By Engr. Carlos V. Cornejo
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that, “The Holy Orders is the sacrament through which the mission entrusted by Christ to his apostles continues to be exercised in the Church until the end of time: thus, it is the sacrament of apostolic ministry. It includes three degrees: episcopate, presbyterate, and diaconate.” (CCC 1536) Episcopate means rank or office as a bishop, presbyterate for priests and diaconate for deacons. We might be more familiar with priests and bishops, but not so much with deacons. The history of deacons goes back to the Acts of the Apostles when the Apostles, in order to meet the complaints of the Hellenistic Jews that, “their widows were neglected in the daily ministrations” ordained seven men including St. Stephen, the first martyr for this task. “So, the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.’ This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.” (Acts 6:1-6)
Today, the tasks of deacons are “to assist the bishop and priests in the celebration of the divine mysteries, above all the Eucharist, in the distribution of Holy Communion, in assisting at and blessing marriages, in the proclamation of the Gospel and preaching, in presiding over funerals, and in dedicating themselves to the various ministries of charity.” (CCC 1570) Here in the Philippines we would only meet a deacon for a short while because they would later on become priests. In other countries, there are deacons for life both married and celibate. We don’t have deacons because the tasks of deacons in our country are carried out by lay ministers.
The Sacrament of Holy Orders is all about the priesthood and the priesthood is closely connected to the Holy Eucharist because only priests have the power to change bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ in the Mass. Not even angels are given that power. Thus, Christ instituted the Sacrament of Holy Orders along with the Holy Eucharist during the Last Supper, when He gave the apostles the power to consecrate and offer His Body and Blood in the Sacrifice of the Mass, when he told them, “Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19) Another special power of priests is to forgive sins in behalf of God, in the Sacrament of Confession. And since the Church is an institution that needs to be governed, priests, bishops and deacons take the lead in governing it. Added to that is the distribution of grace in the sacraments which is the sanctifying tasks of their sacred ministry.
Priesthood is not a right but a calling. If someone feels he is called by God to become one, the Church through the priests and bishops have the authority to help the person discern the calling as well as examining if the person has the conditions required to receive the sacrament. The bishop or any proper ecclesiastical authority has the final decision to approve the ordination of the candidate to priesthood. Two issues about the priesthood today that are being questioned for not keeping up with the times: ordination of women and celibacy. Both are answered by being faithful to the priesthood of Christ who is male and unmarried “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven”. (Matthew 19:12) The Church does not decide on ecclesiastical issues based on “keeping up with the times”, because the Church’s tradition and teachings much like morality, is based on human nature, that does not change over time. It’s like asking if virtues like justice and temperance should be changed because they are outdated. The Church’s way of keeping up with the times can be updating a moral application of the Ten Commandments such as the case of invitro fertilization (IVF) or test tube babies but it does not roll back traditional practices and doctrine just because many people are clamoring for it. IVF or test tube babies are immoral because they do not follow the natural law of giving birth of babies through marriage. Marriage is designed by God precisely to protect and raise children properly.
Let us pray for vocations to priesthood because there will always be a need for more priests since the “harvest will always be plentiful but the workers are few” (Matthew 9:37). Let us also pray for the holiness of our priests through St. John Mary Vianney (1786-1859), the patron saint of parish priests. One holy priest can uplift the spiritual life of an entire parish and even beyond much like what St. John Mary Vianney did in his parish of Ars, France. Priests of today can do the same thing and even more so because of the impact of the internet and social media. Without the aid of social media, St. John Mary Vianney had pilgrims outside of his parish come to him for confession and advise numbering around 20,000 per year.