The rites used in the administration of Holy Orders are of great antiquity and full of meaning. They are beautiful and symbolical ceremonies, expressing well the dignity and the duties of the Orders conferred through them.
In the catechism which we all studied in childhood we find the following definition of the Sacrament of Holy Orders: “A sacrament through which bishops, priests and other ministers of the Church are ordained and receive grace and power to perform their sacred duties.” We are tolerably familiar with priests and more remotely with bishops; but who are the “other ministers of the Church?” Not the Cardinals; these are not elevated to that dignity by any ordination. Not the Pope himself; he is a bishop — and if he be (as has generally been the case) a bishop before his election to the Papacy, he needs no ordination or consecration to make him Pope. The “other ministers of the Church” are those who have received Orders below that of priesthood; for a candidate for the sacred ministry passes through several steps before the priestly character is conferred upon him.
The Steps to the Priesthood. He first receives the clerical tonsure, which is not an Order — merely a ceremony. Then four Minor Orders are conferred upon him; these will be described in detail. Then come the Sacred Orders, namely, subdeaconship, deaconship and priesthood. Therefore a candidate for the priesthood, after receiving the tonsure, is ordained to six different grades of the clerical state before he is finally made a priest.
It is usual to give these various Orders on the same day and at the same Mass, but not to the same individual at one time. An ordination will sometimes include a hundred candidates or more, some for each of the above Orders. By the new code of Canon Law a student may not receive the tonsure until his first year of theological study; Minor Orders will come probably during the second; subdeaconship will be administered at the end of his third year, and deaconship and priesthood in his fourth year.
The Clerical Tonsure. When a student has manifested sufficient signs of a probable vocation and fitness for the clerical state, he receives a summons to the ceremony of tonsure. This is the rite by which a man is taken from the world, ceases to be a layman, and is made a member of the clergy. The tonsure has been for many centuries the special badge of those who have been elevated to the clerical state. It consists in the cutting off of some of the hair from the candidate’s head. In our part of the world it has never become a custom to wear the tonsure; but in Catholic countries it is an obligation upon all clerics. Among the secular clergy (where it is worn) and in some religious communities the tonsure consists of a smoothly shaven circular spot, perhaps three inches in diameter, on the top of the head towards the rear. In certain orders of monks it is much larger, the whole crown of the head being denuded of hair, leaving merely a fringe around the head, like a wreath; this may be seen in pictures of St. Anthony and some other saints.
What is the meaning of this peculiar practice of the Church? It signifies the putting away of useless and superfluous ornaments, the separating of one’s self from vanity and worldliness. It is also considered as a symbol of the crown of thorns of our Blessed Lord, and therefore typifies the austerities which the wearer should practise in imitation of Him.
The conferring of the tonsure and of the various Orders usually takes place on one of the Ember Days; they may, however, be given on other days. So careful is the Church that her clergy shall be well qualified in every way that when the candidates appear for ordination the first ceremony is the pronouncing of a solemn sentence of excommunication on any one who presents himself to receive Orders and who is legally unfit or unworthy.
Tonsure Ceremonies. Those who are to be tonsured stand before the Bishop, and he recites a prayer that “these servants of God who have hastened hither to lay aside the hairs of their heads for 1ove of Him” may receive the Holy Ghost, Who will defend them against the world and earthly desires; and that, being endowed with an increase of virtue, they may receive the light of eternal grace.
Then the Bishop with a pair of scissors clips five small locks of hair in the form of a cross from the head of the young man who kneels before him — taking them from the front, back, both sides and centre of the head, while the candidate says: “The Lord is the portion of my inheritance and my chalice; it is Thou Who wilt restore my inheritance to me.” Then after a prayer asking God’s blessing on the new clerics and the reciting of a psalm, the Bishop invests each with a surplice, the garb of their new state, with the words: “May the Lord clothe thee with the new man who has been created according to God in justice and the holiness of truth.” He then recites a beautiful prayer that these new servants of God may be freed from all slavery to worldly things; that as they carry the likeness of Christ’s crown on their heads, they may be worthy of an eternal inheritance with Him. The Bishop then admonishes them “to remember that this day they are made members of the Church’s court and have received the privileges of the clergy; to beware lest they lose them; and to endeavor to please God by honorable living, good morals and works.”
