Revisiting the Sacraments: Holy Orders

June 2015 Reflection Fr Patrick Bridgman Last month we began to look at the Sacraments in Service of Communion, initially discussing the Sacrament of Marriage. It is helpful to restate…

June 2015


Fr Patrick Bridgman

Last month we began to look at the Sacraments in Service of Communion, initially discussing the Sacrament of Marriage. It is helpful to restate why Sacraments of Marriage and Holy Orders are described in that way:

‘Holy Orders and Matrimony are directed towards the salvation of others; if they contribute as well to personal salvation, it is through service to others that they do so. They confer a particular mission in the Church and serve to build up the People of God.’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1534)

There is that modern axiom, ‘it’s not all about you!’. This could never be more truthful than when we consider Christian Marriage and the Diaconate, Priesthood, and the Episcopacy. These states of life, celebrated in Sacramental form, are not about the person or persons. Rather they concern Christ, and how the people of God can be built up in the world through the people who are married and ordained.

The Sacrament of Holy Orders has gone through a great deal of change over the past 2000 years. The original disciples may not recognise the priesthood of today as being easily related to the leadership of the early Church. We hope in the underlying mission of service they would recognise the same ministry they were called to by the Lord.

Firstly, let us remember the writings from Vatican Council II about priesthood: ‘The whole Church is a priestly people. Through Baptism all the faithful share in the priesthood of Christ. This participation is called the “common priesthood of the faithful”. Based on this common priesthood and ordered to its service, there exists another participation in the mission of Christ: the ministry conferred by the sacrament of Holy Orders, where the task is to serve in the name and in the person of Christ the Head in the midst of the community,’ (Lumen Gentium 10, CCC 1591).

The priesthood of Judaism had been restricted to the House of Levi, one of the 12 tribes of Israel, and the ‘sons of Aaron’ were those who ministered in the Holy of Holies within the Temple in Jerusalem.
In the early church the initial disciples continued to gather in the synagogues to listen to the Hebrew Scriptures being proclaimed and discussed, and then would gather in the homes of leading Christians to remember the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and to ‘break bread’, as he had commanded. The service of leadership was clearly vested in the Apostles, and then, as can be witnessed in the Scriptures, in those who were called to assist them in the care of the community of faith. There is mention of the 70 being sent out, and of the deacons called to distribute the offerings to the poor, widows and orphans.

Places and time had influence on the form of leadership in the Christian community. In some places there was a ‘team approach’, as it would be described today, and in others places there were charismatic leaders who stood out and became a leader of a specific local Church. Gradually, with the growth in the numbers of Christian communities, and the acceptance of Christianity by the Roman Empire, aspects from civil life came to be merged with Christian leadership, and the ministries of the Bishop, the Priest, and the Deacon evolved. As an example, St Augustine was Bishop of Hippo (from 396‒430AD). The size of his community would, in contemporary understanding, reflect a large parish with multiple churches – Augustine as a ‘pastor’ with assisting priests and lay leaders.In the Vatican Council II, the current understanding of the Sacrament of Holy Orders was articulated. The ‘ministerial priesthood’ is seen as leadership in service for the ‘priesthood of the baptised.’ There are three degrees in the Sacrament. There is the Order of Bishops, the Order of Presbyters, and the Order of Deacons.

Bishops enjoy the fullness of priesthood, and are the visible head shepherds of the particular diocese entrusted to their care. By their ordination they are incorporated into the college of bishops, and as successors of the Apostles they share the responsibility for guiding the mission of the Church with and under the Bishop of Rome.

Priests are co-workers with their bishop and are appointed to a particular church, or receive ordination for the sake of the apostolic endeavour of their religious congregation. Priests perform their ministry, pastoral and sacramental, at the behest of their bishop and, with other presbyters, form a presbyterium which assists and advises the local bishop in the care of the diocese.

Deacons are ordained for service, but not for priestly ministry, though some do go on to be ordained as priests. They serve through the Word, in worship, and in pastoral and charitable service. Their ministry is directly under the authority of the bishop.

The Sacrament of Holy Orders covers wide and diverse ministries, and fundamentally it is a sharing in the ministry of the Good Shepherd who came to serve not to be served. Pope Francis, in his first Chrism Mass Homily (2013), spoke of the need for the ordained to live as shepherds with ‘the smell of the sheep’, and to remember that ‘a good priest can be recognised by the way his people are anointed’.

We have now looked at each of the seven sacraments, which the Church celebrates in the life of God’s people. We have recognised though they have changed in their expression through the years, they are clearly a means by which the Church has recognised the presence of the Risen Lord encountering his beloved disciples. We see the Sacraments as divinely instituted, though it would be an anachronism to consider Jesus of Nazareth, when he was walking on the shores of Galilee, intended them to be celebrated and understood as they are in the 21st century. Rather we are gratefully aware of the presence of the Spirit continually renewing and reawakening the Church to where Christ can be encountered today.

Fr Patrick Bridgman is parish priest for the Parish of Te Awakairangi, Archdiocese of Wellington Liturgy Adviser, and teaches Sacrament and Liturgy courses at The Catholic Institute.