The sacraments of service reach out to help others
Last in a series
“Hey, gimme a hand here.”
Following up on our theme from last time, when we dealt with the sacraments of healing, we now turn our focus on matter and form to a final two sacraments, marriage and holy orders. The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls these “the sacraments at the service of communion.”
Marriage and holy orders are, despite what you might think, not about the man being ordained or about the couple getting married. They are about the good of the larger community and how these newly consecrated individuals serve that community. The U.S. Catechism for Adults notes that “the recipients of these sacraments grow in holiness through their service to others.”
Deacons, priests and bishops are ordained to service for the people of God. They are called to be Christ to others. St. Irenaeus, a second century bishop, said that each of the levels of holy orders has a specific role, which people were to recognize by revering deacons as Jesus Christ, bishops as God the Father and the priesthood in general as “the seat of God and the assembly of the apostles” (CCC, n. 1554).
Called to follow the example of a loving God, a self-giving Christ and Jesus’ closest friends and disciples, the ordained are consecrated to serve the flock of Christ and bring all in it safely to the Kingdom of Heaven.
In the sacrament of orders, we can see this call to serve others in the matter and form (things and words) of the sacrament. The matter, the physical element of a sacrament, here is hands. Specifically, these hands belong to the bishop who ordains a priest or deacon, or to the bishop who ordains another bishop. By the laying on hands, the power of the Holy Spirit is sealed upon the ordinand.
The form of the sacrament of orders, the words by which the action of God is revealed to the assembly — because sacraments take place amidst the gathered people of God — is the consecrating prayer of the bishop. The words vary, depending upon the degrees of orders, but essentially ask for the outpouring of the gifts of the Spirit proper to the ministry.
Similarly, the words — the form or verba — of the sacrament of marriage also vary, for they are the words of consent and promise which the couple give to each other. Indeed, it is the couple who confers this sacrament upon each other as they bind themselves into one in the presence of God and God’s people. (This does not mean that a couple can privately marry themselves, since sacraments must take place in the midst of the community.)
Not surprisingly, the matter (res) — the visible thing — of the sacrament of marriage is the couple. As Fr. John Doerfler, diocesan chancellor explained, the physical matter of the sacrament of marriage is “the mutual gift that the spouses give to one another.” Again the image of hands comes to the fore, because a man and woman stand hand in hand before God as they give and take the gift of each other to their hearts.
In the same way, from their hearts flows the gift of love — both for each other (the unitive part of the sacrament of marriage) and for others in the family that will grow up around them (the procreative part of marriage). Now while “procreative” often means the bringing forth and raising up of children to know and love God, there is also a broader call to service that comes to married couples.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds couples that “the fundamental task of marriage and family is to be at the service of life.” And it clarifies this for couples who do not have children by saying that conjugal life should “radiate a fruitfulness of charity, of hospitality and of sacrifice” (nos. 1653-1654).
All married couples are called to use the gifts of their married life to bring vitality and strength to all those around them: family, friends, church, community and neighborhood.
Charity, hospitality and sacrifice. Offering an outstretched hand to others, ready to help them along the way. Married couples and the ordained share in these tasks in a special way, bringing others to Christ through the example of living the lives to which they have been publicly consecrated.
Sources: Fr. John Doerfler, diocesan chancellor; The Catholic Encyclopedia; Catechism of the Catholic Church; and The United States Catechism for Adults.