Holy Thursday: The Sacrament of Holy Orders
Again, I want to welcome you to this very special and very solemn liturgy. There are many actions only found at this celebration. We witnessed the presentation of the oils; soon we will have the washing of the feet, and later on the entire congregation will join the procession to the chapel as we place the Blessed Sacrament in reposition in our own creation of the Garden of Olives.
By presenting the oils that were consecrated at the chrism Mass on Tuesday, we demonstrate our union with the entire Church at the most significant moments of our lives. The oil of catechumens is put on babies, children and adults coming into the faith as we pray that they be open to the mystery of Christ in their lives. But this is not just the prayer of our parish, it is the prayer of the Bishop, priests, deacons and the entire diocese when the oil is blessed and sent to the parish to welcome those seeking Baptism. The oil of the sick also demonstrates that those who are anointed are anointed not just with the prayers of the parish, but with the prayers of the Bishop, priests, deacons and entire diocese for their healing in body and soul. The sacred chrism reminds us that those who have their status in the Church elevated to full initiation through confirmation or who receive the sacrament of Holy Orders, do so through the prayers of the Bishop, priests, deacons and entire diocese. The sacraments are never a local event. They are a celebration of the universal Church.
The washing of the feet is a symbolic action teaching us the demands of the Eucharist. To be a Eucharistic people, we must reach out and serve others. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and then said, “What you have seen me do, you must
Since the sacrament of Holy Orders is one of the main thrusts of this liturgy, I want to speak about this sacrament with you this evening.
First of all, the sacrament is called “Holy Orders,” not “Holy Order.” It refers to the three levels of orders: diaconate, priesthood and episcopacy. The sacrament is bestowed on those chosen and qualified to mediate the presence of the Lord to the people through Word and Sacrament. The deacons, whether they are preparing for the priesthood or not, are called to serve the Lord by caring for His people particularly in evangelization and charitable outreach. That is why deacons give homilies, witness marriages, officiate at communion services, baptisms and funerals. Deacons who are ordained to the second level of Holy Orders, the priesthood, still remain deacons. Fr. Kevin, Fr. Sojan and I are priests. But we are also deacons. In the same way, priests who become bishops, remain deacons and priests. Many bishops will symbolize the fullness of orders by wearing a deacon vestment, dalmatic, under a priest vestment, the chasuble, as well as the miter, the symbol of the bishop.
The sacrament of Holy Orders occasions an ontological change in the recipient. A person who is ordained a deacon, priest or bishop, always remains a deacon, priest or bishop, even if that person should receive a dispensation from exercising Holy Orders. That is why there really is no such creature as a former priest. A priest may be laicized, that is moved to the group of laity, and consequently allowed to marry, but he still remains a priest. Should he come upon someone who is dying, and there is no time to locate a priest with the faculties to care of the dying, the laicized priest can hear the person’s confession and anoint him or her with the sacrament of the sick.
Now I used the term ontological change. What do we mean by that? The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that ordination “confers an indelible spiritual character” which “cannot be “repeated or conferred temporarily” (CCC#1583). “The vocation and mission received on the day of his ordination mark him permanently” (CCC#1583). Ordination is done once and for all as are Baptism and Confirmation. For example, once we are baptized we are always baptized. Even if we commit serious sin and destroy our relationship with God, even if we are excommunicated for striking the Pope are giving Fr. Joe the flu, we are still baptized and are therefore always able to return to the community of the Church. Holy Orders places one in a position in the community, not a better or more privileged place, but a place from which one is called to spend one’s life exclusively in service of the people of God.
Therefore, in the Catholic Church Holy Orders effects a change in the person for the entire Church. What we do is a manifestation of whom we were called to be, not a job. What really irritates me is that many priests will often refer to their ministry as a job, with set hours just as the careers of so many of the laity have set hours. That is wrong. We are always priests. We don’t stop being priests when we leave the office or the altar. When a priest takes a day off or a vacation, he takes one from administration and other forms of ministry, but not from the priesthood. The priest, as well as the deacon and bishop, can validly say, “Priesthood, Diaconate, Episcopacy is not what I do. It is who I am.
At the same time, the “who I am,” the ontological change in the deacon, priest and bishop is not for himself, but for the People of God. The people need deacons, be they also priests and bishops or not, to preach the Word with the special inspiration of the Holy Spirit occasioned by the ontological change due to orders. The people need priests, be they also bishops or not, to say Mass, to make the Lord present in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, the Sick, and Penance, as well as even confirmation in special circumstances like we had here a few years back when I confirmed 120 of our young people standing in for our ailing bishop. The people need bishops to provide the charism of the apostles to them, as well as to ordain those to serve the People in Holy Orders, etc.
As I was hearing confessions the other day, and praying with one of you, I felt overwhelmed by the honor conferred upon me to be so close to you in the deeply spiritual moments of your lives. You come to me to be forgiven. Who am I? Just a sinner, like you, yet changed to make Christ’s forgiveness real for you. You come to Mass to renew the celebration of the Last Supper, the Cross, and Easter, to renew the paschal offering of Jesus Christ. You have the faith to recognize the action of God through me despite my humanity. You call upon me to celebrate your moments of joy, marriage and baptisms, as well as your moments of sadness, sickness and death, trusting in the Holy Spirit’s presence in the Church to work through me. I cannot express to you how deeply the deacon, priest and bishop, are honored and humbled, when you call upon us to be whom we have been ordained to be for you.
Holy Orders is under attack right now. It has always been under attack and always will be under attack. Historically, the first actions against the Church have always included attacks on the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Every Spring, as Lent comes to a conclusion, and Catholic fervor grows, the anti-Catholic, and atheistic elements of the media counter attack the spirituality of the Catholic faithful by attacking their priests, usually for immoral actions that took place decades earlier. Their efforts to destroy the people’s trust in the Sacrament of Holy Orders is definitely diabolical, the work of the devil.
At the same time, Satan cannot and will not prevail. He is not more powerful than Jesus Christ. The Sacrament of Holy Orders was instituted by the Lord who conferred His Spirit upon his disciples and empowered them to confer His Spirit upon others. The fact is that the Church is not just Holy and Catholic, it is Apostolic. Deacons, priests and bishops are ordained to continue the work of the work of Jesus entrusted to the apostles.
On April 16th I will celebrate the 36th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. So what does priesthood mean to me? It means everything. It means being whom God has ordained me to be to serve Him by serving you. Some of you think that priests are a gift. No, you are gifts. The diaconate, priesthood, and episcopacy would not exist without you. We are who we are so you can be all that God calls you to be. What a blessing this is. What a blessing the Sacrament of Holy Orders is. What a blessing you are to us the ordained.