Christ “established here on earth” only one Church and instituted it as a “visible and spiritual community”[Lumen gentium, 8.1.], that from its beginning and throughout the centuries has always existed and will always exist, and in which alone are found all the elements that Christ himself instituted.[Unitatis redintegratio, 3.2; 3.4; 3.5; 4.6] “This one Church of Christ, which we confess in the Creed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic […]. This Church, constituted and organised in this world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him”.[Lumen gentium, 8.2]” (Cf. 2007 Letter of Response from Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith).
Through Satan’s work over the centuries to divide the people of God, we find that there are billions of Christians living on earth today who would have been considered to be heretics by the early Church of the Apostles. If these same Christians were to enter a time machine and go back to the first and second centuries they would find that many their beliefs about Christian doctrine are not in union with the only community of Churches that Jesus established through His Apostles. That is very problematic! Why wouldn’t a Christian desire for their theology to be in union with the early Church?
This brief article is going to look at what the Catholic Church teaches about the Sacrament of Ordination and compare it to what the Fathers of the Church taught and wrote on this subject, to demonstrate the consistency of our doctrine.
What the Catholic Church teaches about the Sacrament of Ordination today is what it has always believed about it. The true beauty of the nearly two-thousand-year-old Roman Catholic priesthood unfolds in her ongoing line of Apostolic Succession. As if it were poetry of ordination – through the imposition of laying on hands, deacon is connected to priest and priest to bishop and all to each other, in one royal priesthood they are all connected to one another from generation to generation and age to age – all the way back to when hands were first laid upon St. Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicholas of Antioch (Cf. Acts 6:5), and to when Jesus, the Christ, breathed on His Apostles and said, ”Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22).
Only through the Sacrament of Holy Orders orders is one connected with the ministry of Christ’s Apostles, with Peter as their head. Indeed, not only is there no unity with Peter and the Apostles outside of this sacrament, but there is no true order. The word ‘ordination’ (Lt. ordinatio) means incorporation into an order. Therefore, if there is no order (i.e. an authoritative governing body), there can be no ordination.
As a sacrament is an action of the Church through which Christ continues to minister to His people, the Sacrament of Holy Orders and goes beyond a simple election, designation, delegation, or institution by the community, for it confers a gift of the Holy Spirit that permits the exercise of a “sacred power” (sacra potestas) (Cf. Cf. LG 10) which can come only from Christ himself through his Church. Ordination is also called consecration, for it is a setting apart and an investiture by Christ himself for his Church. The laying on of hands by the bishop, with the consecratory prayer, constitutes the visible sign of this ordination. (Cf. CCC. 1537-38)
Like all of the Sacraments of the Catholic Church, Holy Orders is rooted and grounded in God’s economy of salvation that began with the First Covenant. There with the one chosen tribe of Levi (Cf. Num. 1:48-53; Josh. 13:33) we find a special rite consecrated the beginnings of the priesthood of the First Covenant. The priests are “appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins” (Heb. 5:1; cf. Ex. 29:1-30; Lev. 8). This order of priests were instituted to proclaim the Word of God and to restore communication with God by sacrifices and prayer (Cf. Mal. 2:7-9). (Cf. CCC. 1539-40)
The needed salvation that the order of priests of the First Covenant could not bring about finds its perfection only in Christ Jesus, “one mediator between God and men” (1 Tim. 2:5). The Christian tradition considers Melchizedek, “priest of God Most High,” as a prefiguration of the priesthood of Christ, the unique “high priest after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 5:10; cf. 6:20; Gen. 14:18); “holy, blameless, unstained” (Heb. 7:26), “by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Heb. 10:14), that is, by the unique sacrifice of the cross. (Cf. CCC. 1544)
There are two participants or two orders in the one priesthood of Christ Jesus – the high priest and unique mediator. First there is the order of the Royal priesthood (or common priesthood) that all of faithful who receive the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation belong to, and then there is the order of the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood of bishops and priests. While being ordered one to another, they differ essentially in service. It is the ministerial priesthood that is at the service of the common priesthood to assist each of them in unfolding their baptismal grace that assists them in becoming everything that God created them to be. (Cf. CCC. 1546-47)
From ancient times until now, what has always distinguished people belonging to orders was some sort of mark, sign, or token, which permanently made them a member of that community. So it is as well with the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders. Those who receive these sacraments have conferred upon them an indelible (i.e. unable to be removed) spiritual character. For that reason, these sacraments cannot be repeated or conferred temporarily. Once Baptized always Baptized. Once a Priest, always a Priest under the order of Christ. (Cf. CCC. 1581-82)
SOME OF WHAT THE FATHERS OF THE CHURCH TAUGHT AND WROTE:
year A.D. 251/252 – St. Cyprian of Carthage (200?-258, Bishop, Martyr), ‘Letter to Antonianus, (a Bishop in Numidia )’:
- “Cornelius was made bishop by the decision of God and of His Christ, by the testimony of almost all the clergy, by the applause of the people then present, by the college of venerable priest and good men, at a time when no one had been made before him – when the place of Fabian, which is the place of Peter, the dignity of the sacerdotal chair, was vacant. Since it has been occupied both at the will of God and with the ratified consent of all of us, whoever wishes now to become bishop must do outside. For he cannot have ecclesiastical rank who does not hold to the unity of the Church.”
