The Sacraments of Holy Orders and Matrimony

1. Holy Orders and Matrimony.

In the different Sacraments our Lord comes to help us in different ways. It is important for our spiritual life that we have a good understanding of the Sacraments, and of how different Sacraments have different purposes. In two of the Sacraments, Holy Orders and Matrimony, Christ comes to confer a special grace for a particular mission in the Church to serve and build up God’s people. Of course, the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation place us in the grace of God and give us all we need to fulfill the mission of being a member of the Church. But there are two vocations which involve a special calling over and above that which comes to a person in Baptism and Confirmation. Those two callings are that of the priesthood and that of marriage.

2. The Sacrament of Holy Orders.

It is important that each Catholic have a developed veneration for the priesthood. A priest is not just a church official or manager. Holy Orders is the Sacrament through which the mission entrusted by Christ to his apostles continues to be exercised by the Church until the end of time. A young man who feels drawn to share in the mission entrusted by our Lord specifically to his apostles is probably being drawn to the priesthood. The word Orders refers to the body of persons in the Church one enters by means of the special consecration conferred by ordination. Through a special gift of the Holy Spirit, this Sacrament enables the one who is ordained to exercise a sacred power in the name of Christ and with his authority, for the service of God’s people, the Church. Without the Sacrament of Orders, without the ordained priest, some absolutely essential things would be missing in the life of the Church.
   This particular Sacrament was prefigured in the Old Testament by the Levites in the priesthood of Aaron, and by what the Book of Numbers called “the Elders”. The Levites and the Elders were a pointer to the future ordained priesthood of Christ. They find their fulfilment in Christ Jesus who by the sacrifice of the cross is our one and only mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5). He is the High Priest according to the order, not of the priest Aaron, but of what the Letter to the Hebrews calls the order of Melchisedech (Hebrews 5:10). Christ is our only true priest and he is present and acting as our High Priest in the ministry of every ordained priest.

3. Episcopal ordination

 There are three degrees of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. There are bishops, priests and deacons. Episcopal ordination confers fulness of the Sacrament of Holy Orders making the bishop a true successor of the apostles,the sharing in the responsibility of caring for the universal Church together with and under the pope. The bishop’s responsibility is to teach, sanctify and rule that portion of the Church entrusted to him. He is the visible head and foundation of unity for his diocese, and is assisted as shepherd of his flock by the priests and deacons of his diocese.

4. The priest.

After the bishop there is the priest. By the coming of the Holy Spirit at his ordination the priest is sealed with an indelible spiritual character that unites him with Christ and enables him to act in the person of Christ the Head. Every baptized person is placed in Christ, such that Christ is then in him and he in Christ. But the priest is placed in Christ acting as the Head of the Church, such that where the priest is, there is Christ present acting precisely as head of the Church. As a co-worker of the bishop and acting under him the priest is consecrated to preach the Gospel, to celebrate the worship of the Church especially the Eucharist, and to be a shepherd of the faithful. The priest is one who has an altogether special closeness to Christ, because when we think of Christ we think of his being engaged in his mission of salvation. He called his Apostles to be his companions and to join him in his work and mission. It is precisely this that the priest is engaged in. Christ is with him and works in and through him continuing his mission.

5. The deacons.

In very many dioceses now there are married deacons. Some work in parishes, others in hospitals, others have special works such as managing things like the Propagation of the Faith or other diocesan works. The deacon is made one with Christ not as the Head of the Church as is the bishop and priest, but is made one with Christ as the Servant of all. He is ordained for service to the Church and carries out this service under the authority of his bishop by the ministry of the word, by participating in certain public roles in the worship of the Church, and by various forms of pastoral care and of charity.

6. In each of these three Orders, the episcopate, the priesthood and the diaconate, the Sacrament is conferred by means of imposing hands on the head of the ordained by the Bishop who pronounces the solemn prayer consecrating him. In this prayer he asks God on behalf of the ordinand for the special outpouring of the Holy Spirit and for the gifts of the Spirit proper to the ministry to which he is being ordained. Only validly ordained bishops, as successors of the apostles, can confer the sacrament of Holy Orders. A priest cannot ordain another priest, nor can he ordain a deacon. More than two centuries ago in England one of the most significant steps taken by John Wesley, who was the founder of the Methodist movement, was when he presumed to ordain a bishop for his emerging church. It was his most obvious departure from the Anglican church. Over a century later, at the end of the nineteenth century Pope Leo XIII issued a very important document declaring that Anglican orders were null and void because they had lost the succession of bishops. By contrast, the Church recognizes the priesthood of the Orthodox churches because they have not lost the succession of bishops. Since the beginning Orthodox bishops have been validly ordained their bishops, and it is their bishops who ordain their priests. The point I am making here is that only a validly ordained bishop can validly ordain a priest or deacon. A further question that has risen in recent years is who can receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders. The Church teaches that this sacrament can only be validly received by a baptized man. The Church recognizes herself as bound by this choice made by the Lord Himself. The most important and greatest member of the Church was a woman, our Lady. But our Lord did not ordain her a priest. He did not call any woman to be a priest, even though a great number of women have been great and influential saints in the life of the Church.

