Fulton J. Sheen – with special thanks to http://www.fultonsheen.com
Because man lives in a society of free men, there must be some government and order to make justice prevail. Since there is the order of grace above creature, it too must have degrees, order, hierarchy, and government; this Christ supplied in the Sacrament of Holy Orders with its three ascending levels of deaconship, priesthood, and episcopacy.
Our Blessed Lord is the Mediator between God and Man, being both God and man. But in order to meditate His redemption, He desires human instruments between Himself and the world, each of whom will be “the minister and dispenser of the Mysteries of God” (I Corinth. 4:1). And so, some men are appointed by God to deliver the sacraments to others, just as in human societies one group serves and ministers to another:
“The purpose for which any high priest is chosen from among his fellow-men, and made a representative of men in their dealings with God, is to offer gifts and sacrifices in expiation of their sins. (Heb. 5:11)
The Call from God
In the fifth chapter of Hebrews, verse four, there is written: “His vocation comes from God, as Aaron’s did; nobody can take on himself such a privilege as this.” When a priest receives the call from God, something happens to his soul, like that which happened to Peter in his barque one dark night when Christ entered it. The young man with a vocation reacts as did Peter: “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man.” There is a double tension: one of attraction to the divine, the other, subtraction, because of one’s own unworthiness; a desire to approach the All-Holy, and a shrinking because of one’s own sense of inadequacy.
Then begins a minimum of six years of difficult study and moral and spiritual discipline, as one asks himself a thousand times if he is worthy. Either with the crucifix that hangs on the wall of his simple room, or to the crucifix on his desk, he carries on a constant dialogue.
The seminarian knows how human he is, and yet, like Christ on the Cross, suspended between heaven and earth, abandoned by one and rejected by the other, the world expects him to be more than human. Called to be as pure and as holy as an angel, he is conscious of his own weakness, bearing about as he does the rich treasure in a frail vessel. And yet he must fulfill the words of his Master: “Thou hast sent me into the world on thy errand, and I have sent them into the world on my errand” (John 17:18). From now on, he no longer takes the short breaths of the world; he must draw in strength from the world of the spirit.
The Priest and Celibacy
Our Lord wished to have a group of men who would have the freedom to give full time to His service; hence He ordained in order that they who served the altar were to live by the altar. Celibacy in the Latin Rite stresses this quality of total dedication. The priest is a celibate in order that he might not have the cares of family and, therefore, not be afraid to minister to people in plague or to give the last rites to soldiers dying in battle. St. Paul, speaking of celibacy as a spur to undivided service, writes: “And I would have you free from concern. He who is unmarried is concerned with God’s claim, asking how he is to please God” (I Corinth. 7:32).
Chastity, however, is not something cold or negative. It is, as Francis Thompson called it, “a passionless passion, a wild tranquillity.” A man cannot live without love, though he can live without romantic love or the Eros. The divine command, “increase and multiply” (Gen. 1:28) may be verified not only with reference to the body, but also to the soul. There can be increase of man in the cultural, moral, and religious spheres. The priest is called a “father,” because he begets souls in Christ. As St. Paul wrote to the Galatians: “My little children, I am in travail over you afresh, until I can see Christ’s image formed in you” (Gal. 4:19). The purer the mirror of his humanity is, the better he reflects the image of Christ.
Though a priest is called a father, nevertheless, he is also a “mother” of children. Our Blessed Lord used two analogies to describe His attitude toward the city that He loved, and also to all humanity. He said that He loved Jerusalem as a hen who gathers her chickens, but the city refused His love. The night of the Last Supper, He used the similitude of a mother about to bring forth a child, implying that He would be in labor in His Crucifixion, but would bring forth new life in His Resurrection.
The Ordination of the Priest
The dress of the priest takes one back to the classical days of Greece and Rome, when the Church became the spiritual Israel. The early clergy wore no distinctive dress, but rather clothed themselves in the garb of the ordinary people. Later on when the classical Roman dress began to be superseded by the dress of the barbarians, the conservativeness of religion asserted itself and, in consequence, the priest wore vestments which were no longer in secular use.
When the deacons enter the cathedral to be vested, they wear an amice, which was originally a white linen kerchief worn about the neck and the shoulders. When he put it on his head and shoulders, he said the prayer: “Place, O Lord, the helmet of salvation on my head to the defeat of diabolical invasion.” Over the amice, he wears the alb, which was the original Roman tunic with long sleeves, around the waist of which he ties the cincture which is the symbol of chastity.
Over the alb is worn a maniple, which in the early days of the Greeks and Romans was a kind of handkerchief worn on the left forearm, used at meals for wiping mouth and hands. The consul during the Roman Empire used it as a sign to start the races in the circus. The Church first used it to wipe communion vessels and hands in the celebration of the Mass. The symbolism of the maniple is to remind the priest of the bonds which once held the hands of the Savior. This is signified in the prayer which is offered when the maniple is put on, begging that the cares and sorrows of earthly life should be borne with patience in view of heavenly reward.
