Having said that, we turn to the other Sacrament of Vocation: Holy Orders.
Why “Orders”? What does this word mean in the context of the Church and the Sacraments? We are not talking “order” as in a “command.” We are talking an order as in a group of similar members, who become so via “ordination.” There are three sacred orders in the Church: the episcopacy, the presbyterate and the diaconate. Each of these are orders unto themselves and not “stepping blocks” toward the next one. Each one is required before receiving the other, but they remain independent orders.
In the earliest Church, the orders that we know were different. From the day of Pentecost, there were only the Apostles – those who were commissioned by Christ to preach the Gospel and baptize. These men were given authority by Christ to heal the sick through laying on of hands, to forgive sins, and even to raise the dead. At the Last Supper, they were empowered and commanded to celebrate the Eucharist “in memory of me,” and they were to become the servants of all, following the example of Christ himself. These men formed the nucleus around which others came to the Gospel, who led communities of faith throughout Judea, Israel and beyond. Paul joined their number later and spread the faith abroad, establishing his own communities with their own “elders” and “overseers.” These elders, or “presbyteroi” and “episkopoi” in Greek, were the first “priests.”
Acts tells us of the establishment of the order of Deacon when the Apostles were becoming too busy to tend to the celebration of the Word and Sacraments. These good men, these “servants” (or “diakonoi”) were chosen to care for the poor, the sick and the widows of the community in the distribution of the goods of the Church.
Over time, these three orders developed into what we can recognize today. In fact, they were pretty well set by the end of the third century. Be they bishops, priests or deacons, these men share in the Priesthood of Christ, the Head, albeit in varied ways. That’s right: the Priesthood – the only true Priesthood is that of Jesus Christ. All the Baptized share in it, but we share in it in different ways. As Vatican II says:
Though they differ from one another in essence and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are nonetheless interrelated: each of them in its own special way is a participation in the one priesthood of Christ. The ministerial priest, by the sacred power he enjoys, teaches and rules the priestly people; acting in the person of Christ, he makes present the Eucharistic sacrifice, and offers it to God in the name of all the people (LG, n. 10).
So, our bishops, priests and deacons are not “better” than any other Christian simply for being ordained. However, they are necessary, since without them, we could not enter into the mystery of that relationship with God beyond a merely human capacity. Without this priesthood, there is no Eucharist, there is no absolution, there is no bridge between God and humans. In short, the ministerial priesthood of ordination is needed to regulate the Relationship that we begin with God at Baptism.
Those functions of the priest – sanctifying the Church, teaching God’s People, leading the flock – these are part of Jesus’ role of Shepherd. The ordained are themselves sacraments – living signs of Jesus’ guiding presence among us. They deserve obedience, yes; they deserve love, certainly; they deserve respect, to be sure. However, they themselves are also servants of the mysteries they celebrate and are not “lords” over them. In the celebration of the Eucharist, the personality of the priest must disappear and Christ must shine through; in the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the minister is the servant of the mercy of God that both penitent and confessor experience; in the Anointing of the Sick, Christ comes to visit the suffering ones with His healing love.
I read an article once on retreat about the changing models of the ministerial priest. Many comparisons have been made about the priest as a “CEO” of a parish, or the bishop as “CEO” of the diocese. The author noted that is partially correct, but the image that he wanted to promote for our consideration was priest/bishop as “manager of relationships.” For priests stand as bridge-builders – to borrow the ancient Latin name for priest, “pontifex.” Priests manage people’s relationships with God through the sacraments, with others through their pastoral guidance, and with themselves through the counsel they so often give. Without these “managers,” the Relationship can suffer. We need each other.
Prayer “for vocations,” then, is our prayer that God continue to provide faithful leaders and shepherds for His People, and that young men are inspired and courageous enough to follow that call in their lives, for the good of the Church.