7. The Sacrament of Holy Orders is a Sacrament of fundamental importance. It gives to the man being ordained a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit and configures him to Christ in his triple office as Priest, Prophet, and King, in the manner proper to each of the three degrees of the sacrament. Ordination confers an indelible spiritual character and therefore cannot be repeated. Ordained priests in the exercise of their sacred ministry speak and act not on their own authority, nor by mandate or delegation of the community, but rather in the Person of Christ the Head and in the name of the Church. Therefore, the ministerial priesthood differs essentially and not just in degree from the priesthood common to all the faithful for whose service Christ instituted it.
 A distinctive feature of the Catholic spirit is a love for and veneration of the priesthood, and a recognition that in the priest is present Christ the head and bridegroom of the Church. You ought cultivate this reverence and try to pass it on to all others. It is reverence for Christ in the priest.

8. Matrimony

Holy Orders is a Sacrament for those called to serve the Church in the line of Christ’s Apostles. Matrimony is another great Sacrament for another kind of service of the Church. It is the Sacrament received by a Christian married couple. God who is love and who created man and woman for love has called them to love. By creating man and woman he called them to an intimate communion of life and of love in marriage, “so that they are no longer two, but one flesh” (Matthew 19:6).  In blessing them God said to the first man and woman, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). So the marital union of man and woman, which is endowed with its own proper laws by the Creator, is by its very nature ordered to the communion and good of the couple and to the generation and education of children. Furthermore, according to God’s original plan marriage is indissoluble, as our Lord affirmed: “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder” (Mk 10:9).

9. The great threat to marriage is sin.

Because of original sin, which caused a rupture in the God-given communion between the first man and woman, the union of marriage is constantly threatened by discord and infidelity. However, God in his mercy gives to the couple the grace to bring the union of their lives into harmony with the original divine plan. Before Christ came, God helped his people through the teaching of the Law and the Prophets to deepen their understanding of the unity and indissolubility of marriage. The nuptial covenant of God with Israel prefigured the new covenant established by Jesus Christ with his spouse, the Church. Christ not only restored the original order of matrimony but raised it to the dignity of a sacrament, giving spouses a special grace to live out their marriage as a symbol of Christ’s undying love for his bride the Church: “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loves the Church”, St Paul wrote (Ephesians 5:25).

10.  Virginity or celibacy. As we all realize, marriage is by no means an obligation for anyone, especially since God calls some men and women to follow the Lord Jesus in a life of virginity or of celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. Those with this vocation renounce the great good of Matrimony to concentrate on the things of the Lord and seek to please him. They become a sign of the absolute supremacy of Christ’s love and of the expectation of his final and glorious return.

11. The Marriage ritual.

Since Matrimony establishes spouses in a public state of life in the Church, its liturgical celebration is public, taking place normally in the presence of a priest (or of a witness authorized by the Church) and other witnesses. During the ceremony the marriage consent is given when a man and a woman manifest the will to give themselves to each other irrevocably in order to live a covenant of faithful and fruitful love. Since consent constitutes Matrimony, it is indispensable and irreplaceable. For a valid marriage the consent must have as its object true Matrimony, and be a human act which is conscious and free and not determined by duress or coercion. If an essential element in this consent is missing, it could become a reason years later for the Church to declare the marriage to have been invalid. A mixed marriage (between a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic) needs for lawfulness the permission of ecclesiastical authority. In a case of disparity of cult (between a Catholic and a non-baptized person) a dispensation is required for validity. In both cases, it is essential that the spouses do not exclude the acceptance of the essential ends and properties of marriage. It is also necessary for the Catholic party to accept the obligation, of which the non-Catholic party has been advised, to persevere in the faith and to assure the baptism and Catholic education of their children.

12.  More than anything, the sacrament of Matrimony establishes a perpetual and exclusive bond between the spouses.

God himself seals their consent. Therefore, a true marriage which is ratified and consummated between baptized persons can never be dissolved (Henry VIII!). Furthermore, this sacrament bestows upon the spouses the grace necessary to attain holiness in their married life and to accept responsibly the gift of children and provide for their education. Accordingly, there are various sins that are gravely opposed to marriage. Adultery and polygamy contradict the equal dignity of man and woman and the unity and exclusivity of married love. Other sins include the deliberate refusal of one’s procreative potential which deprives conjugal love of the gift of children and divorce which goes against the indissolubility of marriage. Contraception is a serious sin.

13. Let us remember that the Christian family is called the domestic church because the family manifests and lives out the communal and familial nature of the Church as the family of God. Each family member, in accord with their own role, exercises the baptismal priesthood and contributes toward making the family a community of grace and of prayer, a school of human and Christian virtue and the place where the faith is first proclaimed to children.