The Minor Orders. These Orders are a necessary part of the preparation for the priesthood, and they are given only to those who have previously received the tonsure. They are four in number: The Order of Porter, of Reader, of Exorcist and of Acolyte.
In the early centuries of the Church’s history, for the proper celebration of the sacred mysteries, it was deemed necessary to appoint various ministers who would attend to certain duties connected with the divine worship. Some of these were afterwards raised to the priesthood; some never advanced further than the Minor Orders, spending their lives in the exercise of these lower functions of the ministry, much like the “lay brothers” who serve in the churches of various religious orders. Gradually, however, these Minor Orders became merely a step towards the sacred office of the priesthood, and all those who received them did so with the intention of ultimately becoming priests. Thus it has come about that every man who becomes a priest first receives the four Minor Orders, although as a matter of fact he seldom or never exercises their functions. The office of Porter is filled in our churches to-day not by a cleric but by a layman. Those of Reader and Exorcist are exercised only by priests. The duties of the office of Acolyte fall to the lot of the altar-boy who serves Mass.
These Orders are sometimes conferred all at one time; sometimes they are given at two or more separate ordinations.
The Order of Porter. The first Minor Order is that of Porter — the door-keeper of the house of God. The tonsured cleric comes before the Bishop clad in cassock and surplice and carrying a candle, and is instructed in the duties of his office. He is to sound the gong, to ring the bell, to open the church, to prepare the book for the preacher. He is warned not to be negligent about the care of the Church’s goods; not to be tardy in his duties; and, just as he opens and closes the visible house of God, so likewise he must by word and example close the hearts of the faithful to the devil and open them to God. Such is the substance of the Latin exhortation which is read by the Bishop to the candidates. They then receive the keys of the church, and are led to the door, which is locked and unlocked by each of them; they then ring the churchbell, after which the Bishop prays over them and solemnly blesses them.
The Order of Reader. The Lector or Reader was a very important person in the ages when the Church was engaged in evangelizing Europe. He was the instructor, the catechist, the reader of the Scriptures for the semi-savage tribes which were being brought into the fold of Christ. A knowledge of reading was unusual among the common people in those days, and a book was an almost priceless treasure; and therefore, that the people might be instructed concerning sacred things and that they might know the written Word of God, a cleric was ordained to read to them in the church. He also acted as chanter at solemn ceremonies, and was permitted to bless certain articles for the faithful.
Those who receive this Order come before the Bishop with candles and receive an admonition from him regarding their new duties. They are exhorted to proclaim the sacred truths clearly and openly, and not to falsify them in any way; and as they are to be placed in an exalted position in the church so that they may be seen and heard by all, so must they hold a high place in the order of virtue, that they may lead to eternal life those who see and hear them.
The Bishop then places in the hand of each the Holy Scriptures, as a symbol of their office. He then asks God’s blessing on them and prays that they may always “preach what should be done and do what they preach.”
The Order of Exorcist. In the first centuries of the Church the devil undoubtedly had more power than he has now, especially in regard to material things. The greater part of the world was his dominion, for it was sunk in paganism, which was to a large extent devil-worship. The enemy of God and of mankind had extended his sway over the souls of a great portion of the human race, and God even permitted him in some cases to control the bodies of men. This is why we read in the Gospels, in the writings of the Fathers and in the lives of the early saints, of many instances of demoniac possession — actual control by the Evil One of the minds and bodies of unfortunate victims, who probably had merited such severe punishment, which was therefore allowed by the Almighty.
The Exorcist is one whose office it formerly was to cast out devils; and he received the right to use the solemn formulas of the Church for that purpose. He also assisted at the administration of Baptism, imposing hands on the catechumen and thereby giving him the graces of the Holy Spirit; but in our times these duties are exercised only by those who have been elevated to the priesthood.
At the ordination of an Exorcist the Bishop admonishes him that, having the power to expel devils from others, he must keep all uncleanness and evil from his own mind and body, lest he be conquered by those whom he has driven from others. Then the Missal or the Pontifical (the Ritual used by the Bishop) is handed to him ; the blessing of God is invoked upon him, and he is declared to have power and dominion over unclean spirits, and to be “an approved physician of the Church, confirmed in the grace of curing and in heavenly virtue.”
