SAN DIEGO — It’s entirely possible for a faithful Catholic, who observes all of the precepts of the Church, to go through life without ever attending an ordination liturgy.
And for those who have attended one, they might do so without fully appreciating the rich symbolism that permeates the ritual prayers and actions.
The Southern Cross recently asked Father Efrain Bautista, the bishop’s master of ceremonies, to reflect on some of the highlights of an ordination liturgy and the meaning behind them.
One of the first noticeable differences between an ordination Mass for new priests or deacons and the typical Sunday Mass comes after the Gospel reading, when those who are about to be ordained are asked to come forward. As their names are called, they respond, “Present.”
The bishop is asked to ordain the men, which he agrees to do after receiving affirmation that those who oversaw their formation have found them worthy.
Father Bautista said the theological significance of this moment is that it’s God, through the Church, who has called these men to ordained service.
After the homily, candidates for ordination make a series of promises, including of obedience to the current bishop and his successors.
While the intercession of the angels and saints is invoked upon the proceedings through the singing of the Litany of the Saints, the bishop kneels and the candidates prostrate themselves before the altar.
Prostration symbolizes “laying down one’s life for the service of God and His Church,” Father Bautista explained.
When the litany concludes, each candidate approaches the bishop and kneels at his feet. The bishop lays hands on their heads and recites the prayer of ordination.
The laying on of hands and the prayer of ordination comprise the essential form of holy orders, which is required for validity, Father Bautista said.
He likened this to a moment recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, in which the Apostles convene to appoint a successor to Judas, laying their hands on him and invoking the Holy Spirit over him.
Another significant moment comes when the newly-ordained, standing in front of the sanctuary, dresses in his new liturgical vestments for the first time. At diaconal ordination, this means receiving the stole and dalmatic; at a priestly ordination, the diaconal stole and dalmatic are removed and replaced with a priest’s stole and chasuble.
Father Bautista explained that the investiture, performed in front of the entire congregation, recognizes that a significant change has occurred: a layman has just become a deacon, or a transitional deacon has become a priest. He said the newly-ordained are assisted in the vesting process by a priest, typically one who played an important role in their vocational journey.
At a diaconal ordination, the newly-ordained deacon kneels before the bishop, who places the Book of the Gospels in his hands. “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you have become,” the bishop says. This is an acknowledgement of the fact that, through the sacrament of holy orders, a deacon is empowered to proclaim the Gospel and to preach at Mass.
There is a corresponding moment during a priestly ordination, when the newly-ordained priest kneels before the bishop, who anoints his hands with the blessed, perfumed oil called “chrism.”
Subsequently, after drying his hands, the priest kneels at the bishop’s feet again; placing the paten and chalice in the priest’s hands, the bishop says, “Receive the oblation of the People of God.” Upon ordination, the priest is able to offer the sacrifice of the Mass.
The handkerchief with which the priest wipes the chrism from his hands is later returned to the priest. Traditionally, the priest will give the handkerchief to his mother, who will be buried with it, said Father Bautista, who shared that the priest’s father similarly will receive the stole in which the priest hears his first confession.
During a priestly ordination, another highlight is the fraternal kiss, wherein the bishop and all of the priests in attendance embrace the newly-ordained priest. A similar moment occurs during the diaconal ordination liturgy, where the newly-ordained deacons are embraced by each of the deacons in attendance.
At the conclusion of the Mass, after the procession outside the church, the newly-ordained priests will be greeted by the applause of their brother priests, arrayed in a semicircle outside the church entrance.
“That’s a sign of fraternity and welcoming them into the body of priests, or the presbyterate,” Father Bautista explained.
After a priestly ordination, it is customary for people to line up to receive a “first blessing” from the newly-ordained. Typically, the very first of these are given to the ordaining bishop and the priest’s parents, said Father Bautista. But, after Mass, the laity will line up to receive them.
It’s not that a newly-ordained priest’s blessing is somehow more spiritually efficacious or powerful than the blessing of a priest who has decades in ministry, said Father Bautista, but it’s an acknowledgement of the grace of ordination.
“It’s a brand-new life,” he said of the new priest, likening him to a baby fresh from the waters of baptism.
Perhaps as early as the day after their ordination, new priests will celebrate their first public Mass as the main celebrant. This Mass, along with other “Masses of Thanksgiving” that the newly-ordained celebrates, come with the opportunity for the faithful to gain a plenary indulgence.
That means that a person who has gone to confession, receives Communion, recites prayers for the intentions of the pope, and has complete detachment from even venial sin can receive complete remission of temporal punishment (i.e., time in Purgatory after death) for the sins they have committed.
“If people have never been to (an ordination Mass),” Father Bautista said, “they should go at least once in their lives because it’s a beautiful experience.”