The Rite of Ordination

You never know when you will learn something. Last summer, a priest asked me to preach at the Mass commemorating his ordination many years ago. Wondering what his ordination was like those decades past, I telephoned the editor of this priest’s diocesan newspaper and asked him to read to me the paper’s story on the ordination published many years ago.

It was interesting. This particular ordination was the first in that diocese to follow the new Pontifical that recently had been published by Pope Paul VI, whom Pope Francis will beatify on Oct. 26 of this year. I learned much by researching the difference between this new ritual and the old.

In the then new liturgy, a rite still basically in place, an emphasis on the Church, and precisely on the Church as Mystici Corporis, the Mystical Body of Christ, is much more evident than before.

First, permission was granted to use the vernacular, so that people fully may understand what is being said, by the bishop and by the candidate, and indeed by speaking in the vernacular the people fully may participate in the ceremony.

Next, the candidate is not initially seated in the sanctuary, even though he already, as a deacon, is in holy orders, but with the people. The Church invites him to enter the sanctuary. This stresses the uniqueness of ordination and the Eucharistic role of priests, but it also reminds one and all that God has been, and is, active among people, in their lives, touching their hearts, giving them peace and joy, all present in the candidate’s vocation.

Then, literally, he walks into the sanctuary and places himself before the bishop. It is his affirmation of his vocation, his response.

It does not end with that. The bishop asks about the candidate’s suitability for ordination, making clear his role, as representative of the Church, in assuring that only worthy candidates receive ordination. The people then respond by what the ritual prescribes as being according to “local custom,” but they respond. Their reaction is important, and it publicly should be manifested.

In his inquiry and ordaining prayer, the bishop reiterates that in himself, the Church is acting, confirming the candidate’s vocation and worthiness. Speaking aloud, the bishop also is teacher, instructing the candidates and all present about the priesthood.

Again, the bishop, in behalf of the Lord, involves the people, instructs the people, and guides the candidate to be ordained.

In Pope Paul VI’s reformed rite, certain aberrations introduced over the years were no longer present, as they could be misleading. For example, in the old, the new priest’s chasuable was pinned in the back to reduce its length. Almost at the end of the ceremony, the bishop repeated the words of Jesus to the apostles that whose sins they forgave indeed were forgiven. At that moment, the pins on the chasuable were released and the vestment fell to its full length. People understandably presumed that at that time the privilege and right of absolving sins were conferred at that moment instead of with the imposition of the bishop’s hands on the candidate’s head and then with the bishop’s solemn prayer of ordination. (These acts had magisterially been identified as the actual essence of ordination, and they corresponded with the description of ordinations at the hands of the apostles, as recorded in the New Testament.)

Once ordained, by the imposition of the bishop’s hand and by the bishop’s prayer, the new priest is a priest forever, in every sense.

Underscoring this reality is the new priest’s concelebration of the Mass with the bishop and with all the other priests present and themselves also concelebrating. The old rite had a provision that blurred this reality. The ancient rite of concelebration at the Eucharist had been severely limited in the Roman Rite. Only at priestly ordinations was it allowed. The new priest spoke the words of the Canon with the bishop and received the consecrated Host. Then, however, he stepped to the side and drank unconsecrated wine. The other priests did not concelebrate.

In the new ceremonial, all concelebrants receive the Precious Blood, better showing the true unity of the priesthood.

Retained was the anointing by the bishop of the new priest’s hands. Anointings trace to the time of the apostles. They were not necessarily religious acts. Remember the parable of the Good Samaritan? He poured oil on the wounds of the assaulted traveler. The ancient Jews regarded oil as medicinal. Athletes rubbed oil on their bodies to give their flesh more elasticity and prepare them for their sports.

Applied to the skin, oil seemed to permeate the flesh. If perfumed, the fragrance rose from the body itself. At ordinations, the chrism, oil so solemnly blessed by the Church, is a sign of strengthening, but also of the power of God being infused into the candidates, as with his hands he absolves, points to the good, and holds and presents to the people the holy Eucharist.

Under the old rubrics, after the anointing the bishop wrapped a linen cloth, the maniturgium around the priest’s hands. The new rite excluded this action.

The symbol is not that the chrism be extraneous or on the surface, but rather that it permeate the priest’s hands and indeed the priest himself, that it be absorbed.

Canonically, of course, Paul VI’s liturgical directives, including the revision of the ritual for priestly ordinations, came forward as an expressed action of the Petrine ministry, and its supreme role of governance and teaching.

Also, considerable scholarship and historical study went into their formation. This study was nothing new. The Liturgical Movement had been underway for generations.

Never was invention the incentive. Rather the purpose behind the liturgical reforms was to purify, to return as much as possible to the oldest traditions.

As to the pope’s own instincts, surely he must have been mightily affected by two monumental encyclicals written by Pope Pius XII, whom Giovanni Battista Montini, the future Paul VI, served so devotedly for so long, Mystici Corporis, the great landmark in teaching by the Church about itself, promulgated in 1943, and Mediator Dei, the equally splendid consideration of the meaning of the Church’s worship, issued in 1947.

Earlier in his priesthood, then also being lived at the heart of the papacy, Father Montini would have observed, and probably was captured by, the great burst of spiritual energy that came with Pope Pius XI’s stress on Catholic Action, an idea obliquely but necessarily founded on the principles of ecclesiology later enunciated so forcefully by Pius XII, by the Second Vatican Council, and by Paul VI himself.

The status of believers, not just the ordained leaders, was a critical component of the theology of Catholic Action, as indeed it created the foundation for the essential thinking of the Liturgical Movement.

The bottom line is that the ritual emphasizes the individual priest’s identity. He is in persona Christi, of course, as Pope St. John Paul II so movingly mentioned so often, but in this world, in space and time, as established by the Lord, in persona Christi has a profoundly ecclesial definition. Priests are in, of and for the Church, and this reality touches far more than canonical obligations.

Of course, it means to think with the Church, to pray with the Church, to live with the Church, and to be the Church, not in the faults inevitably found among its human members, subject as they are to the effects of original sin, but in the purity that belongs to its foundation in Christ and its preservation by the Holy Spirit.

Priests in their own way are good shepherds. It means to be with the sheep, as Pope Francis says, and it means to see in the sheep, God’s people, the presence of Christ, through the Incarnation.

To care for the flock is to care for Christ, to be with Christ in loving all people. A truism? Often said, but it is vitally integral to the notion of priesthood.

Here then are the motives for priestly action, for evangelization, for approaches to the liturgy, and for the priest’s own personal sense of identity and of purpose in life.

An action retained by the new ritual for ordaining priests was that of the anointing of the new priest’s hands by the bishop with chrism. Oil is one of the most ancient, and presently overlooked, liturgical signs. It is part of baptisms, ordinations, certain blessings, and of course the Anointing of the Sick.

Find a copy of the rite of priestly ordination online and read it. So, also, is the old. Online also are Mystici Corporis, Mediator Dei, and the Second Vatican Council’s document on the liturgy. The counciliar statement gave impetus to Pope Paul VI’s liturgical revisions.

MSGR. CAMPION is editor of The Priest and associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor. He is a former president of the Catholic Press Association and the Vatican’s ecclesiastical adviser for the International Catholic Union of the Press.