The Order of Acolyte. The Order of Acolyte or Mass-Server is the last and highest of the Minor Orders which are conferred before promotion to the greater dignities of subdeaconship, deaconship and priesthood. As the candidates kneel before the Bishop they are instructed in their duties — to carry candles at the services of the Church, to light the lamps, and to serve the priest at Mass. They are warned that those whose office it is to care for lights must have nothing to do with the works of darkness. They must themselves be lights in the house of God. And as they are to present wine and water at the altar, so they should offer themselves as a sacrifice to God by a chaste life and good works.
Afterwards the Bishop presents a candle to each of them, stating that they thereby receive the right to light the lamps of the church; then a cruet, such as is used at Mass, to express their duty of serving the wine and water. A prayer is then offered to ask a blessing upon them, and God is besought to enkindle in their minds and hearts the love of His grace, that they may faithfully serve Him in His holy Church.
The Order of Subdeacon. The subsequent steps to and including the priesthood are known as the Sacred or Major Orders. Some time after the reception of the Minor Orders the candidate, if he be deemed worthy, is notified that he is to be raised to the subdeaconship. This decision is only arrived at after the merits of the cleric have been well examined by his superiors; for this is the important step which, once and forever, separates him from the world and devotes him to the perpetual service of God in His sanctuary.
The ordination of subdeacons is a most impressive ceremony. The young men have decided that God calls them to give up earthly things, to make a sacrifice of much that is in itself lawful and laudable. They have resolved to bind themselves by an obligation to absolute and perpetual chastity and to strict obedience — to offer their lives as an oblation before the throne of God.
In the company with those on whome the deaconship and priesthood are to be conferred, the candidates for subdeaconship are arranged before the Bishop, who sits at the altar and gives them a solemn admonition in these words: “Dearly beloved sons, who are to be promoted to the holy Order of subdeaconship, you ought to consider again and again what kind of burden you voluntarily seek to-day. For thus far you are free, and you are allowed, if you wish, to pass to earthly vows; but if you receive this Order it will not be lawful for you any longer to turn aside from what you have proposed to do; but you will be obliged perpetually to serve God, to serve Whom is to reign; but you will be bound to preserve chastity with His aid, and to be joined forever to the ministry of His holy Church. Therefore, while there is time, reflect; and if it please you to persevere in your holy resolution, in the name of God, come hither!”
The candidates take a step towards the Bishop— and that step is irrevocable. They are ministers of God's Church forever, vowed to obedience and chastity.
Together with those who are to be elevated to deaconship and priesthood, they then prostrate themselves on the floor, lying motionless on their faces while the Bishop and clergy recite the Litany of the Saints. This prostration is a most impressive ceremony. The young men who have given themselves to God fall to the earth before His altar and lie there like sacrificed victims. The world with its pleasures and ambitions is left behind; henceforth they belong to God, and are bound to His service forever.
The Bishop then instructs them as to their duties. A subdeacon is to prepare and present the water used at the altar; to sing the Epistle; to assist the deacon; to wash the sacred linens; to care for the chalice and the paten. All these external actions symbolize many spiritual obligations which are incumbent upon him. He is to assist in the instruction of the faithful, by word and example. He is to be zealous, vigilant, sober and pure.
The empty chalice and paten are then presented, and are touched with the hand; the Bishop says: “See whose ministry is entrusted to you. Henceforth, I admonish you, show yourselves so that you may please God.” Then the cruets of wine and water, with the basin and towel, are also presented and are touched in like manner.
The Bishop then solemnly blesses the candidates and calls down upon them the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost. The vestments of the new subdeacons are blessed, and their mystical meaning is explained. The amice, which is worn on the neck and shoulders, signifies the restraining of speech. The maniple, which is placed on the left arm, symbolizes good works. The tunic, the large vestment worn by the subdeacon at Mass, typifies happiness and joy. The Mass-Book is then given to each of the newly ordained, to signify their office of chanting the Epistle in solemn Masses. One of them sings the Epistle of the day, and this concludes the ordination of the subdeacons.
The Order of Deacon. The Order next below the priesthood is deaconship. The deacon is the priest's principal assistant not only at Mass but in other sacred rites. He is permitted to preach the Word of God from the pulpit of the church, and he has authority to baptize, although that faculty is seldom exercised by deacons at the present day.
This Order has a very ancient origin. We read in the Acts of the Apostles that in the very first years of the Church it was found necessary to ordain assistants, called deacons (meaning ministers or servants), to take charge of various duties to which the Apostles themselves could not attend. Among these first deacons was St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr.
