As so many of us take part in Ordinations to the Priesthood these days, we are presented a wonderful opportunity to listen carefully to the Prayer of Ordination which the Bishop prays over the ordinand after the imposition of hands. The prayer offers a wonderful summary of who this new Priest is and what he will do. This reflection on the Prayer of Ordination is largely taken from my book, The Mass Explained (Catholic Book, 2009).
The Prayer of Ordination is based largely upon one found in the Gelasian Sacramentary and may well date to sometime in the late fifth century. The prayer begins with a sense of urgency:
Draw near, O Lord, holy Father,
almighty and eternal God,
author of human dignity:
it is you who apportion all graces.
through you everything progresses;
through you all things are made to stand firm.
Adesto (Draw near!) is an unusual word in Roman Catholic euchology. It is used only when the Church wants God to change something: Draw near and change this oil into Sacred Chrism, this bread and wine into the Body and Blood of your Son, this man into a Priest!
We beg God with such urgency to draw near precisely because we know he can change things. He is the creator: almighty and eternal. God our Father is the one who apportions all graces: nothing has meaning or value without him. It is only through him that things get better and only through him that things can remain the same, for he “fills the earth with goodness,” and it is “by the Lord's word the heavens were made…” (Psalm 32: 5, 6)
Thus he is the author of human dignity. He caused us to be made in his own image and likeness and has made us “a little less than the angels.” (Hebrews 2:7)
To form a priestly people
you appoint ministers of Christ your Son
by the power of the Holy Spirit,
arranging them in different orders.
After the opening of the prayer establishes God’s power, the next paragraph describes what he has done in the past. He formed a Priestly People. This early reference to the “common priesthood” is important. For no ecclesial ministry is ever a good in itself. Rather, God appoints ministers for the sustenance and support of a priestly people. (Revelation 1:6)
This was the problem Saint Paul had with the Corinthians and charismatic gifts. As individuals bragged that they had a better gift than anyone else, Paul admonishes them that unless the gift is for the up building of the Church, it has no value. (1 Corinthians 14)
So, it is for the sake of this priestly people that God appoints ministers of Christ his Son. He arranges them in different orders (different gifts) by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Cf. Romand 15:14) Saint Paul, once again, struggles with the primordial challenge of ministry referenced here. As soon as God creates different orders, rivalries and resentments grow up. He responds, like this prayer, by reminding us that there are many gifts, but the same spirit, and that all the gifts are equal: each given for the building up of the Body of Christ.
Even in our own day, the battles over the ordination of women are born of the idea that ordained ministry is the “better” part, and by not ordaining women they have been relegated to a second class. As the prayer suggests, however, these “different orders” are the will of God and are created by the Holy Spirit who “produces all of these, distributing them individually to each person as he wishes.” (1 Corinthians 12:11)
God is the source of all ministries, for he is the author of the priestly people whom they are made to serve.
Already in the earlier covenant
there grew up offices, established through mystical rites:
when you set Moses and Aaron over your people
to govern and sanctify them,
you chose men next in rank and dignity
to accompany them and assist them in their task.
Now begins a description of how God created precursors to the ministry of Priest in the Old Testament. In both instances, these offices were established to choose helpers (“men next in rank and dignity”) to assist Moses and Aaron
Both precursing ministries were established by “mystical rites,” (sacramentis mysticis). These rites, however, are, as the Fathers of the Church would insist, mere shadows of the Sacraments of the New Covenant in Christ’s Blood. Nonetheless, they are willed by God for the care of his people and, in some way reflect the rites of the heavenly liturgy, somehow shared with Israel in the tabernacle. (Cf. Exodus 25-30) As such, these rites are “mystical,” characterized by mystery and awe.
The first type of the Priesthood is found in the seventy wise men who were given a part of the spirit of Moses to help rule the people.
So too in the desert
you implanted the spirit of Moses
in the hearts of seventy wise men;
and with their help he ruled your people with greater ease.
