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Celebrations of Grace: The Sacraments of the Catholic Church

By Jack Hartjes

Thinking about Holy Orders

Like the married couple, the ordained priest, deacon, or bishop is a sign of God's love that lasts far beyond the celebration of the sacrament. In the sacrament of Holy Orders and in the sign of the ordained person, we come to see that God's is no condescending love, giving everything and demanding nothing. God's love includes a call for all of us to participate in the priestly work of Christ and support for us when we do. It's unnerving to see how much faith God has in us.

Holy Orders is a Catholic sacrament not recognized by Protestants. Protestants want to safeguard two truths: Christ is the one priest, and the people of God are a holy priesthood. So it's important to state that Holy Orders does not set up a number of priests alongside Christ, offering up sacrifices for the People of God. Rather, the ordained priesthood is sign of the priestly work that Christ does everywhere all the time. And to this priestly work, which includes the work of the Church's liturgical celebrations, Christ invites the entire People of God.

A clear call to do God's work comes to each of us with Baptism. The special grace of our ordained ministers is to recognize and call forth the gift for service that each of the baptized possesses. Their role is leadership, a supporting, facilitating leadership. Their work for God is to help all of us, God's people, fulfill our priestly vocation.

The priest has a special role in the sacraments, but this role has been wrongly interpreted in the past and the role of the assembly nearly lost. I remember thinking that what is special about the priest is the “power” to consecrate the bread and wine, an idea that has been with the Church since the Middle Ages, but not earlier than that. I remember thinking about the priest’s hands. At ordination they were anointed with oil, a minor rite added to the ordination ceremony in the Middle Ages, so I thought only priests were allowed to touch the consecrated hosts with their hands. The priest, standing before the high altar at the farthest end of the church with his back to the people, was elevated above the rest of us. He prayed directly to God while the people seemingly prayed to God through him (except that, looking closer, you could have seen many in the congregation saying their own private prayers). That elevation of the priest above the people continued outside of Mass in the way we treated our priests and in the way they were expected to dress and act.

Without the priest, without the sacrament of Holy Orders, there can’t be a Mass. That doesn’t mean that the priest has some sort of power bestowed at ordination or that priests are closer to God or separate from other people. What is special about ordained ministers is clearly seen in all their work at liturgy, their work of supporting, gathering, preaching, and presiding over liturgical celebrations. This understanding puts the priest in relation to the rest of the assembly. It says, better than the idea that I grew up with, that the priest represents Christ and so acts like Christ. Jesus didn’t operate at a distance from people.

In a sacrament people come together to worship in a local parish church. They gather as the Body of Christ around one who represents Christ the Head. This person is the ordained priest, who leads the celebration and recites most of its spoken prayers, including the central Eucharistic Prayer. The people’s “Amen” says that it’s their prayer, too. The priest encourages and honors the use of the parishioners’ gifts for service, whether in the world or in the liturgy, and helps make that liturgy one prayer of God’s people.

The main symbol in the ceremony of Holy Orders is the laying on of hands by the bishop, who possesses the fullness of the ordained priesthood and through whom alone ordination is conferred. There may be other bishops and probably will be several priests present. They all lay their hands on the head of the one being ordained. It is a powerful reminder of the entire history of the Church extending back to the apostles.

Not that we can prove with historical records that the apostles and early Church leaders always used that gesture to consecrate new leaders, but it's a sign that has been used for millennia. And here's the point: That 2000-year history is not just past. The connection with the apostles that we sometimes call apostolic succession is not only about things that have happened.  AnchorApostolic succession does not mean, “It would be best if we could have lived in the time of the Apostles, and this is the next best thing.” The Spirit stays with the Church as well as the authority, the power of the keys, to act on the promptings of the Spirit, to learn and change. As Jesus did once and without faltering, so the Church in its history, though sometimes allowing steps to wander, can grow “in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.” (Luke 2:52) The Church may often act out of fear of change, but apostolic succession is far from a conservative idea.

The Church's history is one of the graces that God is giving to the Church now. God continually gives new graces to the Church, but when we try to know these new graces better, we often look to what the Church did and understood in the past. The Church has many reminders of its history—ancient prayers and creeds, ancient songs, ancient buildings and artifacts and relics—but nothing makes me feel part of this history quite like being present for the laying on of hands.

The newly ordained does not suddenly become a minister, a worker in the field, a channel of grace, a bridge between God and humankind. Those descriptions apply to Christ and the entire People of God. The ordained priest’s role does not center on the sanctuary while the laity do God's work "in the world." Priest, bishops, and deacons, called from the people but not separate from them, are signs and instruments of the support God gives all of us when, in the secular world or in the sacred space of the Church's worship, we do God's work.

Think again:

How can the sign of the ordained priesthood in today’s Church help you feel as if you are doing God’s work? When have you felt that you needed support in doing God’s work? What support do you derive from celebrating the liturgy? From personal contact with deacons, priests, or your bishop? From the actions and teachings of the universal Church? What helps you believe that you participate in Christ’s priesthood? How does your work for God relate to people who do not believe in Jesus?


Ordination of men only

The Catholic Church admits only men to the ordained priesthood and says it cannot do otherwise. Several reasons are given, and here I intend to deal with, and criticize, only one—that the priest, as representative of Christ, must have a physical resemblance to Jesus, who was a man. I make no claim to being able to decide the issue of ordaining women or limiting ordination to men. I can only say adequate reasons for the Church's position seem to be wanting.

There are many ways that the Church shows its concern for solid, material, physical stuff, including its entire sacramental theology. That is one of the Church’s strengths. I take seriously, therefore, the Church's insistence on a physical resemblance between the priest and Christ. Without it there is no outward sign of priesthood.

Physical resemblance is even more important than that. Without it there is no salvation for anyone. Or else you’d have to deny a central Christian teaching—that our bodies as well as our souls are saved--women's as well as men's bodies, one of each, according to Catholic belief, being already in heaven. “What God has not assumed God has not saved” is the thought of Gregory of Nissa, and it’s repeated in the Catholic Catechism.

This resemblance begins with an act of the Son of God, who became like all of us in all things but sin. Jesus, presumably, is not tall like really tall people or short like really short people, but he is like everyone of any particular height just by having a particular height. By being the particular color that he was Jesus became like all human beings, who have to be one color or another. Jesus inherited a particular ethnicity and culture, too, but the Church decided very early on that the gentiles did not have to become Jews like Jesus first in order to become Christian. Likewise, Jesus had to be one sex or the other, and that is what makes him resemble all of us of either sex. Jesus would not have resembled anyone if he had, in some inhuman way, skipped over all the human limitations and been both sexes at once plus all the possible heights and colors and if he had had the benefit of every cultural and ethnic heritage. As it is, the Jewish man Jesus saved both of our sexes and every other human quality, physical and spiritual. We’ll see them all in heaven.

Jesus’ resemblance to us makes it possible for Christians to represent him both in the secular world and in the sacred sphere of Liturgy. In those celebrations we represent Jesus to each other in carrying out our various roles, whether as presider, server, lector, song leader, or member of the assembly. Both men and women represent Jesus in all of these roles except that of presider. Resemblance alone does not seem to be an adequate basis for that exception.

 On to 17, Church