The conferring of deaconship, like subdeaconship, takes place at Mass, and begins after the latter Order has been given — just after the Epistle. The candidates, clad in albs and carrying their vestments, are presented to the Bishop by one of the clergy, called the Archdeacon, who says in Latin: “Most reverend Father, our holy Mother the Catholic Church asks that you ordain these subdeacons here present to the burden of the diaconate.” The Bishop inquires: “Do you know that they are worthy?” And the other answers: “As much as human frailty permits me to know, I both know and testify that they are worthy of the burden of this office.” To which the Bishop responds: “Thanks be to God.”
Then he calls upon any person to state any reason why these subdeacons should not receive the higher order. Afterwards follows a long instruction on the duties to which the deacons will be bound. They are to minister at the altar, to baptize and to preach. They are like the Levites of old, especially deputed to the service of the sanctuary. They are urged to be shining examples to the Church — to be pure and chaste, as befits ministers of Christ — to preach the Gospel by example as well as by word.
Next comes the prostration before the altar, unless this has been previously done with the subdeacons; for when the different Sacred Orders are conferred at the same Mass, all the candidates prostrate themselves together.
Afterwards the Bishop asks the prayers of the clergy and people for those who are to be elevated to deaconship, and then intones or recites a beautiful Preface (like that which is sung in a high Mass), in which he invokes the blessing of God upon them. In the middle of the Preface he places his hand on the head of each candidate, saying: “Receive the Holy Ghost, for strength and for resisting the devil and his temptations, in the name of the Lord.”
The deacon’s stole is placed on his shoulders. He wears this in a manner different from that in which a priest's stole is put on. It is placed on the left shoulder and extends diagonally to the right side, where the ends are fastened.
The dalmatic, which is the large vestment worn by deacons, is then imposed, with a prayer which expresses its symbolic meaning. It represents salvation, joy and justice.
Next comes the bestowing of the Book of the Gospels, with the words: “Receive the power of reading the Gospel in the church of God, both for the living and the dead, in the name of the Lord.”
Then, after two prayers asking God to bless the newly ordained and to give them grace to persevere, the Gospel of the day is chanted by one of the new deacons, and this concludes the ceremonies of their ordination.
The Order of Priesthood. All the Orders described thus far are a preparation for the priestly dignity, which imprints on the soul of the recipient a character which endures forever. The priest possesses all the faculties of the porter, the lector, the exorcist, the acolyte, the subdeacon and the deacon, and he receives also in his ordination powers which they do not enjoy — wonderful privileges which are of so sublime a nature that human reason can not grasp their full import or measure their magnificence. The priest, in the words used by the Bishop in the ceremonies of ordination, is “to offer, to bless, to rule, to preach, to baptize.” His most august function is the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass — to call down the Almighty from heaven — to hold God in his consecrated hands. He receives power to bless, to bring God’s benediction upon any one or anything. He is placed in authority, to rule over a part of Christ's flock. He is God’s spokesman, appointed to preach His word, set apart to do the work of an evangelist. He is the ordinary minister of Baptism, empowered to bring souls into the fold of Christ. He, a man and a sinner, has the marvelous power of forgiving the sins of other men.
These and many other wonderful supernatural faculties are given to the priest in his ordination, and they are symbolized by the beautiful ceremonies which our Church uses when she raises a man to this exalted dignity.
The Ordination of a Priest. He then admonishes the candidates that they must endeavor to receive the priesthood worthily and to live holy lives. He instructs them concerning their future duties; he compares their office with that of the seventy priests who were selected from all Israel under the Old Law to minister to God, and with the seventy-two who were chosen by our Blessed Saviour to go two and two to preach His Word. He reminds them that they and the other Orders of the clergy make up the mystical Body of Christ — the Catholic Church. He exhorts them to be chaste and holy, to mortify their bodies, to make their teaching the spiritual medicine of the people of God, to build up the household of the Lord by preaching and example.
If the candidates have not taken part already in the prostration with the subdeacons, they then prostrate themselves before the altar, as previously described.
The Imposition of Hands. They kneel two and two before the Bishop, who presses both hands upon the head of each. Afterwards all the priests who are present do the same to each candidate. The imposing of hands always symbolizes the imparting of grace.