The story comes from Numbers 11: 10-17, 24-30. Moses is beside himself with the demands of the Israelites in the desert. He hears “family after family, crying at the entrance of their tents…” How many times does the parish priest feel the same way? But what does he do? Does he withdraw from God, pouting like a petulant child? Or does he go to God in prayer with the confidence and the intimacy of Moses?
"Why do you treat your servant so badly?" Moses asked the LORD. "Why are you so displeased with me that you burden me with all this people? Was it I who conceived all this people? or was it I who gave them birth, that you tell me to carry them at my bosom, like a foster father carrying an infant, to the land you have promised under oath to their fathers? Where can I get meat to give to all this people? For they are crying to me, 'Give us meat for our food.' I cannot carry all this people by myself, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you will deal with me, then please do me the favor of killing me at once, so that I need no longer face this distress."
Often, priests like spouses, are afraid they can only bring good news to their most beloved. But like the father of the prodigal, God our Father is ever waiting for is to pour out our hearts to him. Christ, who became like us in all things but sin, knows the fear and trembling, the ache and the agony of the human heart. Christ, who chose you, Father, to share in his Priesthood, wants you to succeed. And so, God waits for us.
Some problems can only be solved by God and the solution God has for Moses is to give him some helpers.
Then the LORD said to Moses, "Assemble for me seventy of the elders of Israel, men you know for true elders and authorities among the people, and bring them to the meeting tent. When they are in place beside you, I will come down and speak with you there. I will also take some of the spirit that is on you and will bestow it on them, that they may share the burden of the people with you. You will then not have to bear it by yourself.
So Moses went out and told the people what the LORD had said. Gathering seventy elders of the people, he had them stand around the tent. The LORD then came down in the cloud and spoke to him. Taking some of the spirit that was on Moses, he bestowed it on the seventy elders; and as the spirit came to rest on them, they prophesied.
Sometimes when we refuse to bring our deepest pains to God, the devil plants a sneaking suspicion in our minds that God won’t or can’t do anything about it. We are tempted to believe that the one who made us, loved us, and chose us doesn’t or can’t care enough to help us.
Yet Moses’ agony in the desert with his ungovernable people concludes with a final lesson in the omnipotence of God. For two of the seventy never showed up for the ordination at the tabernacle.
Now two men, one named Eldad and the other Medad, were not in the gathering but had been left in the camp. They too had been on the list, but had not gone out to the tent; yet the spirit came to rest on them also, and they prophesied in the camp. So, when a young man quickly told Moses, "Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp," Joshua, son of Nun, who from his youth had been Moses' aide, said, "Moses, my lord, stop them." But Moses answered him, "Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets! Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!" Then Moses retired to the camp, along with the elders of Israel.
Moses sounds tired at the end of a very long day. But he knew that God could do anything he wanted, even to the point of ordaining the ones who were late for their own ordination!
The second type provided for the Priesthood is in the sons of Aaron, whose ordination is found in Numbers 3:2-3: “The sons of Aaron were Nadab his first-born, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. These are the names of the sons of Aaron, the anointed priests who were ordained to exercise the priesthood.”
So also upon the sons of Aaron
you poured an abundant share of their father's plenty,
that the number of the priests prescribed by the Law
might be sufficient for the sacrifices of the tabernacle,
which were a shadow of the good things to come.
If the seventy helpers to Moses were ordained for governance, the three sons of Aaron were to assure that the sacrifices of the Tabernacle would be offered. Quoting from Hebrews 10:1, the final line of this strophe, describes the sacrifices of the tabernacle as shadows of the Sacraments of the New Covenant, “the good things to come.”
It is important to note that in both instances, these prefiguring shadows of the priesthood concern the appointment of helpers to Moses and Aaron, just as the priest is a helper to the Bishop. In addition, neither of the types possesses the role of the other. The seventy share in the munera of governance, while the sons of Aaron share in the sanctification of the tabernacle and prophesying.
