Ordained to serve others

By Rob Cullivan/Catholic Courier    |    12.20.2009
Category: Vocations

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fourth article in an occasional series addressing current procedures for preparation and administration of the church's seven sacraments.

Pope John Paul II ordained Father Matthew H. Clark a bishop on May 26, 1979. Looking back on that day, Bishop Clark observes that the sacrament did -- and did not -- change him.

"I know I didn't become one ounce smarter," the bishop said with a chuckle. "When I was ordained, I didn't become holier."

Yet reception of the sacrament did cause him to realize that he had a new relationship with his fellow Catholics. He recalled that the ordination rite brought that new relationship home to him through his investment with a miter, ring and shepherd's staff. The miter symbolized his teaching office; the ring -- which he likened to a wedding ring -- symbolized his commitment to the people of the Diocese of Rochester. And his staff symbolized that he was now a spiritual shepherd, one who had to be concerned for his diocesan flock.

As a bishop, Bishop Clark said he enjoys "the fullness of priesthood." He can baptize, hear confessions, witness marriages, anoint the sick, confirm Catholics, consecrate the Eucharist -- and ordain others. As bishop, he is a member of the episcopate, the highest of the church's three holy orders. The other two are the presbyterate, or priesthood, and the diaconate.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in ordination, the Holy Spirit, through the ministers of the church, confers upon the ordained the gift of the exercise of sacred power. Following ordination, priests can consecrate the Eucharist, hear confessions, witness marriages, baptize people and anoint the sick. Ordained deacons can baptize and witness marriages. Indeed, the sacramental ministries of the church would not exist without the men who are called to holy orders.

A public office

"When you're ordained a bishop for a diocese, you're placed in a privileged position," Bishop Clark said. "Your position relates you to everyone in your diocese."

To a certain extent, Bishop Clark's remarks also apply to the church's two other orders -- priesthood and the permanent diaconate. Deacons and priests in the Rochester diocese note that ordination is not about gaining private power, but about being specially designated for public service.

"The sacrament is not meant to be hidden," observed Deacon David Palma, director of the diocesan Office of Deacon Personnel. "My faith journey becomes something that I share openly and very publicly."

Father Daniel J. Condon, diocesan chancellor, noted that the church's ordained ministers share in Christ's apostolic ministry, and that the church confers holy orders to both provide for sacramental ministry and to assure communities of the authenticity of those who minister to them.

Given the public nature of holy orders, those who feel called to them must have certain qualifications and undergo various forms of training established by the church. The catechism states that the sacrament of holy orders is open to baptized males -- celibate males for the priesthood, and celibate or married men for the diaconate. Married men in Eastern-rite Catholic churches may become priests or deacons, but Eastern-rite bishops must be celibates. In both the Eastern and Latin rites, a man who has already received holy orders cannot later marry.

A man who wishes to become a priest must have or obtain a bachelor's degree, and have or obtain 24 hours of undergraduate study in philosophy and 12 hours of religious studies, according to Father James Schwartz, diocesan director of seminarians. He must spend five years in formation, four of them in academic study and one devoted to pastoral work, generally at a parish, he said. At the end of the five-year formation period, he will have attained both practical experience on the parish level and a master's degree in divinity.

A man wishing to become a priest also must possess spiritual, emotional and physical health, and be able to receive direction from others, Father Schwartz added. He will be someone who deals well with a wide variety of people; prays the church's Liturgy of Hours regularly; regularly receives both the sacraments of the Eucharist and reconciliation; and is "aware of the mystery of God's presence in his life," Father Schwartz said. Other qualities the diocese seeks in men wishing to become priests is a sense that they care for others and see themselves as servants, Father Schwartz said.

Like priests -- who spend one year before priestly ordination as transitional deacons -- permanent deacons must have many of the qualities needed by prospective priests to be accepted into the diocesan diaconate program. They also must undergo extensive training. Commonly, men selected to become deacons spend four years in training; their first years as aspirants, and their last three as candidates. Although it is not mandatory, wives are invited to participate in the formation program, and the diocese notes that a wife's support of her husband's diaconal formation is essential.

Men who wish to become deacons must obtain masters' degrees in theology or, if they lack bachelors' degrees, graduate certificates in theology, according to Deacon Claude Curtin, director of diocesan deacon formation. Deacon Curtin added that diaconal formation includes extensive field experience in such settings as parishes, hospitals and various social-service ministry programs.

As for bishops, there is no handbook, Bishop Clark said.

"You don’t apply for the job," he added.

With the input of religious and lay leaders, bishops in each of the Catholic Church’s provinces identify potential candidates for the office of bishop. The bishops then provide the names of potential candidates to the other bishops in their province for input and review. The provincial leader -- in the case of the New York province, the archbishop of New York, Cardinal Edward Egan -- forwards the names, along with the bishops’ commentary, to the papal nuncio, the Vatican diplomat responsible for the Holy See’s relations with the church in a particular nation. The nuncio forwards the names from the various provinces to the Vatican Congregation for Bishops, and the congregation’s prefect presents them to the pope to select bishops, Bishop Clark said.

The rites

Deacons and priests are ordained by bishops. A priest selected to become a bishop must be ordained by a bishop or the pope himself. All three orders have elaborate ordination rites which are outlined in The Rites of the Catholic Church. Among the highlights of each ordination rite are points at which deacons and priests make a vow of obedience to their bishop, and bishops pledge obedience to the pope. All three rites include a ritual in which the presider lays his hands on the head of the one being ordained. In addition to the prayer of consecration, the imposition of hands is a visible sign of ordination, the catechism notes.

Each ordination includes the ritual of "investiture" whereby the ordinand receives garments proper to his office. A deacon receives a stole and a dalmatic, an outer garment with open sides; a priest receives a stole and chasuble, a sleeveless garment worn over an alb; and a bishop receives a miter, ring and staff.

Each ordination rite also features a moving ritual in which the man being ordained must lie prostrate before the altar as the Litany of Saints is sung.

"Prostration is an expression of humility and surrender, of powerlessness and of surrender, of return to the earth," Deacon Curtin explained.

And humility is at the heart of the ordained experience, Father Condon noted.

"It's not a personal gift," he said. "It's always exercised in communion with others. It's power exercised on behalf of the community."


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