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At the time of His ascension, Our Lord lifted up His hands, blessed His apostles, and sent them forth into the world to preach the Gospel and dispense the sacraments (Luke xxiv. 50). The bishop does much the same when he ordains priests. (The imposition of hands signifies that something is given, since gifts are distributed with the hand.)

1. At the administration of Holy Orders the bishop lays his hands on the candidates for ordination, calls down upon them the Holy Ghost, anoints their hands, and presents the sacred vessels to them.
They thereby receive, in addition to a plenitude of grace, the sacerdotal powers; more especially the power to offer the holy sacrifice and to forgive sins.

Holy Orders are administered during the celebration of Mass. The candidates for ordination first prostrate themselves upon their faces before the altar; then the bishop lays his hands upon the head of each one severally, the priests present doing the same. He next arrays them in the sacerdotal vestments; the Veni Sancte Spiritus is sung, and he anoints the hands of each one in turn with the sacred chrism in the form of a cross. He then gives the chalice and paten into their hands, thereby conferring on them the power to offer the holy sacrifice; after which he addresses to them the words of Our Lord: “Receive ye the Holy Ghost; whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven, etc.” Finally the newly-ordained are required to promise respect and obedience to the bishop. The ceremony of anointing the hands, and presenting the sacred vessels is only an accessory; it was not in use until the ninth century, and now has no place in the Greek ritual. Not only supernatural powers, but graces are imparted in the Sacrament of Orders. By this sacred ordinance the Holy Ghost is given (Council of Trent, 13, 2).

The Sacrament of Holy Orders was administered in the time of the apostles.

We read that the apostles consecrated Paul and Barnabas with prayer and imposition of hands (Acts xiii. 3), and in like manner St. Paul consecrated Timothy (2 Tim. i. 6). St. Augustine speaks of Orders as a sacrament when he inveighs against the Donatists, who asserted that while Baptism confers what can never be lost, the right of administering Baptism may be lost. “Both,” he declares, “are sacraments, and can only be received once.” The Sacrament of Orders was unquestionably instituted by Our Lord at the Last Supper.

2. The office of the priesthood, to which a man is raised by Holy Orders, is one of great dignity, but likewise one of no slight difficulty and of vast responsibility.

The priesthood is the highest dignity upon earth. It surpasses that of kings and emperors, nay, even of the angels themselves. “For,” as St. John Chrysostom remarks, “the power of kings is only over the bodies of men, whereas that of the priest is over their souls.” On the priest are conferred powers not accorded to angels; for to what angel was it ever given to convert bread into the body of the Lord by his word? and not all the angels together could grant pardon for a single sin. By his office a priest is only concerned with heavenly things; he stands between God and man; he lays our petition before the Most High and conveys divine graces to us. He is a mediator between God and man, the angel of the Lord of hosts (Mai. ii. 7), the messenger of God to make known His will to men. He is God’s representative, His ambassador, His plenipotentiary; therefore what soever honor we show to the priest, we. pay to God Himself. Does not Our Lord Himself say: “He that heareth you, heareth Me; and he that despiseth you, despiseth Me” (Luke x. 16)? In fact, St. Peter Damian says, God actually follows the priest, for what he declares on earth is ratified in heaven; and at his word the Second Person of the Holy Trinity becomes flesh beneath his hand as at the Incarnation. Hence we do well to address the priest as “your reverence.” St. Francis of Assisi used to say that if he met an angel and a priest at the same time he should salute the priest first. The sacerdotal office is also one of great difficulty; the obligations resting upon the priest are neither few nor light. He has to recite the breviary daily, which cannot be done under an hour and a quarter; he is pledged to lifelong celibacy; he has to visit the sick at any hour of the day or night when he may be called upon; he has to take the last sacraments to the dying, however contagious the disease from which they are suffering; he has often to sit for long hours in the confessional, to fast late, on account of the late Masses; he is bound to renounce all worldly amusements (such as dancing), to be liberal towards the poor, and much more besides. Priests ought to be the salt of the earth (Matt. v. 13). Nor must it be overlooked that zealous priests are in the present day frequently the objects of suspicion and persecution, and their apostolic labors are ill-rewarded. The votaries of the world are inclined to treat their priests like the dog in the fable, who bit the hand that was stretched out to save him from drowning. The priestly office is besides one of immense responsibility. If the wolf comes and rends the sheep, the shepherd is taken to task. So it is with the priests; they have to render an account of the souls committed to their charge (Heb. xiii. 17). “The duties of those who will have to give account for souls,” says St. Bernard, “are heavy and onerous.” On the day of his ordination St. John Chrysostom said: “I now need your prayers a thousandfold more, lest in the Day of Judgment I should, be cast into the exterior darkness.”

