Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Sacraments of Vocation:
Holy Orders and Matrimony
The Bible introduces us to a long tradition of sacramental
activity. The Hebrew Scriptures do not use any term that we would
translate —sacrament,— but they describe acts of worship based
on symbolism. The most important of these is the Passover celebration,
but there are many others. In the New Testament Jesus built on
these existing traditions of worship, as well as on the stories
and imagery of the Scriptures in his actions and in his teachings.
The sacraments we celebrate today are all developed from these
actions and teachings of Jesus.
We refer to Holy Orders and Matrimony as the sacraments of vocation,
a word that comes from the Latin for —call.— We are all called
by God. In fact, we are called at many levels, and progressively
throughout our lives. We are called into life, into human dignity
and responsibility, and into certain relationships, communities
and tasks. Most importantly of all, we are called into an intimate
communion with God that does not come naturally but must be sought
and cultivated within the grace, or special outreach, of God.
This understanding that we are called to live and act beyond what
is natural to creatures is a basic assumption of all our sacramental
activity and of our sacramental theology. Therefore —vocation—
is a key theme of Christian life, and a key component of the way
we think about sacraments.
The most basic calling or vocation of a Christian is the call
into discipleship of Jesus within a community of disciples. Therefore
the most basic sacrament of vocation is actually baptism, or more
accurately initiation (the sequence: Baptism, Confirmation, first
Eucharist). Initiation, celebrated in these three sacraments,
introduces a person into the membership and life of the church.
It is, therefore, the solemn celebration simultaneously of the
divine invitation, of the response of the individual, and of the
welcome of the community. This community is both the local gathering
of disciples of Jesus, and the great universal People of God,
the worldwide church.
Nothing is really higher or more intimate in the relationship
we have with our creator than the grace and calling of baptism.
However, that calling expressed by baptism, that vocation of the
baptized, plays out in various ways for various people. Among
our seven sacramental celebrations, we acknowledge this by a sequence
of celebrations shared by all, and by two celebrations focused
on the two essential ways in which the church as community of
salvation in the world is built up. And these two are commonly
known as the sacraments of vocation.
At first there seems to be little in common between marriage
(matrimony) and priesthood (holy orders). One seems to be entirely
in the secular realm of everyday life, a reality shared with non-believers
and with people of other traditions. The other seems to be entirely
withdrawn from the secular realm of everyday life, a reality only
meaningful within the context of faith within a particular religious
tradition. Yet there are several components that they have in
common. In the first place, both are total commitments of oneself
to others, intended to be lifelong, and having very clear exclusive
as well as inclusive characteristics. In the second place both
are essential building blocks in creating a Christian community,
that is to say in building church. Without either of these vocations
and their particular sacraments, the church would not exist.
The church is in the first place the People of God, the community
of the faithful. And this is embodied or realized most basically
and immediately at the local or grassroots level. This church
is fashioned or brought into existence and continually maintained
in existence in two movements. One of these is the gathering around
the Eucharist, especially the Sunday Eucharist of the parish community.
The other is the weaving of hallowed (grace-filled) relationships
that transform the character of daily life in human society. The
two movements are complementary to one another and both essential
to the very being of the church as it engages itself with the
risen Christ in the process of redemption of the world.
Eucharist at the Center
From early times the Eucharist that makes us one community in
Christ has been linked to a special designation or ordination
of the one who, in the person of Christ, consecrates what the
whole community offers and consumes in communion. The sacrament
of Holy Orders constitutes a person as the one who calls the community
together into the Eucharistic gathering, presiding, consecrating,
proclaiming and preaching. That gathering in Eucharist is what
essentially makes us church. A question we may not have asked
before, but which now is not only important but urgent, is the
following. Would there be a Catholic Church without the Eucharist?
It is a very urgent question in our time of priest shortage, because
there is no Eucharist without an ordained priest. Already in many
parts of the world and in many parts of this country, there are
priestless Sunday services, lay-led communion services, using
communion bread consecrated by a priest at another time. This
links the congregation to a Eucharist that they were not able
to attend in person or to a Eucharist that was celebrated for
and by them on a past occasion. But the link is always to a Eucharist
presided over by an ordained priest who consecrated and thereby
made it a complete Eucharist.
Our priests are ordained by bishops, and these in turn are ordained
(consecrated) by other bishops. Thus there is a link among all
the worshipping congregations. There is a link among all the eucharistic
celebrations throughout the world and throughout time. This bond
of unity is very important in the task of redemption, because
disunity is at the heart of the problems from which we need to
In the course of time we have clustered other ministries
together in the calling and ordination of the priest. But essentially
he is the one who continually brings the church into existence
by gathering the community of believers into the Eucharistic celebration.
This is a great and wonderful calling and a very demanding one,
which certainly justifies a special sacrament of Holy Orders to
consecrate this person—s whole life and energy to this crucial
task and to endow him with the grace to carry it out and meet
such high expectations. Great generosity and wisdom are required,
but great grace is also given. It is the consistent teaching of
the Catholic tradition that the —character— and the empowerment
that are given to one who is ordained never leave him.
