ’s priesthood: In the New Testament, Jesus Christ entered our world as the Eternal High Priest the minute he was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary. The fact that He was incarnate to save us makes him immediately the Priest because priesthood is all about mediation to save humanity. We read in St. Paul’s Letter to Timothy that there is only one God and one Mediator between God and man, our Savior Jesus Christ.
Mediation in the New Testament: Mediation to accomplish salvation is possible because Jesus Christ is at the same time on the level of God and on our level. On the level of God in his divinity and on the level of people in his humanity. Therefore, his mediation is unlimited and infinite in power because it reaches the divine and the human at the same time and by the same Person of the Son. In this sense we read in the Letter to the Hebrews that Jesus “is able for all time to save those who drew near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them (Hebrews 7:25).”
Jesus’ mediation is ontological and redemptive: The fact that Jesus Christ entered our world (being one with the Father and one of us) enables him to have unprecedented, unique, and perfect ontological mediation. Jesus Christ did not become a priest. He was already the High Priest even though at the time of his baptism he was anointed by the Holy Spirit. He is not ‘floating’ somewhere between the Father and us; he is ontologically the Son equal to the Father and therefore his mediation is far above all mediations (Letter to the Hebrews). In this regard Pope Benedict VI teaches: “The Church’s Magisterium, faithful to divine revelation, reasserts that Jesus Christ is the mediator and the universal redeemer: ‘The Word of God, through whom all things were made, was made flesh, so that as perfect man he could save all men and sum up all things in himself. The Lord…is he whom the Father raised from the dead, exalted and placed at his right hand, constituting him judge of the living and the dead.’ This salvific mediation implies also the unicity of the redemptive sacrifice of Christ, eternal high priest (cf. Heb 6:20; 9:11; 10:12-14).” (Dominus Iesus, 11)
Jesus the High Priest establishes all the sacraments: Jesus Christ is the High Priest who established all the sacraments. His baptism founded the sacrament of baptism. His sending of the Holy Spirit is the foundation of confirmation. In the Last Super, He instituted the Eucharist and the sacrament of priesthood: he himself being the High Priest, he ordained the Apostles priests at the Last Supper (Pope Paul VI emphasized that Jesus Christ, by instituting the Eucharist in the Last Supper, created the sacrament of priesthood by the same token). In Cana, He elevated marriage to be a sacrament. By sending the Holy Spirit on the apostles and giving them the authority to forgive sins, Jesus created the sacrament of reconciliation. By healing the sick He established the sacrament of holy anointing of the sick (See Letter of St. James).
Jesus’ Priesthood is shared by the priests
Two degrees of participation in Christ’s priesthood and one degree of service: From the beginning of the Church until today, the Church recognizes “two degrees in the ministerial participation in the priesthood: the episcopacy (bishops) and the presbyterate (priests).” (CCC, 1554). The diaconate is a degree of service to bishops and priests, not of participation. However, all three degrees are received through sacramental ordination.
Ordination cannot be erased or repeated: All degrees bestow on the candidate the seal of the Holy Spirit that will imprint on their character which cannot be removed and which configures them to Christ the High Priest forever (see CCC, 1570 and 1581). The Council of Trent strongly stated that “the sacrament of Holy Orders…confer an indelible spiritual character and cannot be repeated or conferred temporarily.” (DS, 1767)
Jesus the High Priest shares his priesthood with St. Peter and the Apostles and then with the Popes and the Bishops: Since the actions of Christ have eternal values, the ordination of St. Peter and the Apostles must continue in the Church until the end of time. The Popes (successors of St Peter) and all the Bishops (successors of the Apostles) extend Christ’s priesthood in our history. Vatican II teaches: “Just as in the Gospel…St. Peter and the other apostles constitute one apostolic college, so in a similar way the Roman Pontiff, the successor of St. Peter, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are joined together.” (Lumen Gentium 22)
In the Acts of the Apostles, the election of St. Matthias to take the place of Judas who betrayed Jesus, serves as a primary example how the Apostles knew the priestly mission of Christ must be extended until his Second Coming. Later on, St. Paul himself ordained Timothy and Titus to share in the apostolic mission. Then, as early as the year 99 AD, Pope St. Clement I testifies to this unbroken succession. Today, we can trace the ordination of Bishops in an unbroken line to the original Apostles and to St. peter himself (CCC, 1555-1560).
Jesus the High Priest shares his priesthood with ordained ministers: There is only one Priest, Jesus Christ. He shares his priesthood with all bishops, priests, and deacons of all time and enables the to act on behalf of the Person of Christ (in Persona Christi). St. Thomas Aquinas says: “Only Christ is the true priest, the others being only his ministers.” (Hebr. 8,4)
Priesthood is a ministry to serve not a personal capacity: Our priesthood is not a personal capacity, but an indelible seal we received at ordination that will be imprinted on our character forever. We are priests forever in the order of Melchizedek (figure of priesthood in the Old Testament fulfilled by Jesus in the New Testament). As Vatican II confirms, the office of priesthood “which the Lord committed to the pastors of his people is in the strict sense of the term a service.” (LG, 24)
Acting on behalf of the Person of Christ: When a priest celebrates the sacraments he is acting on behalf of the person of Christ. When I baptize a child, I say, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The “I” refers to Christ. When I am giving an absolution in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and I say, “Through the ministry of the Church may God grant you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from all your sins…,” the “I” refers to Christ. It does not refer to me in person. I am just sharing in the priesthood of Christ and acting on His behalf (in persona Christi). St. Thomas aquinas summarizes this by saying: “Christ is the source of all priesthood: the priest of the old law was afigure of Christ, and the priest of the new law acts in the person of Christ.” (STH III, 22, 4c)
Guaranteed sacramental grace because of Jesus’ Priesthood: The Holy Spirit is the agent at work in the priest and the Church to make Christ’s redemption take place. The sacraments, because Christ is the one who is performing them and because the Holy Spirit comes down on all of them, are always valid and 100% guaranteed. We call this ex opere operato in Latin. It means that the very same celebration automatically implies the presence of the Christ’s grace. Even though the minister might be a sinner, “the minister’s sin cannot impede the fruit of grace.” (CCC, 1550) This infidelity, however, harms the mission of the Church and causes scandals among the faithful.
