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The Sacrament of Holy Orders, part two Print E-mail
Year of Faith
Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013 -- 12:00 AM

By Abbot Marcel Rooney, OSB

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This is the second installment in a two-part series on the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

The ordination of priests

From the outset, the Rite of Ordination of a Priest places this sacrament in the context of Jesus, our great High Priest, choosing “certain disciples to carry out publically in His Name, and on behalf of mankind, a priestly office in the Church.”

As such, priests are called to be co-workers with the order of bishops.

Interested in learning more about the Mass?

Abbot Marcel Rooney's DVD series, “Reflections on Holy Mass” may be ordered through the Orate Institute of Sacred Liturgy, Music, and Art via the institute’s Web site at www.OrateInstitute.org or by phone at 608-203-6735.

This is the second installment in a two-part series on the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

The ordination of priests

From the outset, the Rite of Ordination of a Priest places this sacrament in the context of Jesus, our great High Priest, choosing “certain disciples to carry out publically in His Name, and on behalf of mankind, a priestly office in the Church.”

As such, priests are called to be co-workers with the order of bishops.

This calls for them to be specially configured to Christ the eternal High Priest, as well as to recognize that they are united to their bishop and subject to him in their care of the people of God.

Because that care is so all-consuming, the Church has decided that this Order should be conferred only on those who are committed to the celibate state. It took centuries for the Church to come to this decision.

For those who truly embrace celibacy with the whole heart, it can prove to be a great boon to the work they are called to do in the priesthood.

Offices of the priest

Three offices in particular are highlighted in the Rite of Ordination of a Priest:

  • The office of Teacher, particularly through the preaching of the Gospel.
  • The office of Sanctifier, particularly through the celebration of the sacred liturgy above all, the sacraments, and other forms of the official prayer of the Church.
  • The office of Shepherd, following the example of Jesus the Good Shepherd, in bringing the faithful people of God into unity, and then leading them to God the Father through Christ and in the Holy Spirit.

The calling to be a priest in Holy Orders, as was said earlier about the calling to be bishop, is indeed a wonderful grace for the Church and for all mankind.

The ordination of deacons

The Rite of Ordination of a Deacon begins by making it clear what the role of the deacon is to be: helpers to the bishop and the priests. The very word “deacon” comes from the Greek word meaning “service,” and so the rite calls upon the ordained deacon to be “servants of all.”

Service of the deacons

The “help” that deacons give the other two sacred Orders is specified in three areas:

  • The ministry of the Word.
  • The ministry of the altar.
  • The ministry of charity.

The first ministry, of the Word, means that the deacon must be a man of deep faith, committed to proclaiming the faith according to the Gospel and the Church’s tradition. To preach and teach the faith in each of the Holy Orders calls for those ordained to draw very near to Jesus in order to follow in His footsteps and to be sensitive to the call of the Holy Spirit at different moments of their lives. St. Stephen is their model and patron in this ministry.

The deacon’s second ministry, of the altar, calls for him to assist the priest in the celebration of the sacred liturgy. But this cannot be mere performance, says the rite of ordination. Rather, it must be real prayer, real union with Jesus, our great High Priest, who is the true minister of every sacrament.

The deacon’s third ministry, of charity, goes back to New Testament and early patristic times. It was the task of the deacon to take sustenance and alms, which were collected at the community Holy Eucharist, and distribute them to the poor and needy. St. Lawrence is their model and patron in this ministry.

Deacons today

Today, the Church has limited reception of this Holy Order to men, although there is strong historical evidence, in the Eastern Rite churches, that there were deaconesses also. But as no liturgy for their ordination has come down to us, it is not clear whether this was understood to be properly a sacrament of Holy Orders or not.

Another striking fact: in our times the Church has restored the permanent diaconate, after centuries in which the diaconate was always temporary, i.e., the final step for seminarians on the way to priesthood.

Those called to the permanent diaconate may be married — as they usually were in the early Church.

Distinct from priesthood

However, in no way does this Order threaten the calling or vocation to priesthood, since the two Orders are entirely distinct callings from the Lord, and distinct gifts of the Holy Spirit.

The Church is blessed by the gift it has received for Jesus and the Holy Spirit that leads men to embrace one of the Holy Orders.


Abbot Marcel Rooney, O.S.B., is president of the Orate Institute of Sacred Liturgy, Music and Art, resident in the Madison Diocese. The Institute is devoted to helping people understand more and pray better the sacred liturgy.