The Roman Catholic priesthood is more than a job; it is a calling—a vocation. The Church believes God speaks directly to men and invites them specifically and individually—intentionally—to dedicate their lives to His service and to the service of the Mission of Christ, His Son, in the Catholic Church. At ordination, a man’s soul undergoes an ontological change—a change of being—that indelibly marks his soul forever. Once a priest, always a priest “according to the Order of Melchizedek.” (Heb. 7:17 ff) Melchizedek was a king and priest found in the Book of Genesis. (Gn 14) The name means “King of Righteousness”—a name echoing kingly and priestly functions. He is the first individual to be given the title Kohen (priest) in the Bible. As the king of Salem (Jerusalem), he brought bread and wine (foreshadowing Jesus at the Last Supper) and offered these as a pleasing sacrifice to God.
Everything the priesthood of the Old Testament prefigured finds its fulfillment in Christ Jesus by the unique sacrifice of the cross. (CCC 1544) In the Church, it is always Jesus, Himself, who is present as: Head of His Body, Shepherd of His flock, High Priest of the Redemptive Sacrifice, Teacher of the Truth. This is what the Church means by saying the priest, by virtue of the sacrament of holy orders, acts in persona Christi Capitis. (CCC 1548).
With that bit of history behind us, we are now able to tackle the three degrees of the sacrament of holy orders—some things that are a bit more familiar to us—namely: “The divinely instituted ecclesiastical ministry that is exercised in different degrees (orders) by those who, even from ancient times, have been called bishops, priests and deacons. (Lumen Gentium 28).
Bishops have been regarded from the earliest days of the Church as the successors of the apostles and, as such, maintain the unbroken succession—the unbroken apostolic line from the time of the apostles to our own day. Hence, the Marks of the Church: One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. The Second Vatican Council teaches, “The fullness of the sacrament of holy orders is conferred by episcopal consecration along with the office of sanctifying, teaching and governing.” (CCC 1555-58).
Christ, whom the Father sent into the world, has, through His apostles, made their successors, the bishops, sharers in His consecration and mission. The function of the bishops’ ministry is thus shared in a subordinate degree with priests so they might be appointed to be co-workers with the episcopal order for the proper fulfillment of Christ’s apostolic mission through the Church. Bishops and priests, in the reception of holy orders (though in different ranks), are consecrated with sacred chrism. Chrism is only used in the sacraments of baptism (consecration into the common priesthood), confirmation (the anointing with the Holy Spirit) and holy orders, to the orders of the episcopacy and the presbyterate (a bishop is anointed on the top of his head and priests are anointed on the open palms of their hands). Deacons are not anointed with chrism at their ordinations. At an ordination to the diaconate, only the bishop lays hands on the candidate, thus signifying the deacon’s special attachment to the bishop in the tasks of his “diakonia.” (CCC 1569-71)
Questions often arise from time to time concerning the status or ranks of ministers in the Church. There are three degrees of the sacrament of holy orders: bishops (including cardinals and archbishops), priests (including monsignors and parochial vicars) and deacons. Some believe that the papacy is in a separate category since our Blessed Lord called Peter, thus making him an apostle (bishop and priest). In addition, however, some scholars maintain at the time of Peter’s confession, Jesus added the institution of the papacy: “I say that you are Peter, and on this Rock, I will build my Church …” (Mt 16: 13-20) This, of course, is not the ordinary teaching of the Church; it does, however, make for some interesting thought.
It is noteworthy, finally, to remember that the Church considers the ordination of a bishop, priest or deacon a major event in the life of any given local community or diocese. Such a celebration calls for as many members of the faithful to participate in the ceremony as possible. I am so happy to reflect on the fact that, for the 10 years I have been your bishop, I have joyfully celebrated with you 24 priestly ordinations and 38 ordinations to the diaconate. Each ceremony was celebrated in our beautiful Cathedral of St. Joseph the Workman—even our most recent, touched as it was by the dreadful pandemic. Our beloved diocese has been enriched by this influx of ordained sacred ministers and we praise God for His generosity!
I invite all of you, in this diocese, and wherever these words may be read, to pray to the Lord of the harvest for those who are considering a vocation to consecrated life, diaconate or priesthood. The Lord is calling—He may, indeed, be calling you! Listen. Say: “Yes, Lord.”
Most Reverend William Patrick Callahan
is the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of La Crosse.