The Priest of the New Covenant, however, shares in the Priesthood of Jesus Christ, who is our one High Priest: the chief shepherd, teacher, and sanctifier. These mystical sacraments are an incomplete shadow of the true sacraments of the New Covenant.
But in these last days, holy Father,
you sent your Son into the world,
Jesus, who is Apostle and High Priest of our confession.
Through the Holy Spirit
he offered himself to you as a spotless victim;
and he made his Apostles, consecrated in the truth,
sharers in his mission.
You provided them also with companions
to proclaim and carry out the work of salvation
throughout the whole world.
The shadows of the Old Testament are fulfilled by the coming of the Messiah (cf. John 17:18) in these last days, (2 Timothy 3: 1-5) the fullness of time. Christ is the Apostle and High Priest of our confession. (Hebrews 3: 1-6) Moses and his sons shared one of the three munera of a priest: they governed God’s people for him. Aaron and his sons shared two of the munera: they offered sacrifice and prophesied. In Jesus, however, the fullness of the High priesthood resides: he possesses the triplex munera: to teach, to sanctify and to govern.
He offered himself to the Father as a spotless victim through the Holy Spirit. He is not only the priest, but the sacrifice, the giver and the gift.
Christ establishes the Apostolic priesthood to which he ordains his Apostles. (cf. Hebrews 3:14) The Father then provides companions to proclaim and carry out the great work of salvation throughout the world. In his homily, the Bishop expands on this notion:
For Christ was sent by the Father and he in turn sent the Apostles into the world, so that through them and their successors, the Bishops, he might continue to exercise his office of Teacher, Priest, and Shepherd. Indeed, priests are established co-workers of the Order of Bishops, with whom they are joined in the priestly office and with whom they are called to the service of the people of God. (From the Homily from the Ordination of Priests)
And now we beseech you, Lord, in our weakness,
to grant us these helpers that we need
to exercise the priesthood that comes from the Apostles.
Just as Moses and Aaron were given helpers by God, so the successor of the Apostles now ordaining asks that these helpers: be given a share in “the Priesthood that comes from the Apostles.”
The Bishop stands before God, like Moses, because he cannot possibly govern the people of this diocese alone. He stands weak like Aaron, because he cannot possibly offer all these sacrifices in his diocese alone. So, like Moses going to God, he says: ‘I cannot carry all this people by myself, for they are too heavy for me.” The Bishop goes to God in his weakness and asks him, “grant us these helpers that we need!”
Then the Bishop comes to the heart of the prayer:
Grant to these servants of yours
the dignity of the priesthood.
Renew within them the Spirit of holiness.
As a co-worker with the order of bishops
may they be faithful to the ministry
that they receive from you, Lord God,
and be to other a model of right conduct.
May they be worthy coworkers with our Order,
so that by their preaching
and through the grace of the Holy Spirit
the words of the Gospel may bear fruit in human hearts
and reach even to the ends of the earth.
This section is, in fact, a summary of the entire rest of the Prayer of Ordination. God is addressed as the Almighty Father, who is asked to grant “the dignity of the priesthood to these servants of yours.” A remarkable intimacy is here implied between God, the Bishop, and the newly ordained priest. These newly ordained priests are presumed by this prayer to be God’s servants already. What they will now become is “co-workers with our order.” By the use of the phrase “our order” the Bishop not only describes the relationship between the priest and God, but establishes a new relationship in Christ between himself the man to be ordained.
The Bishop asks God for four things: that God bestow the dignity of the priesthood upon the ordinandi, that he renew within him the spirit of holiness, that he grant him fidelity in his new ministry, and that the new priest be a model of right conduct.
Saint Paul writes to the young Bishop Timothy about the importance of the ordained serving as a model of right conduct. (1 Timothy 1: 2-14) The Apostle to the Gentiles recalls how he “was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and an arrogant man,” but now, having experienced God’s mercy, God’s grace and the faith and love found in Christ Jesus empower him to live a virtuous life. So too, the newly ordained will have to rely on the grace which comes from Christ to conform himself to the Lord’s faith and love that the holiness of his life to be “a delightful fragrance to Christ's faithful.” (Homily from the Ordination of Priests)
The Bishop then asks that the new priest share in his ministry of sanctification.