Now we come to two vestments which are worn by deacons when they come to the altar for ordination; namely, the stole and the chasuble. The stole originally was a loose robe worn by the ancients, and in this sense the word is still used by the English poets. Thus, Milton pictures Melancholy as having “a sable stole of cypress lawn, over her decent shoulders drawn.”
In the Old Testament, the Levites were described as being clad in stoles when conducting the sacred Ark to Jerusalem. In the “Book of the Apocalypse,” the saints are “clothed in white stoles.” The stole is worn only by deacons, priests, and bishops, but each wears it in a different way, and it is associated with sacred orders. When, however, the deacon enters the Church, the stole is carried only on one shoulder, while over the left arm the deacon carries a folded chasuble. In the right hand, he bears a lighted candle, and in the cincture is a linen cloth, which will eventually be used for tying the hands, after they have been anointed with oil.
During the ceremony of ordination, the bishop draws a part of the stole which rests at the back of the candidate’s neck over the breast and lays the two ends crosswise. The chasuble which he carries and which is a symbol of charity, is folded at the beginning of the ordination ceremony, as an indication that the one who wears it is not a priest. At a later point in the ceremony, the chasuble is unfolded. The symbolism of this is that, in the first part of the Mass, the deacon is made a priest and given the power of offering sacrifice to God. In the second part of the ceremony, the chasuble is then let down when he is empowered to preach and forgive sins. This indicates the more complete powers of the priest.
St. John Chrysostom explains well the reason why priests wear different vestments at the altar than on the street: “When you see a priest offering the Sacrifice, do not think of it as if it were he that is doing this; it is the Hand of Christ invisibly stretched forth.” The priest is really only a tool, but he is a tool in the sense that Aristotle called man a living tool. The vestments hide and submerge his own personality so that men may know it is Christ Who teaches, Who governs, and Who sanctifies.
The Call from the Bishop
No man can be ordained unless he has been called by Christ through the bishop. When Our Lord called His Apostles, He called them by name, and this ceremony is repeated in the Sacrament of Holy Orders. The Latin rite begins by the archdeacon presenting the deacons, saying that the Holy Church asks them to be elevated to the rank of priest. The bishop, reading from the Pontifical, reminds them of the old custom of the Church, when the people were consulted concerning the life, conduct, and morals of the clergy before they were elevated to the priesthood. He then tells them that as Moses elected seventy elders from the different tribes of Israel to aid him in the government of the people of the Old Law, as Our Lord chose seventy-two disciples to preach the Gospel, so are they to aid the bishop in the sacred ministry of sacrificing, blessing, presiding, preaching, and baptizing.
The bishop seated on the faldstool at the middle of the altar begins the ceremony of ordination. The archdeacon summons the future priests with these words: “Let all those who are to be ordained priests come forward.” As they advance, their names are read out one by one. Each answers: Adsum (“I am present”) and then steps forward. The calling by name means that there shall be no intruders and that the priesthood is a divine vocation or calling. Our Lord “calls His sheep by name” even now as He did in Galilee.
After the bishop calls out the names, there follows a very solemn warning, that they come not under false pretenses, that they are under no penalties of the Church, and that they be not illegitimate:
“Most Reverend Father and Lord in Christ, [name of Bishop] by the grace of God and the Apostolic See, Bishop of [diocese] commands and charges under pain of excommunication that no one here present for the purpose of taking Orders, shall presume to come forward for ordination under any pretext, if he be irregular, excommunicate in any law or by judicial sentence, under interdict or suspension, illegitimate or infamous, or in any other way disqualified, or of any other diocese, unless he has the license of the bishop; and that none of the ordained shall depart until the Mass is over and the Bishop’s blessing has been received.”
The archdeacon then bids the bishop to ordain these deacons “to the burden of the priesthood.” The phrase that is used is onus or burden. The priesthood and the episcopacy are both called burdens, not honors. This is because the terrific burden or responsibility of saving souls entrusted to them is laid upon them there. Such was the idea given to Moses when he complained to the Lord: “Must I carry a whole people like a weight on my back?” (Num. 11:11).
As if still hesitant as to whether or not the deacons should be ordained, the bishop then asks the archdeacon the question: “Do you know them to be worthy?” To which he answers: “So far as human frailty allows one to know, I do know, and I testify that they are worthy to undertake the burden of this office.” The bishop then answers, “Deo Gratias” (“Thanks be to God”).
Moral certitude about the worthiness of the candidates is required like the certitude that Moses was to have when God told him to gather seventy men among the ancients of Israel whom he knew to be worthy. This concern for the worthiness of the candidates has always been present in the Old Testament and the New, for St. Paul tells Timothy that before he ordains any priests he should be very certain of their worthiness: “He must bear a good character, too, in the world’s eyes; or he may fall into disrepute, and become a prey to the False Accuser” (I Tim. 3:7).
