Finishing up the Seven Sacraments, we turn now to two Sacraments which the Church calls “Sacraments of Communion and Mission.” While every Baptized Christian can said to be on a mission from God, two of these missions are such a lofty call that they come to us as Sacraments: Holy Orders (being ordained Deacon, Priest, Bishop) and Marriage.
Since the Church exists to evangelize – that is to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to the world – every Christian has a share in the work of being Jesus and sharing Jesus with others. At the heart of both of these Sacraments is the call to love and to serve as Christ did:
“The two sacraments have something in common: they are directed to the good of others. No one is ordained for himself, and no one enters the married state merely for his own sake.” -YouCat 248
The Sacrament of Holy Orders is a call to share in and carry on the ministry which Jesus gave to His apostles, calling them to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19.) This authority has been passed down from the Apostles to our Bishops today. We call this “Apostolic Succession.” For example, my former pastor, Bishop Paul Terrio, who is being ordained a Bishop of St. Paul this week, will be able to trace his lineage back to the sixteenth century, to Cardinal Rebiba. (Some records go back further, some less, depending on how well they have been kept. Peter’s successors as Bishop of Rome, however, are well documented, as Pope Benedict is the 265th head of the Catholic Church.) The Sacrament of Holy Orders is always passed on through a Bishop, and takes place in three degrees, diaconal ordination (Deacons), presbyteral ordination (priests), and episcopal ordination (Bishops):
“The man who is ordained recieves a gift of the Holy Spirit that gives him a sacred authority that is conferred upon him by Christ through a Bishop.” -YouCat 249
To be ordained is not a question of power, rather, it is the Holy Spirit which tasks and strengthens the deacon, priest, or bishop for the service of his brothers and sister. They don’t serve based on their own power or moral authority. These deacons, priests, and bishops struggle alongside us on the journey of faith, and there are days when their faith waivers, and days where sin wins out over virtue. But God, who is always generous, can and does work through these men who fall short of the dignity of their call. There are, however, more priests who understand and love their vocation (we just don’t hear about them through the media as often.) These priests understand that their primary task is to stand and serve in the place of Christ:
“Through his ordination, the transforming, healing, saving power of Christ is grafted onto Him. Because a priest has nothing of his own, he is above all a servant. The distinguishing characteristic of every authentic priest, therefore, is humble astonishment at his own vocation.” -YouCat 250
I know many priests who live, love, and serve like this. It is our task to pray for our deacons, priests, and bishops, for their task is a great one. A bishop is a successor of the Apostles and is responsible, along with his brother Bishops and the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) for the entire Church: to teach, govern, and sanctify the whole people of God. A priest serves as a collaborator with His Bishop, proclaiming Christ, administering the Sacraments, and celebrating Mass. Deacons are ordained to serve in the Church: preaching, serving at the altar, and taking on some dynamic of the pastoral or social ministry in the Church.
Before moving on to marriage, it’s worth taking a brief moment to address two common questions that come up when discussing this Sacrament:
1. The ordination of men (and not women): The Church ordains men only because Christ only chose men as His Apostles, and only they were present at the last supper for the institution of this Sacrament. In a politically correct society, this seems backwards, but Pope John Paul II affirmed “that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.” It is important, while affirming this teaching, to also acknowledge that women are equal in dignity to men, and that all members of the Church affirm their value. Having worked for the Church in various capacities over the past fifteen years, I would say that our Church could not function (and likely wouldn’t still exist) if women did not play a critical role in all facets of Church life: from the parish secretaries who are often at the heart of parish life, to great saints like Therese of Lisieux (a doctor of the Church) and Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
(Fr. Mike Mireau addressed this question at length on his website: http://fathercatfish.com/FAQHTP/WomenPriests.html)
2. The Call to Priestly Celibacy: In the Roman Catholic Church, those called to be Bishops or Priests and in the Eastern Churches those called to be Bishops are required to live this unmarried chastity. This doesn’t mean that they are rejecting love or the gift of human sexuality; but instead of living a life “overcome by a passion for God” (Pope Benedict XVI). They are instead trying to live in imitation of the life of Christ:
“Jesus lived as a celibate and in this way intended to show his undivided love for God the Father. To follow Jesus’ way of life and to live in unmarried chastity ‘for the sake of the Kingdom’ has been since Jesus’ time a sign of love, of undivided devotion to the Lord, and of a complete willingness to serve.” -YouCat 258
And so our priests and Bishops (and Eastern Bishops) don’t get married. To be honest, I wouldn’t want to be a married priest – nor do I think that this would be the answer to our vocations crisis (this crisis exists in denominations that allow married priests.) What I see in the many good and holy priests I’ve had the privilege of working for has been an undivided love for Christ and the Church. As a married man, my first duty is to my wife and to my children above and beyond any other ministry I take on… these priorities would conflict in the case of a married clergy (a challenge that can have disastrous effects in the spiritual and moral life of “pastor’s kids.”)