Together with us,
may they be faithful stewards of your mysteries,
so that your people may be renewed in the waters of rebirth
and nourished from your altar;
so that sinners may be reconciled
and the sick raised up.
Just as God the Creator of the world dispenses all good things, so the priest dispenses the sacraments which care for the Church. Here the Bishop asks that they, joined to him, be given the power to celebrate the Sacraments. The sacraments listed are Baptism (your people…renewed in the waters of rebirth), Eucharist (nourished from your altar), Penance (sinners may be reconciled), and Anointing (the sick raised up). Confirmation and Holy Orders are not listed as primarily Episcopal sacraments. Marriage is omitted, as well since the couple confect the Sacrament which the priest witnesses. The same list of four sacraments is found in the homily for ordination to the priesthood.
Finally, the Bishop prays that the newly ordained, joined with him, to intercede for “the people entrusted to his care” and all the world.
May they be joined with us, Lord,
in imploring your mercy
for the people entrusted to their care
and for all the world.
An essential part of the priest’s ministry of sanctification is interceding for the “the people entrusted to his care and for all the world. Indeed, one of the questions he is asked before his ordination is whether he is resolved “to implore with us God's mercy upon the people entrusted to your care by observing the command to pray without ceasing?” (From Promises to the Elect, Ordination of Priests)
Like Christ the High Priest, the newly ordained is called upon to ever intercede for his people. (Hebrews 7: 24-25) So important is this obligation that in the former covenant the priest Samuel saw the failure to pray for the people as a sin. (1 Samuel 12: 23) Nor should the priest, as father and shepherd, forget the example of Job, who after his sons and daughters had returned from a night of revelry would rise early in the morning and “sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them, thinking, ‘Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.’” (Job 1: 4-5)
Finally, it is important to note that this intercession is always carried out in union with the Bishop. For it is only in union with the Bishop that the priest may carry out his ministry of priestly sanctification. On a practical note, the Bishop himself bears a special responsibility to see that the priest is not so burdened by other tasks that he is unable to make intercession for those under his care. In a general audience address, Pope John Paul II reminded the entire Church that such intercession is the priest’s privilege and responsibility, “for he has been ordained to represent his people before the Lord and to intercede on their behalf before the throne of grace. (cf. General Audience, 2 June 1993, no. 5)
The prayer comes to a conclusion by envisioning the final act of Christ the High Priest at the end of time: the offering of God’s people to the Father on the last day.
And so may the full number of the nations,
gathered together in Christ,
be transformed into your one people
and made perfect in your Kingdom.
The prayer is inspired by the heavenly vision of Revelation 7: 13-17:
Then one of the elders spoke up and said to me, "Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?" I said to him, "My lord, you are the one who knows." He said to me, "These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. "For this reason they stand before God's throne and worship him day and night in his temple. The one who sits on the throne will shelter them. They will not hunger or thirst anymore, nor will the sun or any heat strike them. For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."
Every priestly act, then, is a participation in the great work of Christ the High Priest to make all things one in himself in the fullness of time. (cf. Ephesians 1: 9-10) Whether in her ecumenical work or in the reconciliation of parish groups or family members, the Church constantly seeks “to gather all people and all things into Christ, so as to be for all an 'inseparable sacrament of unity” The Priest, then, acts in the person of Christ, ever seeking “to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.” (John 11: 51-52)
The priestly work of the pastor is so often like that described by the Prophet Ezekiel, who through the breaking and rejoining o two sticks “expressed the divine will to ‘gather from all sides’ the members of his scattered people.” (Ezekiel 37: 16-28)
This is also why the Priest imitates Christ the Good Shepherd “who came not to be served but to serve, and who came to seek out and save what was lost.” (Homily, from the Ordination of a Priest)
Then follows the concluding doxology:
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God forever and ever.