The bishop, as if not satisfied with assurance of the archdeacon, asks the people if they know any reason why the deacons should not be ordained. There follows a moment of silence, in which the people are given an opportunity to protest, if need be, against any one of the candidates.
The deacons now prostrate themselves flat upon the ground and become as dead men, while over them the Church, chanting the Litany of the Saints, invokes heaven to intercede, or pray for them, to be merciful to them, and to make them good priests.
The prostration of the deacons during the Litanies is a slightly different form of prayer than that which was used in the Old Testament, when the Jews generally stood to pray. It was only in times of great stress that they ever knelt (Acts 7:59 and Acts 9:40), such as when Stephen and Peter knelt. The Jews, however, did lay prostrate before the High Priest for a solemn blessing on the Day of Atonement (Ecclus. 50:19-26), and as Our Lord did in the Agony in the Garden. But the reason for the kneeling is somewhat related to a prayer that went before, where the ordinandi were told “as they celebrate the mysteries of the Lord’s death, they must be earnest in mortifying their members of all vices and concupiscence.” Being prostrate is a symbol of their spiritual death, in which they die to their flesh and its concupiscences at the same time, that they invoke all the saints in heaven to let them have a resurrection worthy of being ministers of the Word.
As the body of Adam came from the slime of the earth, when God breathed into it a living soul, so each priest yielding his body to be an instrument of Christ, prays fervently that it may never be a blunt instrument. Then when he rises from the ground, his hands are bound with a purificator, tied together in slavery, but that sweet slavery of love. With Paul he says “I am alive; or rather, not I; it is Christ that lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).
The Laying on of Hands
The bishop lays hands on the priests without saying anything. When a bishop is consecrated, the hands of the consecrating prelates are laid on him with the words: “Receive the Holy Spirit,” but in ordination, these words are omitted. This laying on or imposition of hands is what is called the “matter” of the sacrament, and is part of the ritual of other sacraments, like Baptism, Confirmation, Penance, and the Anointing of the Sick.
There are many instances in the Old Testament of laying on of hands. Jacob put his right hand on the head of Ephraim, and his left hand on the head of Manasse and pronounced a blessing (Gen. 48:14, 15). Aaron and his sons placed their hands on the heads of victims to be offered in sacrifice:
“He is to lay his hand on the head of the victim, and it is to be immolated at the entrance of the tabernacle that bears record of me, the priests who represent Aaron’s family pouring its blood upon the altar.” (Lev. 3:2)
God told Moses to lay his hand on Josue (Num. 27:18) and Aaron after offering sacrifice. In the Old Testament, it signified that a victim or a person was dedicated to a holy purpose, and also that there was a flowing out of power from the one who laid on the hands.
Investiture of Priesthood
The bishop chants a preface invoking the Holy Spirit upon those who are to be ordained; then follows what is known as the “form” of the sacrament:
“We beseech Thee, Almighty Father, invest these Thy servants with the dignity of the priesthood. Do Thou renew in their hearts the spirit of holiness. Help them to be steadfast in the office of second priestly rank received from Thee, O Lord, and to inspire others to strive for perfection by their example. May they become zealous fellow workers in our ministry. May they shine in all the Christian virtues, so that they will be able to give a good account of the stewardship entrusted to them, and finally attain the reward of everlasting life. Through the same Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Our Lord, Who lives and reigns with Thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God forever and ever. Amen.”
The bishop arranges the stole in the form of a cross over the chest, saying: “Take the yoke of the Lord, for His yoke is sweet and His burden light.” Then he invests each with the chasuble, still unfolded, saying: “Receive, the vesture of priesthood, which is the symbol of charity. God is well able to increase charity in you and make perfect your works.”
After the “Veni Creator Spiritus” has been sung, in which the Holy Spirit is invoked, the bishop proceeds to anoint the hands of each in the form of a cross. The bishop’s right thumb is dipped in the oil of catechumens; with the oil he traces a cross with his right thumb, a line from the thumb of the right hand to the index finger of the left, and the other from the thumb of the left to the index finger of the right. Then he anoints the hands all over, and as he does so, he says: “Be pleased, O Lord, to consecrate and hallow these hands by this anointing and our blessing. Amen.” He makes a sign over each saying: “Whatsoever they bless may be blessed, and whatsoever they consecrate may be consecrated and hallowed in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In the Old Testament, the candidate was anointed with holy oil which, in the case of the high priest, was poured upon his head, but in the case of the other priests, it was merely put upon his forehead. The anointed hands of the priests are folded and tied together with a linen cloth, so as to allow the oil to penetrate into his hands. He then becomes Christ’s bondsman (Eph. 3:1)
Fulton Sheen on Priesthood – Part I