Jesus’ Priesthood shared by weak and sinful men: Because of infinite love, wisdom, and mercy, Jesus Christ wanted and allowed weak and sinful human beings to exercise his Priesthood. In all their limitations, priests share in the Priesthood of Christ to re-enact his redemption in Church through the Sacraments. The priest acting on behalf of the Person of Christ is an unworthy instrument of Christ. No one will ever deserve to share in Christ’s priesthood.
How to face the sinfulness of the ministers: When we come across priests that are sinful, how can people maintain a balance between the sinfulness of the priest and the 100% guaranteed grace of the sacraments? The sinfulness of the priest prevents people sometimes from approaching the sacraments and push them out of the Church doors. We need to be committed to always receive the sacraments because the Priesthood of Christ is still giving us his divine grace that is not effected by the worthiness of the ministers. St Augustine forcefully states: “As for the proud minister, he is to be ranked with the devil. Christ’s gift is not thereby profaned: what flows through him keeps its purity, and what passes through him remains dear and reaches the fertile earth. . . . The spiritual power of the sacrament is indeed comparable to light: those to be enlightened receive it in its purity, and if it should pass through defiled beings, it is not itself defiled.” (PL 35, 1422)
Priesthood comes directly from Christ not from the Church
Priesthood comes from Christ to be exercised in the Catholic Church: The seal that the priest receives from Christ at ordination can never be taken away from the priest because the priesthood is received from Christ not the Church. Therefore, the priest has a big responsibility in fulfilling his priestly ministry: even though priesthood is a direct gift from Christ, it must always be exercised in the Church, for the service of the Church, and according to the rules and laws of the Church. Through this sacrament the condidate receives the Holy Spirit who “permits the exercise of a “sacred power’ which can come only from Christ through the Church.” (CCC, 1538)
The Church makes sure that the candidate is ordained according to the Apostolic succession as establsihed by Christ on St. Peter’s, the Apostles and their successors. In this regard, the second Vatican Council teaches that Christ “formed his Apostles after the manner of a college or a stable group, over which he placed Peter chosen from among them.” (Lumen gentium 19)
Priesthood cannot be taken away from any ordained priest: An example of how priesthood cannot be taken away from the priest. Suppose a priest leaves the exercise of his priestly ministry and gets married without the consent of the Church or the necessary process of laicization. The Church automatically asks that priest not to celebrate the sacraments. One day he decides to celebrate Mass, even though the Church asked him not to. Will the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ? Yes, because the priesthood comes from Christ, not from the Church. However, he is not permitted to celebrate Mass. In this case the sacrament of the Eucharist is valid, but not licit. In this sense The Catechism teaches: “It is true that someone validly ordained can, for grave reasons, be discharged from the obligations and functions linked to ordination, or can be forbidden to exercise them; but he cannot become a layman again in the strict sense, because the character imprinted by ordination is for ever. The vocation and mission received on the day of his ordination mark him permanently.” (CCC, 1583)
Validity of the sacrament of priesthood: According to the Catholic Church’s teaching, two conditions must be present for the Sacrament of Priesthood to be valid. One, the candidate must be male. The second, he must be ordained by a bishop who was ordained in line with the Apostolic Succession. Apostolic succession is the governing authority of the Church that was established by Christ himself on the Apostles who are under the leadership of St. Peter and in communion with him. It is an uninterrupted succion of the 12 Apostles and their successors down through the centuries in the Catholic hierarchy.
Orthodox Churches have a valid priesthood: Our brethren in the Orthodox Churches have valid ordinations because they never broke away from the Apostolic Succession. Even though in the year 1059 the Roman Catholic Church split from the Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Church never stopped valid ordinations of bishops according to the successions of the Apostles. Therefore, every single sacrament that any Orthodox priest or bishop performs is a valid sacrament. Hopefully one day we will all be reunited as one Church where we can have a full communion, not only communion in sacris (in the sacraments).
A spiritual note: Despite the priests’ weaknesses, sacraments are still instruments of the Priesthood of Christ. Parishioners are invited to support their priests, pray for them, love them, forgive them, invite them to be part of their lives (of course unless they are criminal abusers). That is a sign that you really support God’s plan in providing priests to celebrate the sacraments. In the Acts of the Apostles St. Paul reminds the importance of the role of the community in the life of those who “by the laying on of hands” have received the Sacrament of the Priesthood. All over the world today, the laying on of hands and the Sacrament of Priesthood continue despite all difficulties and scandals. Those of you who are thinking of becoming priests, it is very possible that the Spirit of Christ is talking to you.
By Fr. Antoine (Anthony) Nachef, STD (Doctorate in Sacred Theology)