Since the sacerdotal office is in itself an office of such great dignity, we owe profound respect to the priest on account of his office, even if his life should not correspond to it.

Nothing can take away the dignity attaching to the priestly office, not even an ungodly life; therefore we ought always to entertain great reverence for it. Even pagan monarchs have been known to manifest deep veneration for the priests of the true God. When Alexander the Great was about to make a triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the high priest went out to meet him with all the priests arrayed in festal vestments, in order to ask a favor of him. Alexander dismounted from his horse, and instantly granted all that he asked. And when the general of the army expressed his surprise, Alexander replied: “It is not the high priest to whom I pay homage, but to the true God, Whose servant he is.” Attila also, the terrible King of the Huns, when advancing upon Rome to plunder the city, allowed himself to be prevailed upon by Pope Leo the Great, to desist from his purpose. Yet almighty God permits His priests to be en compassed with infirmity, in order that they may have the more compassion on them that are ignorant and that err (Heb. v. 2). St. Francis of Sales said of priests: “I will close my eyes to their faults, and only see in them God’s representatives.” How blameworthy are those who publish far and wide the misdeeds of a priest! “Are we,” asks St. Augustine, “to think slightingly of Christ and the apostles, because there was a Judas among them? Who will show me any body of men upon earth who are without faults?”

Since the office of the priesthood is one of much labor and grave responsibilities, no man ought to take Holy Orders who is not called to the sacerdotal state.

Let no man become a priest who feels no attraction for the sacred ministry; who has no longing to save souls, who leads an irregular life, or who only thinks of the priesthood as a means of gaining a living easily, and enjoying a comfortable competence. Parents are greatly to blame who force their sons to take Orders without a vocation, for those who enter the priesthood without a true vocation are unhappy and discontented all their life long. They neglect the duties of their calling, give scandal, and finally too often lose their souls. For this reason many eminent saints positively refused to receive Holy Orders or to be raised to the episcopate. St. Francis of Assisi remained a deacon to the end of his days. St. Cyprian concealed himself when he was to be appointed Bishop of Carthage; St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil acted in a similar manner. They all considered themselves unworthy of the dignity offered them, and only accepted it when they recognized it to be the will of God that they should do so. Almighty God calls to the priesthood whom He will; witness Our Lord’s words to the apostles: “You have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you” (John xv. 16).

3. The Sacrament of Holy Orders only confers the perpetual power, not the right, to exercise the functions of a priest. The newly ordained cannot therefore make use in any place of their sacerdotal powers, until they have received ecclesiastical authorization.

The qualification for the sacred ministry consists in the trans mission of the powers appertaining to the sacerdotal office: those of a teacher, a priest and a pastor. In the Old Testament the priestly powers were hereditary in Aaron’s family (Exod. xxviii.); in the New Testament they are handed down by spiritual descent by means of Holy Orders. Besides these powers, the priest receives at ordination abundant graces belonging to his state. Outwardly he may appear the same, but inwardly he is a changed man. An indelible character is imprinted upon his soul by that ordinance; the powers he has received can never be lost, into whatever sins he may fall. He who has once been a priest cannot again become a layman (Council of Trent, 23, 4); a priest who has apostatized and been reconciled to the Church is not re-ordained. All the sacerdotal acts of a priest who has seceded from the Church are valid, only he cannot forgive sins (except in the case of the dying, when no other priest can be had). Priests of the schismatic Greek Church are not ordained again, if they return to the allegiance of the Catholic Church; but the Protestant clergy most certainly are. Ecclesiastical jurisdiction is given to the priest by his bishop; the bishops receive it from the Pope. The secular authorities have no power to grant ecclesiastical jurisdiction, for it is not theirs to give. Even in the time of the apostles the deacons were not nominated by the people; the apostles ordained those who had been chosen and appointed them to the work (Acts vi. 3, 6). St. Timothy was consecrated to the episcopate by the imposition of the hands of the priesthood (1 Tim. i. 14). Consequently the apostles called themselves the “ministers of Christ” (1 Cor. iv. 1). Any one who should attempt to exercise sacerdotal functions without the authorization of the bishop, would, as Our Lord says, be a thief and a robber, because “he entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth in some other way” (John x. 1). A priest must have faculties for hearing confessions, from the bishop of the diocese where he happens to be. This is separate from the pastoral office. A catechist, or teacher, who imparts religious instruction should also have the episcopal authorization. Any one who should be so daring as to exercise any priestly functions without having been admitted to Holy Orders or without episcopal authorization, would, in Catholic countries, be punished by the secular government; at any rate, terrible chastisements would fall on him from God. King Ozias presumed, in spite of the warn ing of the priests, to burn incense on the altar of incense; he was immediately struck with leprosy, and was a leper until the day of his death (2 Par. xxvi.). In the time of Moses, Core, with two hundred and fifty of the leading men of the synagogue, rebelled against Moses and presumed to offer incense in the tabernacle; they were destroyed by fire from the Lord, and the earth swallowed up the three ringleaders (Numb, xvi.).

