The sheep that belong to Me listen to My voice: I know them and they follow Me. These are really powerful words that Jesus speaks to us today. When we stop and think about it: Almighty God is willing to be a Shepherd: not just a powerful and distant God, keeping aloof and mysterious, but coming amongst us into the dirt and grime of daily life, to be a Shepherd: to actually guide us, lead us, feed us, so that we will not get lost, but may keep to His Way, the way to eternal life. In this Easter season we remember that the risen Jesus called His disciples to share in His work of shepherding His people. In last Sunday’s Gospel He repeatedly urged Peter, “Feed my lambs … Look after my sheep … Feed my sheep.” As He appeared to His apostles and prepared them for His ascension, He gave to them this task of sharing in His work of sanctification and service.
It’s appropriate that as this is ‘Good Shepherd Sunday,’ we are considering the Sacrament of Holy Orders. This is the Sacrament by which men are ordained to be deacons, priests, or bishops: these are the three degrees of ‘orders’ of the Priesthood. Bishops have the fullness of Holy Orders: they are ordained as the successors of the apostles. The Apostles were appointed by Jesus Christ Himself as His first priests, with His authority and grace to take the Gospel and the Sacraments to the world. In due course, as they founded increasingly more communities of new Christians, and moved on from place to place, they chose new overseers — “bishops” — as their own successors … the New Testament describes, in a variety of places, how they “laid hands on” new men — men such as Timothy, and Titus — who would be the next generation of apostles. This still forms the basis today of the Sacrament of Holy Orders: in the ordination rite it is the ‘laying-on of hands’ and the consecration prayer which is the sacred action of the Sacrament. And so there is what we call the ‘apostolic succession’ — each and every bishop in the Catholic Church today is validly ordained by another bishop (in fact, by three bishops) who himself is ordained validly by a bishop … in a continuous line stretching right back to the Apostles themselves. Bishops have the fullness of Holy Orders, and can administer all the Sacraments and govern in their diocese, as long as they are in communion of faith with the Holy See, i.e. with the Pope.
Priests are in effect the assistants of the bishop: priests exist because the bishop cannot be present in each and every parish community within his diocese. Priests therefore can fulfil most of the functions of the bishop on a day to day, week to week basis: preaching, administering most of the Sacraments — though in general not Confirmation, and never Holy Orders. It is usual for the Bishop to come and administer the Sacrament of Confirmation, although sometimes that is delegated to the priest too. Ordination of a priest is only ever done by a bishop. And then deacons: they form the third of the three orders of sacred ministry. Deacons assist the priest and the parish; he has some roles within the Mass itself, such as reading the Gospel and preaching, and he also serves the parish by way of charity, assisting in the care of the people. Some are ordained deacons en route to priesthood; others are ordained deacons to be permanent deacons (Ware and Hertford parishes, for example, each have a permanent deacon). Permanent deacons, those not going on to being priests, can be married men, and often have a full-time job in another profession too, or are ‘early retired.’
This brings us briefly on to the topics of married priests and women priests. We must not confuse these issues as they are completely different topics. We have a few married priests in this country anyway: generally they are converts from the Church of England who were already married, and subsequently accepted for ordination as Catholic priests. In the Eastern rites of the Catholic Church, some of their priests are married too, although their bishops are only chosen from amongst the unmarried clergy. It is a discipline of the Church that the norm is for a celibate clergy, who live up to the ideal of Jesus Christ Himself, and do not marry, but give themselves entirely to their service, and their people. From the beginning of the Church it was expected that if a man was already married when ordained that he at least refrain from sexual union with his wife after that time; later it became the law for the clergy of the Western Church to not be married at all, or to be widows.
The question of women priests is a totally different sort of question. It is not a question of discipline, but of theology: in those specific actions which the priest can do, and no other — the Mass, Confession, etc. — in these actions, the priest precisely stands in the place of Christ. The incarnation of God has happened such that the Son of God was born a male, from the female Mary. In order for a human being to represent in suitable fashion the Son of God in His sacramental actions, that priest himself must be a male. This in no way undermines all the countless, invaluable things that in each and every parish the women do, in co-operation with the priests and other men of the parish. No parish in this country could run without the tireless work every day, in important roles, of the women Catholics. The restriction of the priesthood to men is not a question of honour or of dignity, but of God’s own plan: that He be born into this world as a man, born of a nurturing woman, Our Lady. Note in the Gospel that when He chooses His apostles, despite the many women amongst His wider group of disciples, and despite the evident holiness and worthiness even of His mother, He chooses 12 men to have a specific priestly role. He did not have to do this (for He broke many other traditional practices) but in fact He did, since it is more fitting that a male represent at the altar and at other key moments the action of the incarnate male, Jesus Christ.
Holy Orders is one of the two Sacraments “at the service of communion,” that is, sacraments that are not necessarily received by each and every Catholic, but only by those entering in to a specific vocational role in the community. The priest is there to serve God’s people, by leading them to the truth, and serving them at the altar. The other Sacrament “at the service of communion” is that of Matrimony; a Sacrament that many of you have entered into: we shall move on to considering this beautiful sacrament next week.