While all this focus and emphasis is placed on the importance
and necessity of priesthood in the existence and life of the church,
our traditional teaching recognizes two sacraments of vocation.
It does not claim that one is less necessary to the life of the
church, or asks a lesser holiness of people, than the other. We
call marriage (or matrimony) a sacrament of vocation within the
church because it also asks for a total and exclusive commitment,
and it also is dedicated to the fashioning of the church. It also
is in a radical sense a work of the redemption of the world.
At the root of the sinfulness, confusion and disorder from which
the whole world and each of its human beings need to be redeemed
is the seizing for oneself of what belongs to God (as we learn
in the story of the garden in Genesis 3). Our world and our own
being are unfocused, uncentered, to the extent that they are not
focused and centered on God our creator. The way we know this
is in the difficulties we have in being fully at peace with one
another, making common cause with one another, acting in solidarity
without excluding anyone. In God—s creative design, as we learn
to see it in Sacred Scripture, the complementarity of male and
female in marriage and family is intended to be the basic building
block for the solidarity of human society. It is supposed to make
true human community possible. In the history of our world as
we have experienced it, this constantly fails to happen, and we
have divisions and enmities, ruthless competition, cruelties and
injustices, wars and so forth.
As St. Paul expresses it in Ephesians 5:30-33, the marriage of
Christians is at a new level of grace. It is a marriage in Christ,
modeled on and participating in the union of the risen Christ
with his church, his people, his body in which he is present in
many places at many times. Modeled on and participating in the
self-gift and self-sacrifice of Jesus for his community, Christian
marriage enjoys a new power to be indeed a basis for solidarity
and transformation of the human race.
The couple is called to discover in great depth
what it is to say —we— about many things rather than always —I—
and —you— and —they.— Their individual futures become one common
future, their wealth, their plans, their commitments, their homes
are merged. Most of all, their children are each other—s children,
and they are jointly called to create a home and family environment
for them. This brings into mutually supportive relationships not
only these two individuals, but ideally the families from which
they came. Thus eventually, through many marriages, bonds of relatedness
and solidarity would be established throughout society as a basis
for peace and mutual support.
The Christian understanding is that, in spite of the complex human
heritage of feuds and rivalries, bullying and injustices, prejudices
and exclusions, marriages in the grace of Christ are redemptive.
They are empowered to transcend all the problems and to create
families and relationships throughout society that bring health
and wholeness and happiness both within their own family circle
and in the wider community. This too is an essential element of
building the church, the community of the followers of Jesus.
This too is a sacrament of vocation, of the calling to build up
the church that participates in the work of redemption.
It may seem that we call marriage a sacrament because it is celebrated
in church with a priest of the church as a witness. However, it
is the other way around. We celebrate marriage in the church with
a priest as a witness because marriage in Christ is in itself
sacramental. Thus, our tradition teaches that the ministers of
the sacrament, those who confer the sacrament on each other, are
the couple themselves in their self-gift to each other. This in
itself shows that in Christian teaching there is great respect
for these ministers of the sacrament. Theirs is not a lesser dignity
or holiness, but a different way in which they are called to be
personally holy and to contribute to the sanctification (the making
holy) of the community which is the church of Jesus Christ in
Two Complementary Sacraments
When we understand the complementarity of these sacraments of
vocation, we are looking at the church in a way that may be new
and therefore seems strange. Some may even think that this is
a —more Protestant— way of looking at our Christian life together
and at the nature and function of the church. Yet this organic
way of looking at the church and our roles within it is built
right into our sacramental practice and our theology of the sacraments.
Moreover, intrinsically and theologically there is no mutual exclusivity
between the sacraments of Holy Orders and Matrimony. Although
the present discipline of the Catholic church (with certain exceptions)
requires celibacy of its priests, that has not always and everywhere
been so. A person can be called to help in the building up of
the body of the risen Christ, which is the community of believers,
in both ways. He can be the one to bring the community together
in Eucharist as well as being one of those who build up the community
family by family in weaving the redemptive relationships.
The sacraments of vocation, like all the sacraments, are not only
ceremonies that happen in a particular moment and then are past.
Sacraments are continuing and constantly unfolding realities in
our lives as we keep moving towards fuller redemption. They are
the continuing dynamic that moves us towards salvation, which
is our right relationship with God and therefore with one another.
The Catholic tradition teaches that sacraments are
—outward signs,— events that are evident in our experience, of
the hidden reality of God—s grace in our lives, which is experienced
only indirectly by its effect on our lives. And the traditional
teaching goes further. Not only do sacraments mark the coming
of grace with a visible sign, but they bring about the reality
of grace by the way they link us to the person of Jesus Christ
present in the community which is his church. In the case of the
sacraments of vocation this is evident in the way these sacraments
initiate people into a task, a service, in the church community.
Because the effect of the sacraments is linked to the outward
sign, the sign should be as clear and eloquent as it can possibly
be. To a large extent the community itself is constitutive of
the sign, and is therefore important in calling forth the gifts
of the vocation in which each person is established and confirmed
in each sacrament of vocation.
Next: The Meaning of Suffering (by Daniel Harrington,