“God disposed man and woman for each other so that they might be ‘no longer two but one’ (Mt 19:6). In this way they are to live in love, be fruitful, and thus be a sign of God himself, who is nothing but overflowing love.” -YouCat 260
Between his exchanges with the Pharisees (Matthew 19, for example), trying to get them to see marriage as it was intended from the beginning, as well as his blessing of the marriage at Cana,Jesus raised marriage from a contract to a Sacrament. Among the Sacraments, marriage is unique in the sense that it is the one sacrament in which it is not the priest who administers the Sacrament; but rather the couple who mutually administer the Sacrament while the priest witnesses on behalf of the Church, calling God’s blessing upon their marriage. According to the late, great American Bishop Fulton Sheen, there are two key elements to the Sacrament of Marriage:
“One is very visible and evident. It is the exchange of consent which is signified not only by the joining of hands, but also by the words of consent. And this is witnessed by a priest. There is the invisible grace, also, which is communicated for their married state of life, and because this grace symbolizes another marriage—the marriage between Christ and His Church. That is the meaning of sacramental marriage (and it is found throughout the Epistles of Paul).”
To understand this, let’s take a look at the rite of marriage. Immediately prior to professing vows, the priest or deacon will asks the couple three very important questions: Have you come here freely and without reservation to give yourselves to each other in marriage? Will you love and honor each other as husband and wife for the rest of your lives? Will you accept children lovingly from God, and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church? These imply three necessary elements of a Sacramental marriage:
“a) free consent, b) the affirmation of a life-long, exclusive union to enter into a life-long, exclusive union, and c) openness to children. The most profound thing about a Christian marriage, however, is the couples knowledge: ‘We are a living image ot he love between Christ and the Church.” -YouCat 262
These questions not only verify the fact that if a couple want to get married (and are free to do so), but also ask if they are willing to commit to a marriage that reflects the love of God. There are four elements to this kind of love: love that is free, total, faithful, and fruitful.
1. Love that is free: While it’s a crude example, the idea that a person can ‘force’ another to love is usually played out in forms of abuse… and these are anything but loving (manipulation, rape, etc.) Even in fairy tales (Aladdin) and Hollywood movies (Bruce Almighty), Genie and Bruce are unable to force another person to love the protagonist. Love which is not free is not love.
2. Love that is total: When we look at Christ on the cross, what we see is a love that holds nothing back. He gives everything He has out of love for His bride as an example to all of us. And unlike Bruno Mars’ complaint that he’d die for his love but she wouldn’t do the same, in marriage our task is to love one person for a lifetime:
“There are only two words in the vocabulary of love: you and always. ‘You,’ because love is unique; ‘Always’, because love is enduring. No one ever said, ‘I will love you for two years and six months!’ That is why all the love songs have the ring of eternity about them such as, ‘Till the sands of the desert grow cold…” -Archbishop Fulton Sheen
3. Love that is faithful: Difficulties will come in marriage. There are moments where you will take one another for granted, when someone who is better looking or more understanding will come along (they may seem this way, anyway), days where you wish you had your own life or freedom back… and many other difficulties. But most of these difficulties have to do with our own struggles with sin, and not with a fault in the other:
“What really threatens marriages is sin; what renews them is forgiveness; what makes them strong is prayer and trust in God’s presence.” –YouCat 264
So it is here that I will borrow from another great Catholic thinker of the 20th Century, G.K. Chesterton: “Love is not blind; that is the last thing that it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind.” What distinguishes successful marital relationships from those that fail is the willingness of both to bind themselves one to the other and work through these moments. In other words, to be faithful to one another.
4. Love that is fruitful: As a father of three kids, I can tell you that there is no experience to compare with that of becoming a parent. There is no experience that will bring you so much joy, and no experience that will cause you so much grief. But just as the love of God which brings us and our world into existence is always pointed towards the good of others, so too married love is expressed in the fruit it bears, first and foremost in the children which come from that marriage. This is as clear an imitation of the love of God as you will see in this world:
“What the Church is on a large scale, the family is on a small scale: an image of God’s love in human fellowship.” -YouCat 271
Some couples aren’t able to have kids (through no fault of their own), but it is their task to see that their love bears fruit in other ways. What is tragic in our day is the fact that so many see this life-giving dynamic of marriage as a burden and as a result miss out on the great gift that new life can be, and how it really complements and completes the other dynamics of married love.
Our look at the Sacraments of Communion and Mission should remind us that the call to follow Christ is first and foremost a call to love: loving God first, with our heart, mind, soul, and strength; and then a call to love our neighbor as ourself. In these missions that come from these Sacraments we not only build up the Church (through the ministry of the ordained or through Christian families), but we also are given a multitude of opportunities to love each and every day. This is our mission as Christians – and this is the task of every ordained or married person.