Ordination symbols reveal God to humanity

Friday, May. 21, 2010
Ordination symbols reveal God to humanity + Enlarge
Joseph Frez and Tai Nguyen prostrate themselves before the altar prior to being ordained deacons in transition; they will be ordained priests May 29.
By Marie Mischel
Intermountain Catholic

SALT LAKE CITY — The rituals of the Roman Catholic Church are rich with symbolism, and nowhere are these more on display than during a Ritual Mass such as the one that the Diocese of Salt Lake will celebrate May 29 when Deacons in Transition Joseph Frez and Tai Nguyen are ordained priests.

"To most people, because of the culture we live in, a symbol has become something that’s not real, but in the Catholic community, a symbol is something that communicates the reality of God’s presence," said Timothy Johnston, diocesan director of liturgy.

For example, the candidates for priesthood prostrate themselves before the altar while the congregation sings the Litany of the Saints. "Lying prostrate on the floor during the Litany of the Saints is an ancient gesture of supplication, of handing one’s self over, completely and totally, to Christ," Johnston said.

This portion of the ceremony was memorable for Father Oscar A. Martinez, parochial vicar at Christ the King Catholic Church in Cedar City, who was ordained on May 18, 2006. While he was prostrate, he said, "I was thinking ‘How am I going to be able to do this? Why me?’ I was screaming up to God, ‘God, be with me and don’t leave me alone.’"

Many other thoughts went through his mind, he said, including an awareness of "being so human. And also I wanted to bury all my sins to be able to … stand up and say to God, ‘Here I am, Lord.’"

Likewise, Father Javier G. Virgen, the diocese’s vicar for Hispanic Affairs and associate vocations director, who was ordained Sept. 4, 1993, vividly recalls this event. "In Mexico, when you are prostrate, you ask the Lord for three wishes," he said. These wishes are a secret between the priest and Jesus, he added, "but so far, (for me) those are being fulfilled."

Another symbol during the Rite of Ordination is the anointing of new priests’ hands with chrism oil, which "communicates the reality of Christ being present to this person," Johnston said, adding that it also symbolizes "the priest’s distinctive participation in Christ’s priesthood."

This was another of the powerful points of the ceremony for Fr. Virgen. The anointing of hands means priests have the power to bring Jesus down from heaven "to anoint, to forgive, to preach, to marry," he said. "It is Jesus who does this, in the person of the priest. Not us. We are just instruments."

Additionally, new priests receive the gifts during the Mass, signifying their role as the celebrant of the Sacred Mysteries; they also have their diaconal stole replaced by a priestly one and are clothed in the chasuble, physical signs of their priestly ministry.

The laying on of hands by the bishop is more than a symbol, it confers the Holy Spirit on the new priests. This same action occurs during the rite of confirmation, but the prayer that accompanies each ceremony differs. For ordination, the prayer "is calling down the Holy Spirit once again on the candidate for ordination to provide for him the grace, the strength, to fulfill this ministry in union with Christ himself," Johnston said.

The Church teaches that the ministry of priesthood is an office of governance, of sanctification and of teaching; the liturgy of the ordination Mass reflects that.

The laying on of hands is the symbol that Msgr. M. Francis Mannion, pastor of Saint Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City, remembers best about his ordination on June 6, 1973. "It was the most impressive part of the ordination," he said, because "it connotes the impartation of the Holy Spirit."

An integral part of the ceremony is when the community affirms the priestly candidates who are being presented for ordination, which Fr. Martinez recalls clearly. He was ordained with three other priests, and "I remember all the people who came to be with us that day. It was very good to see. To see their faces, to see them so happy, with so much hope on the four of us, was very meaningful for me."

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