The Liturgy

The May 18 issue of the Catholic Herald features the spring ordinations celebrated here in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. While I’ve prepared dozens of ordinations over the years, I often take it for granted that many Catholics never see such a beautiful liturgy. It is my hope the following explanation of the ritual will help you to understand the various parts of this sacred rite.

An ordination always takes place during Mass, specifically after the Gospel is proclaimed, and the minister of every ordination is a bishop. Whether it is an ordination of a deacon or a priest, the ritual begins with the Presentation of the Candidates. As each candidate’s name is called, he stands in his place in the assembly and answers, “Present.”

Once called, the ordaining bishop has a responsibility to ensure the men have been appropriately formed — intellectually and spiritually — and are ready for ordination. He will ask someone who has been responsible for their formation whether he considers the men to be worthy of ordination. After a couple of exchanges, the rector will respond, “After inquiry among the Christian people and the recommendation of those concerned with their formation, I testify that they have been found worthy.”

Next, the “election” of candidates takes place: the ordaining bishop accepts this testimony and agrees to ordain the men. By applause, the assembly shows their support for this decision. Now counted among the elect for ordination, the candidates take a place set apart from the assembly, and the bishop preaches a homily, the purpose of which is to instruct the candidates, as well as the assembly, about the responsibility to which they are about to be ordained.

After the homily, the candidates make a series of promises, including their resolve to carry out their new ministry with humility and fidelity. For the last promise, each candidate goes individually to the bishop, kneels and places his joined hands between the hands of the ordaining bishop, and promises obedience and respect to him and his successors.

Next is a period of prayer and intercession for these men. The candidates lie prostrate — face down — in humble submission, while the entire assembly calls upon the saints of heaven to intercede at this moment.

Following the Litany of the Saints, the candidates once again kneel before the bishop, who imposes his hands on the head of each man. In the Ordination of Deacons, only the bishop imposes his hands on the candidates, while in the Ordination of Priests, every priest present also imposes his hands on the candidates. This is an ancient, traditional gesture of invoking the Holy Spirit, and it is a central act of the ordination rite. The communal laying on of hands in the Ordination of Priests takes on a deep meaning, and points to the men being ordained into the presbyteral college of the Church, and is in keeping with an ancient practice dating back to Hippolytus in 280 A.D.

The Prayer of Ordination follows. Through the laying on of hands and the Prayer of Ordination, the gift of the Holy Spirit is conferred on each candidate.

In the Ordination of Deacons, the following words belong to the nature of the rite and are consequently required for the validity of the act: “Send forth the Holy Spirit upon them, O Lord, we pray, that they may be strengthened by the gift of your sevenfold grace to carry out faithfully the work of ministry.” In the Ordination of Priests, the essential words are a bit different: “Grant, we pray, almighty Father, to these your servants the dignity of the Priesthood; renew deep within them the Spirit of holiness; may they hold the office second in order, received from you, O God, and by the example of their manner of life may they inspire right conduct.”

After this prayer, the men are ordained, and they are vested with the vestment of their new ministry — stole and dalmatic for deacons, and stole and chasuble for priests — the proper attire to be worn at Mass.

Once vested, a series of rituals called explanatory rites follow. A newly ordained deacon again kneels before the bishop and is handed the Book of the Gospels accompanied by some of the most beautiful words in all of our liturgical tradition: “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you have become. Believe what you read, teach what you believe and practice what you teach.”

The explanatory rites in the ordination of priests include the anointing of the new priest’s hands and the handing on of the bread and wine. The anointing is done with Sacred Chrism, the same oil they were anointed with at the time of the Baptism, and again at their Confirmation. The anointing of their hands is to signify their participation in the Priesthood of Christ, while the handing on of the bread and wine point to the office of presiding at the celebration of the Eucharist and of following Christ crucified.

The ordination ritual is then sealed with a greeting of peace exchanged between the ordaining bishop, the newly ordained and other clergy.

Celebrations like these renew my own faith. May this summary of the Rite of Ordination renew yours.