“With a false bishop appointed for themselves by heretics, they dare even to set sail and carry letters from schismatics and blasphemers to the chair of Peter and to the principal church [at Rome], in which sacerdotal unity has its source.”
year A.D. 254 – St. Cyprian of Carthage (200?-258, Bishop, Martyr), ‘Letter to Florentius Pupianus’:
- “You have written also that on my account the Church now has a portion of itself in a state of dispersion. In truth, the whole people of the Church are collected together and made one and joined to each other in an indivisible harmony. They alone have remained outside who, were they within, would have to be ejected. . . . And the Lord too, in the Gospel, when the disciples abandoned him while He was speaking, turned to the twelve and said, “And do you too wish to go away?” Peter answered Him, saying, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the word of eternal life: and we believe and know that you are the Son of the Living God.”
There speaks Peter, upon whom the Church would be built, teaching in the name of the Church and showing that even if a stubborn and proud multitude withdraws because it does not wish to obey, yet the Church does not withdraw from Christ. The people joined to the priest and the flock clinging to their shepherd are the Church.
You ought to know, then that the bishop is in the Church and the Church in the bishop; and if someone is not with the bishop, he is not in the Church. They vainly flatter themselves who creep up, not having peace with the priest of God, believing that they are secretly in communion with certain individuals. For the Church, which is One and Catholic, is not split nor divided, but is needed united and joined by the cement of priest who adhere one to another.”
year A.D. 341 – Pope St. Julius I. (reign 337-352), ‘Letter to Bishops of the Eusebian party at Antioch’:
- “For if it is entirely as you say, that some offense was committed by those persons, judgment ought to have been made, not as it was, but according to the ecclesiastical canon. It behooved all of you to write to us, so that the justice of it might be seen as emanating from all. For they were bishops who suffered; and they were not ordinary Churches which suffered, but were those which the Apostles themselves had governed. And above all, why was nothing written to us about the Church of the Alexandrians? Are you ignorant that the custom has been to write first to us, and then for a just decision to be passed from this place?
If, then, any such suspicion rested upon the bishop there, notice of it ought to have been written to the Church here. But now, after they have done as they pleased they want to obtain our concurrence, although we never condemned him. Not thus are the constitutions of Paul, not thus the traditions of the Fathers. This is another form of procedure, and a novel practice. I beseech you, bear with me willingly: what I write about this is for the common good. For what we have received from the blessed Apostle Peter, these things I signify to you.”
year A.D. 374 – St. Basil the Great (300?-381, Bishop of Caesarea), ‘Letter to Amphilochius, Bishop of Iconium: The First Canonical Letter’:
- “It seemed best to the men of former times, – Cyprian and our Firmilian, I mean, and their colleagues, – to subject all of these, whether Cathari, Encratites, or Hydroparastates, to be like judgment, because their separation had been initiated through schism, and because those who had separated themselves from the Church no longer had in themselves the grace of the Holy Spirit, when His being imparted ceased through the breach of its continuity. For those who first withdrew had their ordination from the Fathers, and through the imposition of their hands they had the spiritual charism. But, having broken away, they became laymen, and had the power neither to baptize nor to ordain nor could they have longer confer on others that grace of the Holy Spirit from which they themselves had fallen away.”
year A.D. 367 – St. Opatatus of Milevis (320?-385?, Bishop of Milevis in Numidian, Africa ), ‘Refutation of Parmenians’ work in defense of the Donatists, entitled Against he Church of the Apostates):
- “You cannot deny that you are aware that in the city of Rome the Episcopal chair was given first to Peter; the chair in which Peter sat, the same who was head – that is why he is also called Cephas – of all the Apostles; the one chair in which unity is maintained by all. Neither do other Apostles proceed individually on their own; and anyone who would set up another chair in opposition to that single chair would by that very face, be a schismatic and a sinner. It was Peter, then, who first occupied that chair, the foremost of his endowed gifts. . . . I but ask you to recall the origins of your chair, you who wish to claim for yourselves the title of holy Church.”
Recommending Reading On What the Fathers of the Church Taught and Wrote:
– – – Jurgens, William A., Faith of the Fathers (Vols. 1, 2 and 3), The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota (1970).
- Click Here to Read More from the ‘Does Your Belief Line Up Series’.