4. No one can be admitted to priest’s Orders who has not attained the age of twenty-four years (Council of Trent, 23, 12).

The Holy See has the right of dispensing candidates for the priesthood if they are within twenty months of the required age. Besides the prescribed ages, those who are to be raised to the priest hood must possess the following qualifications: They must have the knowledge suited to, and necessary for, the due discharge of their functions; they must be conspicuous for piety and chastity; they must have been born in wedlock and be free from physical defects which might excite derision in others. Men who have been married twice are disqualified for the priesthood, although those who have been married once may, under certain conditions, be received. All men cannot be priests (Eph. iv. 11; 1 Cor. xii. 29). Yet we frequently find all the faithful spoken of as priests (1 Pet. ii. 9), inasmuch as they ought to accomplish to the glory of God good works which are in a certain measure a spiritual oblation; they are priests inasmuch as they immolate themselves in the service of God as spiritual victims. In the same sense the faithful in general are spoken of as kings, because they ought to rule over their fleshly lusts.

5. Six other orders of ministry precede the priesthood, four lesser and two greater.

By these several and divers Orders, as by certain steps, advance is made unto the priesthood (Council of Trent, 23, 4). This is to emphasize the dignity of the priesthood. For the same reason a fixed period of time must intervene between the reception of the different degrees of higher orders. The first preparation for Orders is the reception of the tonsure, by which a man is taken into the ranks of the clergy, and becomes a cleric, no longer _ a layman. In giving the tonsure, the bishop cuts off some of the hair from the top of the candidate’s head. After this the four minor Orders are given, which impart to him who receives them the right to minister, to the priest by virtue of his office. The first of the three greater Orders, the subdiaconate, follows. This was formerly reckoned among the minor Orders, but is classed by the Council of Trent among the major Orders; it confers the right to arrange everything in the sanctuary, and serve the priest at the altar, and pledges the recipient to celibacy and to the recitation of the breviary. The bishop may empower an ordinary priest to administer the tonsure and the four minor Orders, but not so the greater.

6. There are three degrees in the Sacrament of Orders: The consecration of deacons, priests, and bishops. These three constitute but one sacrament.

The second of the greater Orders is the diaconate, which was instituted by the apostles for the relief of the poor. It confers the power to preach, to baptize, and to dispense holy communion. The three most celebrated deacons mentioned in the annals of the Church are St. Stephen, who was stoned by the Jews; St. Lawrence, who was broiled upon a gridiron in Rome; and St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan Order, who bore in his body the sacred stigmata. One year after the acceptance of the diaconate follows ordination proper, the priesthood, whereby the power is given to offer the holy sacrifice of the Mass, and to forgive sins. There is one degree higher than the priesthood, and that is the episcopate. By this power is conferred to ordain priests, to administer Confirmation and to rule the Church of God. For the consecration of a bishop three bishops must take part. These three ordinations form but one sacrament. The consecration of deacons appertains virtually to the Sacrament of Holy Orders, because it confers an inferior part of the sacerdotal powers, and is administered with imposition of hands and prayer. St. Paul mentions deacons together with bishops and priests; the Fathers speak of them with the utmost reverence, as the “ministers of God,” and the Council of Trent reckons them of the ecclesiastical hierarchy (Council of Trent, 23, 6). The consecration of priests appertains to the Sacrament of Orders, because by it the greater part of the sacerdotal powers are conferred. The consecration of bishops is the completion of the Sacrament of Orders; by it the plenitude of the sacerdotal power is communicated. The principal distinction between a bishop and a priest is that the former can ordain priests and the latter cannot. When at the Council of Alexandria in 319, the Arians accused St. Athanasius, who was then bishop of that town, of having treated a priest named Ischyras with undue severity, the Synod dismissed the charge on the ground that Ischyras was not a priest, since he had been ordained by a priest, not a bishop.

7. It is the duty of the faithful to pray God to send them good priests.

Our Lord says: “Pray ye the Lord of the harvest that He send forth laborers into His harvest” (Matt. ix. 38). Remember that a priest is the salvation or the perdition of his flock. In the Old Testament we read that when other scourges were of no avail to turn the people, hardened in sin, from their evil ways, God sent upon them the heaviest scourge of all, wicked and corrupt priests. Let us therefore make it our continual prayer, that we may have good priests. The Ember days are appointed for this purpose. Special prayer should be offered to the Holy Ghost, for unless a priest is enlightened by the Holy Spirit we may apply to him the words: “If the blind lead the blind, both fall into the pit” (Matt. xv. 14).


This article, 6. HOLY ORDERS is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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