The Bishop then prays that all heavenly gifts may be bestowed on them, and invokes a blessing. He then chants or reads a long and beautiful Preface, thanking the Almighty for having instituted the priesthood and asking that all those who enter it may receive all necessary helps and graces; that those now being ordained may be filled with the spirit of holiness and may through their priesthood win an eternal reward.
The Giving of the Vestments. The Bishop moves the stole from the left shoulder of each candidate (where it is worn by the deacons) to his neck, crossing it in front- as it is worn by priests, with the words: “Receive the yoke of Christ, for His yoke is sweet and His burden light.”
The chasuble, the large vestment worn by a priest at Mass, is then put on his shoulders, but the rear part of it is kept folded until later. The Bishop says: “Receive the priestly vestment, by which charity is understood; for God is powerful, that He may increase charity in thee, and perfect work.” The symbolic meanings of this and the other vestments, as well as their history, are set forth in another chapter of this work.
He then again invokes the blessing of God on all the candidates, and prays that they may possess and practise all the virtues necessary to their exalted state.
The Anointing of the Hands. The “Veni, Creator Spiritus,” or hymn to the Holy Ghost, is then intoned by the Bishop and is sung by the choir. During this hymn the Bishop anoints the hands of each of the candidates with the Oil of Catechumens. This anointing is done in the form of a cross on the palms of the hands, which are thereby specially consecrated that they may be worthy to touch and handle the Sacred Body of our Lord. The hands are then tied together with a strip of white linen and remain bound until the Offertory of the Mass.
The Giving of the Chalice. The chalice, containing wine and water, and the paten, holding the unconsecrated Host, are placed in the hands of each, with the words: “Receive the power to offer sacrifice to God and to celebrate Masses, both for the living and the dead, in the name of the Lord. Amen.”
During the remainder of the Mass the newly ordained priests utter the words of the Holy Sacrifice in unison with the Bishop, so that the Mass is really celebrated by all together.
The Power to Absolve. After all have received Holy Communion they receive the power of forgiving sins — that wonderful faculty which the priest exercises by virtue of the commission given by our Lord to the Apostles. The Bishop places his hands on the head of each, uttering the words of Jesus Christ: “Receive ye the Holy Ghost; whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven; whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.” He then unfolds the chasuble (which up to this time has been hanging folded on the priest’s shoulders) with the words: “May the Lord clothe thee with the mantle of innocence.”
The Oath of Obedience. Each of the new priests goes to the Bishop, kneels before him, and places his hands in those of the prelate, who says to him: “Do you promise me and my successors reverence and obedience?” And the priest answers: “I do promise.” The Bishop says devoutly: “The peace of the Lord be always with thee.”
If the priest belongs to another diocese the question is asked in a different form. Then a solemn admonition is addressed to the new priests, warning them that as the sacred things which they are to use and handle are worthy of all reverence, they must be well trained in the ceremonies of the Holy Sacrifice before they attempt to offer it.
The Bishop pronounces a blessing, calling down upon them the benediction of the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity; and near the end of the Mass he gives them another solemn warning, saying: “Beloved sons, consider diligently the Order received by you and the burden imposed upon your shoulders. Study to live holy and religious lives, that you may please the Almighty and acquire His grace.”
A penance is then announced for each of the Orders that have been conferred at the ordination. Those who have received tonsure and the Minor Orders are told to recite the seven penitential psalms; the subdeacons and deacons, a part of the sacred office; and the priests are directed to celebrate three Masses, one in honor of the Holy Ghost, one of the Blessed Virgin, and one for the souls in Purgatory; and all are requested to pray for the Bishop.
These ancient rites used in conferring of Holy Orders show us the wisdom of our Holy Church. She teaches not only by word but by example. This sacrament imparts wonderful graces and privileges and powers to those who receive its various grades; and that these may be well understood by them and also by the faithful who witness the ordination, the Church has enriched and adorned with beautiful and symbolic ceremonies the administration of the sacrament of her priesthood and the steps which lead up to it. Every one of the details of an ordination is of great antiquity; little change has been made in them for centuries. Every one is intended to instruct us concerning some gift or faculty given by our holy Church to the Levite who aspires to the service of her sanctuary. Every duty and every power belonging to the various Orders is symbolized by the majestic rites with which they are administered, or are expressed in the solemn prayers offered to God and the admonitions addressed to the candidates by the ordaining Bishop.