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Sacraments of Vocation:
Holy Orders and Matrimony

by Monica K. Hellwig

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.

Lifetime Commitments

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 be redeemed.

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 the world.

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.

Monika K. Hellwig, LL.B., Ph.D., Executive Director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, was formerly the Landegger Professor of Theology at Georgetown University where she taught for three decades. She has written and lectured extensively, nationally and internationally, both in scholarly and in popular contexts, in Catholic systematic theology and inter-faith studies, and is a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. Her published books include: Understanding Catholicism, Jesus the Compassion of God, The Eucharist and the Hunger of the World, Sign of Reconciliation and Conversion and Guests of God: Stewards of Creation.

Next: The Meaning of Suffering (by Daniel Harrington, O.S.B.)


Living the Scriptures

Marriage and the priesthood call for a constant giving. The sacraments confer the graces that will be needed, but often we forget the need for nurturing. Do something special for your spouse today. Call or go to see your priest today and offer your support and encouragement.



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